Twenty-something sisters Eccie and Gini Newton started their catering company Karma Cans in 2014 as a hobby, which soon developed into a business delivering freshly made lunches to office workers in Central London. Eccie previously worked as a chef at the Michelin-starred Richmond Restaurant at Petersham Gardens, in the South of France and in Mumbai. The sisters’ interest in raw food grew from their lunch-delivery creations – “raw” in this instance being food that is heated to no more than 40ºC. And from this evolved their recently released book Raw is More, which is about making raw food striking and delicious.
Tell us about Karma Cans: what is it, what prompted you to start it? The idea for Karma Cans came from the Mumbai Dabbawala ('one who carries the box') who each day deliver thousands of home-made lunches to workers across the city. Karma Cans is all about fresh healthy food prepared in our Central London kitchen and delivered by bicycle directly to workers’ desks in offices throughout Central London. We deliver lunch to make eating more convenient, to give people back their time during the day, so they can fit more in but feel more relaxed about it.
All ingredients are sourced as locally and sustainably as possible and are selected to keep our customers full, focused and healthy while they work. Our packaging is either compostable or reusable tiffin tins to reduce waste.
Our food is drawn from everything and everywhere! We're creating a communal eating culture that starts with our team and expands to our client network. Simple, healthy food, eaten together, made and delivered with integrity. At the heart of our kitchen is the family meal: we eat together and it’s the product we deliver to others. Inclusive eating is where new connections and ideas come from; when we eat together we eat more healthily.
These lunches always come in the same format though, and this is what ties all our food together: grains, greens, something grilled and a killer dressing. It’s simple: even when the flavours are out there, there’s an underlying consistency that people understand as us. The food resonates with our audience. London has this super dynamic food scene, there’s so much out there – produce, chefs, people – and we try to bounce off that. Something we’ve just really got into is lemongrass: we chop it up and mix it with lemon zest, add salt, pepper and olive oil and use this to dress all our blanched veg when they’re pulled hot from the pan. The flavour when you taste it is so hard to pin down, so subtle. We also use it with green beans and traditional roast chicken, but mashing up those flavours would never happen if we weren’t in this food culture of people from everywhere running food stands, importing new ingredients, and constantly experimenting.
What sparked your interest in raw foods? This experimentation and rich local food culture was part of what sparked our interest in raw food. We were already experimenting with feeding our customers a few raw recipes here and there. When you open yourself up to new cooking techniques you pave the way to a whole new world of flavours and ingredients. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?
But when we started to look at what raw food, what we saw was a literature saturated with a very closed idea of what raw food was and what eating raw meant. Predominantly it was focused on dieting, on restricting; most rawists were also vegan, and the reasons behind their diet choices were mainly about “eating clean” or “detoxing”. Much of the evidence used to back these claims was poorly grounded in science, and the more we read the more we felt we were drifting from what we wanted to see in a plate of raw food.
One aspect that sets our book Raw is More apart from other raw-food books on the market is that it’s not vegan or vegetarian, that meat and fish are incorporated into many of our recipes – something which is quite unusual. When we think raw we think Mexico, Peru, ceviche, with salt and lime juice and fiery chipotle, or the Vietnamese Bo Tai Chanh, carpaccio-style strips of beef marinated briefly in citrus and fish sauce and served with pickled onion and perilla leaves. Or delicious unpasteurised cream from a single-origin herd with fresh strawberries. Those kinds of flavours are magic! For us, raw is all about the ingredients, which complements Karma Cans' ethos perfectly. We try to be as sustainable as possible with our cooking – and this really focuses you on the quality of your ingredients.
Talk about the philosophy behind your book. We wanted to open raw up to be about more than simply a healthy diet. To us, a healthy diet is what the National Health Service (NHS) and the British Heart Foundation recommend. They have the best data on what works – better than anyone else – and their suggestions don’t call for any crazy clean eating/detoxification. At Karma Cans, we’re quite anti-clean eating and detoxing. Your body is an amazing thing, there is nothing superfluous about it, attempting to “clean” it is, to us, a very bad idea. This is why we were so shocked when we looked at the rawist literature: it was so tunnel-visioned about dieting and clean living that it was completely shut off from a global food culture of taking great ingredients and doing as little as possible to them to make incredible food. We wanted to open peoples’ eyes.
Your recipe flavour combinations are really exciting: what were your prime influencers? You’re right that the combinations are unusual; they’re really diverse! However, we can’t take all the credit: it’s a product of coming into contact with all these food cultures melting together at the moment. Because we were challenging ourselves to prepare only raw food, we told ourselves that nothing, no flavour, should be unexplored.
A few test runs were sometimes required to iron out the creases. There was a very worrying first attempt at the banoffee pie base, and the first time we made and served labneh balls to all the vegetarians at Karma Cans, we totally underestimated how sour the labneh was going to be. There was nothing to take the edge off – what a disaster! But there’s nothing like recipe testing on a couple of hundred paying customers to really encourage you to get your flavours right!
It’s just been so much fun, trying out all these new things, meeting all these suppliers and generally just being silly as we experimented. That’s what sparked the interest in raw food - having fun with new ideas and projects. We’ve been working on Karma Cans for two years now and more than ever we realise you just need to be having fun to make things work.
How do you as sisters work together; how you resolve conflict when it arises? We are sisters. It’s part of the foundation of our company and we know we have each other’s backs. Our relationship has been the driving force behind the company and the safety net to fall back on when things go wrong. Yes, synergy is essential; so are complementary skill sets. I’m operations, Gini is sales and marketing. Division of labour is so important to ensure you’re not crowding the other person’s space and – more importantly – that you’re dividing time effectively.
We work together to create the vision for what Karma Cans is and will be, and an inevitable part of working together is conflict. We both agree conflict is essential to good decision-making – as long as it can be channelled effectively into a clear resolution. Because Gini’s my sister, no critique is off limits - it’s helpful. Last year she told me frankly I was a bad manager, that I would often go silent in stressful situations. At the time it hurt. I doubt anyone else could have said this to me, but it changed everything. Now we have a team of 10 and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to improve my skills before the business started to grow. We probably would have failed had I not taken her comments on board.
What are your goals for the future, both for Karma Cans and for further books? The future for us is about working together to make great food, to grow our delivery business successfully in our marketplace. We’d like very much to publish another book that focuses on the easy, friendly salads we serve each day. For both of us, we want to build a company that’s also a community: a community of people who eat our food, whether they make it themselves or have us make it for them, and also an internal company community where our team can benefit as much as we do from the food we all make together.