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Catering startup nourishes McGill MBA’s soul

Natasha Sakina Alani, a McGill MBA student, has launched a catering company called Kiffin.

Sadie Wiarda/l'orangerie photographie

This story is the 10th in a series that features students and graduates who are using their MBAs and EMBAs in unique fields other than the traditional ones of finance or consulting.

It's 9 a.m. here and already Natasha Sakina Alani has been working in the kitchen for five hours. She's got many hungry mouths to feed, starting with today's lineup of academics at McGill University who will be lunching on her food during a conference break. A native of Texas who came to McGill last fall as an MBA student enrolled in the university's Desautels Faculty of Management, Ms. Alani, 34, is currently taking a break herself, drinking a much-needed cup of coffee at a nearby Montreal cafe.

She talks in hurried bursts about knowing what it is like to be hungry, by way of explaining how she has ended up being a caterer serving up social activism along with sustainable cuisine. It's a long story. "I have to tell you where I came from to explain how I came to here," she says.

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Ms. Alani was born in Dallas in the 1980s. But her story really starts in Uganda in the 1990s, when her Southeast Asian father returned to the African country after being ousted, along with countless other Asians, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, by Idi Amin's government some 20 years earlier.

Uganda had asked the people it had unceremoniously expelled to come back to help boost the country's economy, which had hit rock bottom after the forced removal of Asians who represented most of the country's business owners. But being among the first to make the trek back home, the Alani family found the transition from plentiful America to poverty-stricken Africa initially difficult. "We often went hungry," Ms. Alani recalls, adding her dad went to neighbours with tiffin boxes, asking people to sell them food.

Tiffin boxes are round, stackable and reusable aluminum containers, commonly used by labourers for carrying their midday meals with them to their jobs. Many cultures in the East use them. In Indonesian, they are known as mangkuk tingkat, meaning leveled bowls. In Arab countries, they are called safartas, meaning carrying bowls. In India, where Ms. Alani claims her ancestry, they are called dabbas and are an integral feature of hot lunch delivery services, whose workers are known as dabbawalas.

It would be a disservice to call Ms. Alani a dabbawala, and not least because with her cropped platinum hair, chic clothing, strappy high heels and expertly applied eye makeup, she hardly looks the part. She's also far better educated than a traditional dabbawala, having graduated in 2003 from the University of Texas at Austin with a finance degree and adding to her education by teaching at China's Jiaxing University, starting in 2005. Returning to the United States in 2006, she founded a cellphone recycling company in Dallas and later, after relocating to San Francisco in 2008, as the business manager of a non-profit employing at-risk youth in the kitchens of professional restaurants. And yet, a contemporary-world dabbawala she is.

Since moving to Montreal last summer to pursue her two-year MBA, a degree she hopes to apply to running the social enterprise of her dreams, Ms. Alani has been delivering tiffins when not taking classes in accounting, marketing and entrepreneurship. Kiffin, her Montreal-based catering company first launched in San Francisco in 2013, is a play on the word tiffin. The lowly tin is a key component of a business that makes hot and nutritious low-cost meals, packaging them up in reusable containers to keep costs down while fostering a respect for the environment and the cultural practices of other lands. Kiff is also the South African slang for cool, making it a perfect fit.

"It's my two cultures – African and Indian – coming together in a company that I hope will be one that brings disparate people together, and makes cities healthier," Ms. Alani says.

Ms. Alani still has another year to go before finishing her MBA, but already she's using it to make a difference in people's lives. After graduating she hopes to open a community school producing "the best chefs in Montreal," Ms. Alani says.

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"We will also work with non-profits to make their kitchens work more efficiently. Montreal already has a progressive network of food non-profits. So it's not more food that they need. It's expertise. I am willing to share what I know. My goal is to build a community around our business and support other businesses like ours."

She employs a staff of five among many volunteers, who include some of her MBA classmates. Her husband, Aaron Fetherston, a professional chef whom she recently wed between classes at McGill and running Kiffin, also volunteers at Kiffin, designing menus and directing the work flow in the company's industrial-strength kitchen. Outside help also comes from partners in the Montreal community, from leading restaurants to non-profit charities such as Share the Warmth.

"Jeff Baikowitz, a serial entrepreneur, mentored me on social entrepreneurship, and helped me partner with restaurant royalty like Tony Park of the Park and Lavanderia restaurants and Jamie Silver of Trout Lake, Montreal's premier event and catering company serving the likes of the Montreal Canadiens and celebrities who come through the city," Ms. Alani says. "They are champions of our food and values, and have opened many doors for us."

Jonathan Chaloux of Socent, a Montreal networking organization committed to developing social entrepreneurship, gave Ms. Alani her first lunch order. McGill and the Desautels school have followed suit, giving her catering contracts like the one she has been up since before dawn preparing. She's not done yet.

She's just about to start a new sentence when a text message flashes across the face of her phone. She glances down and suddenly she is off. "They need me in the kitchen," she says, as she rushes out the door toward her ultimate destination: people clamouring for her food.

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About the Author

Deirdre Kelly is a features writer for The Globe and Mail. She is the author of the best-selling Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books). More

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