By Sarah Tomlinson
Six-year-old Soumini Agate rushed into her parents’ kitchen in Mumbai one afternoon. For years, her mother had made a delicious fruit salad with custard, and she desperately wanted to try her hand at it. She threw on her oversized red-and-white checkered apron and grabbed two bags of apples and pears from the fridge. She was too short to reach the green, marbled kitchen counter top, so she stepped onto her peach-coloured stool and poured the fruit into a black mixing bowl. Focused on detail and precision, she chopped the fruit into little pieces. Next, she added cream with green food coloring, unfortunately forgetting to whip the cream, leaving it soggy and watery.
When she was done, she raced up the staircase into her older sister’s bedroom. Rujuta was still wearing her high-school uniform, a navy skirt and a white blouse, and was hungry after a long day. She eyed her younger sister’s cheeky smile then lowered her gaze to the runny green mixture. After trying Soumini’s fruit salad, Rujuta smiled hesitantly, forcing herself to swallow the remaining apple seeds and pear stems.
Although the salad wasn’t appetizing, Rujuta remembers being impressed by her sister’s commitment. Every weekend that followed, she would try her sister’s latest culinary attempt, each one becoming increasingly delicious.
Rujuta’s unconditional love and support has convinced Soumini to pursue her dreams on multiple occasions, even during trying times. “I’ll do anything for my sister,” Rujuta says. “If she tells me that she needs my help, I’ll leave everything and go help her.”
With a nine-year age gap between the two, Soumini always felt like a daughter to Rujuta and the two of them always made a great team. Therefore, when Soumini was deciding what career she wanted to pursue, Rujuta encouraged her to follow her passion for baking with the aim of eventually opening a bake shop.
Soumini studied at the Culinary Institute of New York from 2014 to 2018 and worked in a steakhouse and as a dining room manager in Boston. Meanwhile, Rujuta got married and moved to Canada with her husband, where she earned a degree in hospital administration from George Brown College. Eventually sick of the distance between her and her sister, Soumini moved to Toronto in September 2019.
Soumini’s initial plan when she moved to Canada had been to continue working in restaurants until June 2020, when she would open her bake shop.
However, when she lost her two jobs in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to open earlier — and online. With an overall decline in sales in the Canadian food industry and a surge in small business closures, that’s when she really needed her sister’s unconditional love and support.
Although online dessert purchases have been on the rise according to Skip the Dishes, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses warned that the pandemic threatens to wipe out 2.4 million private-sector jobs linked to small businesses.
“It was definitely frightening considering that I didn’t know if [the business] was going to work and how people would react,” Soumini says. “But I also knew that I didn’t really have a job to go back to.”
Her biggest challenge was getting the news out about her new business, Pandoughra’s Box. As a newcomer to Canada, she didn’t know very many people. However, having been in Toronto for five years, Rujuta was able to spread the word through her network.
She also offered her sister emotional support when the business took longer than expected to open.
“When you start something new, you always doubt yourself,” Soumini says. “She was the one who always told me, ‘It’s gonna work out. Have faith in yourself.’ Sometimes, you just need those words of wisdom and guidance to get you through some days.”
In the summer time, Rujuta helped Soumini set up small pop-up shops on weekends in Stackt Market, a downtown Toronto food market that promotes local businesses.
When public health measures loosened in summer 2020, Soumini decided she was ready to open a storefront for Pandoughra’s Box. With Rujuta by her side, the two looked for shops for months and months until there was an opening in a familiar spot: Stackt Market. They instantly took the chance and rented it on Nov.17, 2020.
At that point, Rujuta had gone from working full-time in hospital administration to part-time while helping her sister out. However, in January 2021, despite the fact that her husband had temporarily lost his job and that they had a newborn child, she decided to quit her position as a hospital administrator.
Rujuta remembers asking her two bosses to meet privately in the hospital’s meeting room before the general meeting. With her hands shaking, she let them know about her decision and watched as their eyes widened. Neither could believe she was quitting since she had established such a good reputation at the hospital.
“Are you sure you want to join your sister?” her boss asked. “You don’t know anything about baking.”
Nevertheless, Rujuta’s mind was made up. Not only did she always have a passion for management and administration, her number one priority had always been to help her sister, so there was no going back. When she told Soumini, her sister couldn’t understand why she would risk her career during a pandemic.
“What if the business does not respond well?” Soumini asked. “What are you gonna do about that?”
“You took the jump, it’s time for me to take the jump now,” Rujuta replied, demonstrating the ultimate show of faith for her sister after a lifetime of them.
To this day, Rujuta is still Soumini’s culinary “guinea pig.” One morning in December, Soumini burst out of the kitchen at Pandoughra’s Box holding her latest concoction, a mango-wheat beer sorbet, with the same cheeky smile and beady eyes she had as a six-year-old.
“Hey! Try this!” she shouted with excitement.