UP CLOSE IN HITCHIN: A recipe for success - impressive Simmy and Jhai serve up a lot more than Rice and Spice

  Posted: 24.09.20 at 16:12 by LAYTH YOUSIF @HitchinNubNews

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Hitchin Nub News aims to support our community, promoting shops, businesses, charities, clubs and sports groups.

We will be profiling some of these businesses and organisations regularly in a feature called 'Up Close in Hitchin'.

For today's Up Close we meet Simmy Dhillon and his brother Jhai, the talented, hard-working brothers from Hitchin behind the brilliant Rice n Spice.

RNS was started by Simmy in early 2017 while he was studying at university. Fed up of seeing students living off poor quality ready meals and takeaways, he understood there was a gap in the market for mouth-watering, delicious, convenient food, made with top quality ingredients, at affordable prices.

RNS proved to be a huge hit with students, so Simmy convinced his brother Jhai, a former Stevenage FC footballer who now plays for Hitchin Town FC, who is also a certified nutritionist, alongside their mother - the woman who taught him how to cook - to get involved.

RNS set up in our town where the family had always lived and loved being a part of - so read on for our latest UP CLOSE IN HITCHIN...

UP CLOSE IN HITCHIN: Simmy Dhillon (right) and his brother Jhai at the BBC

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HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Hi guys, tell our readers a little bit about yourselves and your business...

Simmy: I’d always been into food at home. Never convenience food, always packed lunches. When Jhai went to Stevenage FC they gave him diet plans – and we just thought, it would be nice if healthy food was also tasty.

I think we’ve been ahead of the curve. We’ve always been passionate about tasty, healthy food since before it really became a ‘thing’. We’d prepare all our meals for the week.

Jhai: A lot of players in the youth team - who are now professional footballers - didn’t particularly like the healthy food they were given because it didn’t particularly taste nice. So we tried to merge the two.

Every so often mum would cook a few more meals for the guys with me in the youth squad, as we were like brothers in a way, as we were all away from home and were fed up with dry rolls!

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: How did RNS come about?

Simmy: When I got to university it was all about unhealthy takeaways – and I’d always been about healthy food that tasted great. So I started a Facebook page and started marketing. It just took off. Students loved it. They loved the food and the name.

I studied economics. I was a student by day, and making food at night. At the same time Jhai wasn’t enjoying his football as much by then. So we just thought, if we can sell our food to money conscious students we could definitely sell it to footballers, not to mention normal working people.

We started our Instagram page which also spread the word, as well as leveraging some of Jhai’s contacts in the game who gave ‘shout-outs’.

We’ve now moved from simply making healthy food, to focusing on helping people make a lifestyle change. We offer a holistic experience. We have such a great relationship with our clients – we’ve always prided ourselves on speaking to our clients which means they get a personal service.

We were so young at the time. I just wanted to let our food do the talking. We took a back seat to the food and stayed anonymous.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: As a student, running your own business while at university must have been exciting...

Simmy: It was. I went back to my second year of university after getting a first in my first year – but we were having so much fun doing the business, I didn’t even want to go back. I wasn’t really enjoying myself as a student as it was so stressful. I wasn’t going to lectures as I was focusing on the business. At that point, I had to make a decision. Were we going to scrap it and focus on university to get a better graduate job, which was the point of university. Or were we going to focus on growing our business.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: What did you do?

Simmy: I ended up deferring for a year and came back to Hitchin to focus on the business. I finished this summer – but back in 2018 I was still thinking about doing into banking. I took an internship at Rothschild in The City. I absolutely hated it.

I got really well paid for the internship which went straight back into the business but it was really long hours, very bureaucratic. You just got worked and worked and worked doing stuff that wasn’t particularly challenging. It wasn’t enjoyable. There was no creativity. There was no work/life balance.

And essentially all you’re doing is making rich people richer. So I did that while we fitted out our place in Hitchin.

When I finished that summer I then had to go back to university after my deferment. It would never stop. From the moment you got up to the moment you went to sleep it was work. It was very much me, Jhai and mum. We never borrowed a penny from the bank. We’re completely debt free which is pretty unique and we’ve never taken a salary.

So late 2018 we were actually struggling as we were trying to juggle so much. I was having doubts. I should have just stayed at uni and taken a nice, fancy graduate job with a good salary.

We hit a point where we needed to take the pressure off. So we hired staff. We put a bit more money into the business and it just started flying from there. Getting people to help out was the key. For Jhai and I, we still do lots of different roles, from the kitchen to everything else.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Then what happened?

Simmy: In January 2019 it was going well. But then I decided to go travelling to south east Asia and Australia. Jhai held the fort.

Jhai: But to be fair a lot of the stuff Simmy did could be done remotely.

Simmy: So it was basically a case of me being on the Khao San Road in Bangkok emailing Jhai about our business. We complement each other well and we dovetail well.

I’m very much about details and Jhai is much more pragmatic. If it was down to me it would still just be the three of us. So it does work.

One of my friends at uni had a year abroad so I joined him and we went travelling for a few months. At work I’m very much a hands on person. I micro manage. I was trying to build a website when I was away.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: And then what happened?!

Simmy: Then I got an internship with Google in Dublin.

I’d done my exams and went to Ireland for the summer of 2019. It’s really good working for Google.

They have amazing food and about ten different restaurants. I actually worked in their kitchens for a spell too. I wasn’t supposed to, I was just a business intern. But I wanted to. I asked them as I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to but they’re so open to new ideas they said ‘go for it’.

Because it’s Google, everything is tech based, and they’re focused on no waste, everything is about automating systems. When I came back from Google I focused on tech and data to make us more efficient. Which helped us back in Hitchin a lot. I learned so much about the marketing side too. About how we could grow in scale.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: You must have impressed Google as much as they impressed you...

Simmy: I also got offered a job at Google and I’ll be starting there full time in October. There are exciting times ahead.

So when I came back from Dublin in September 2019 it was the first time I wasn’t stressed about the business. We were actually a business. We had a real customer base. It was quite ironic that I spent nine months of the year abroad but still we managed to grow.

I knew that I had a final year at university. But I also had an unconditional job offer to look forward to. I really did wonder if it was worth going back to university. Did I actually need my degree? But I had done two thirds of it so I thought I might as well go back.

This whole last year has been a consolidation. I know we can grow a lot more. I did enjoy my last year at Bristol. It’s such a nice place. But it did feel like I was just waiting for it to finish. While there was no pressure I did get impatient.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Which brings us to the Covid crisis and lockdown - did it change the way you thought about things as a business?

Simmy: Yes. As we know, in February, Covid happened. So I came back to Hitchin.

I can understand a lot of businesses worrying during that time, but I have to say we weren’t worried because we didn’t take a salary from the business. We knew we could cover our staff costs. It was actually a real opportunity. People needed delivery services to their door. So we focused on delivering our food to people during lockdown – which has opened us up to so many new clients in and around Hitchin as well as further afield.

Lots of our new clients are parents who weren’t able to get out. A lot of people who may have classified us as ‘gym food’ now saw us as delicious healthy, convenient food. So we started working even harder.

Our prices have always been quite reasonable. We probably should have increased them previously but we just thought during Covid it wasn’t the time to do that. With food prices rising and may businesses having to pass that on to their customers we actually froze prices, which in turn made us even more attractive.

We also offered big discounts to NHS staff and the vulnerable. On top of that we have been partnered with Feed Up Warm Up. They do such good work. We’re big on food waste. As a family we make meals out of leftovers. Every week since late October we’ve been giving food to the homeless. During Covid we increased that.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Hitchin’s a place with plenty of talented, creative people and businesses…

Simmy: We love Hitchin. We’ve lived here our whole lives. We went to Hitchin Boys. We feel like a lot of foodie people are in their 30s or older and because we’re younger we’ve struggled to reach these people. And now we feel like we’re starting to. There’s so much more we can do in Hitchin.

I don’t like labeling it as meal prep but many older people don’t know what we do. People didn’t realise that we exist. We are about saving time.

If you love us we’ll become a part of your life. We won’t ever franchise our food as we wouldn’t trust people to get it right. But we envisage our food being eaten around the country not just Hitchin.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: What do your friends and family think?

Simmy: Because we’re so busy with our business we don’t have the time to catch up with old friends much. But when we bump into the them every few months and well tell them the latest, they look at us strangely as they think we spend every single minute on our business.

I caught up with a friend the other day, that I hadn’t seen in about two months. He said: ‘What have you been up to?’ I just replied casually without thinking: ‘Oh, we’ve been on the BBC, we’ve got a new unit, we’ve rebranded, we’ve got a new chef, we’ve got a new website…’ I didn’t realise the progress we’ve been making until I articulated it.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: If you do something you enjoy you’ll never work a day in your life…

Simmy: It’s crazy! It’s our life. After we finish work on a Saturday, we say let’s go home and watch a film as a family. But I don’t think we’ve got through halfway through a film…

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Because you fall asleep?

Simmy: Before going next door and working on our business!

Because it is our baby and our business it doesn’t feel like work. We do understand it won’t be healthy to continue in this vein long-term so we have got an intern who graduated from Bristol that we found on LinkedIn. So we do have help.

Friends point to the fact, we’ve only just finished our own grad schemes really, and now we’ve got an intern. But why not? With RNS I’m happy not to take a salary from it, just to eat the food from it. We really enjoy running the business. We’re proud of what we do. People who work for us also enjoy what they do and are well-rewarded. [RNS employ around 20 people in Hitchin].

So as well as us and our staff enjoying what we do, our clients enjoy what we do too. It’s a big part of their lives. So when people ask what do you want to do in the future, I don’t really care as long as we continue to employ more staff who enjoy their job and what we do as we grow.

You can have a million clients but it’s not about the numbers it’s about the quality. It’s not like a job as a doctor, or in law, or in banking – because they’re working for someone else. They clock in and clock out and get the job done. But for us it’s our lives. I just think if I work a bit harder today then next week we can have ten more clients. And that’s what drives me.

HITCHIN NUB NEWS: Your mum must be so proud of you guys…

Simmy: Yes, absolutely. But equally, we’re so proud of her.

She might be classed as retired, but she’s part of our business too. I don’t ever want to retire. We’ve given her a freedom of choice to continue working with us and she loves working too. We’ve said you don’t need to work, but she wants to. She also has time to go for walks, to read, to visit places.

That’s the great thing about RnS. So many people are just cogs. But here they’re valued. What still moves me is the fact that something we started at university is now impacting so many people’s lives in such a positive way.

Every year she might get older, but she also gets younger. Even our friends now say: ‘She’s so much more talkative.’ She could have been a liability in our business but she’s actually one of our greatest assets!

Do you ever see your old teachers around town? What do they think?

Simmy: We do. We actually got asked back to HBS to do a talk last year before Covid. A few teachers take a real interest in what we do and are pleased for us. We wanted to give something back to our old school. We want to help as much as we can.

We get emails from former pupils who tell us they really enjoyed our previous talks at various places and it moved them to try and get into the food and catering industry in some way. It was a bit surreal as there were about 300 pupils.

Everyone looked really focused during our talks because when we were there we’d be yawning and not concentrating! I suppose because we are so young they can relate to us more than they would if we were older. It was funny but the teachers also seemed really interested in what we had to say too.

Teachers help you in school, then they help you get into university and then that’s the last they see of you.

So it felt like they were really proud of us when we came back. It was really nice.

Previous Hitchin Nub News UP CLOSE features:

Sir Kier Starmer

Matt Bean, owner of Cantina Carnitas

Chris Cheah, owner of Chicken George

Fabio Vincenti, owner of Fabio's Gelato

Danny Pearson, Beano comic writer

Hitchin Squirrel Rescue

Hitchin Food Rescue

Adam Howard, organiser BackToSchoolival


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