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Meet Cynthia Shanmugalingam, Founder of Rambutan

Updated: Jan 17

We chatted with our client Cynthia Shanmugalingam who is the Founder of Rambutan, a Sri Lankan open-fire restaurant in Borough Market, London.

1. At the beginning of your career you worked in government policy and social enterprise. What called you over to hospitality? My first job was as a very junior economist in the hey-day of the Brown-Blair government at the Treasury, which felt like a sort of cross between The Thick of It and The Office.

After a few years, I went to go and run social enterprise stuff at a think-tank. As I got more senior, I was asked to run more and more complicated projects with lots of silly international events and egos to manage and I just hated it.

I started daydreaming of getting out of that world forever and running something for myself, something simple, with nice people, something small.

And then I realised that what a lot of Asian folks do instinctively - constantly talking about food:

  • Pondering why one auntie’s aubergine curry was so delicious

  • Did this sambol have cumin in it what a good idea

  • Anxiously trying to please guests who came to eat at your house

All of that meant food and hospitality was a natural home for me.

I definitely liked eating out, so why not I thought? I had no idea how hard it would be or what was coming. 2. What was it like to open Rambutan in its full sense this year, after years of planning, pop-ups, an adored cookbook and a summer of soft serves? It’s honestly been the marathon of my life, doing one after the other, and it was very thrilling, exhausting and emotionally overwhelming to see it finally come together.

From being cramped over a laptop in my bedroom and melting into my mum's fire kitchen in Jaffna to finally being able to open the doors with this incredible team, with now 28 of us, the reviews we’ve had, the people who have said nice things about us.

It’s surreal and it’s just amazing. 3. Did your time working at Kitchenette - an incubator for food entrepreneurs - offer lessons you benefited from when starting Rambutan? By the time I’d opened Rambutan, I had helped other restaurateurs pitch for sites, develop a menu, and I had an address book of people to ask about all sorts of things - kitchen designers, all sorts of things.

I think it opened up a space for me to think about what would work for me - what kind of size space I wanted, where, how I wanted to design the space, all of that stuff. 4. How are you managing inflation and rising costs? It’s very hard, and we are trying to be as great value as possible. We try to taper our margins, so charge less of a margin on our most expensive ingredients like delicious deep-flavoured mutton chops from HG Walter or our crab from Dorset.

I want Rambutan to be a very affordable, everyday type of restaurant you can just drop in on and that means watching all the prices really carefully, I never want it to get too expensive. 5. How easy or challenging is it to source Sri Lankan ingredients? As far as possible we use local replacements like we use parsley in our sambol instead of traditional peppery vallarai leaves. Some things we get from fantastic Sri Lankan and South Indian suppliers - the little yellow limes we get are so acidic and bright and they make a big difference. We source our jaggery syrup from Kimbula Kithul, an artisanal producer. 6. What advice would you give someone opening their first bricks and mortar restaurant I think to listen to your instincts and to ask for help - not advice. I am lucky to have a lot of brilliant advisors and friends but you have to try and cut out the noise and just take down the useful stuff. 7. What business achievement are you most proud of? When I go to industry parties I don’t see many founding teams that look like me:

  • I’m a one woman outfit

  • I don’t have any business partners

  • I’m from Coventry

  • Most of our family were refugees who escaped Sri Lanka’s war

Somehow, so many people took a chance on me. We have 38 investors in Rambutan, lots of friends and family and cousins and uncles and aunties who put in relatively small sums, a humongous loan that keeps me up at night, lots of favours and kindnesses from everyone from our landlords to our builders to my publishers.

I don’t think Rambutan could have happened in any other place in the world, it’s a London story, and now we are open and I couldn’t be prouder of it all. 8. What are your financial goals for the year? To stay profitable, to grow our revenues slowly and steadily. To be able to invest in our people, training and supply chain. 9. In terms of personal spending, how do you treat yourself? My idea of heaven is staying at fancy pants hotels! I haven’t been able to go on a proper break yet but hopefully, before the year is out, I’ll be able to get away and burn a hole in my wallet somewhere at least for a night or two. 10. Which restaurants are on your hit list for the end of 2023? Mountain, Leo’s, Chishuru.

Find out more about how we work with restaurant owners like Cynthia.


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