- Aru and Tash de Silva of The Sugar Shack and Tosakanth’s Roast Paan on celebrating five years of brick-and-mortar
By Naveed Rozais
Being a food business, especially given the landscape of the last few years, is no joke. Last month, the much-loved Colombo establishments The Sugar Shack and Tosakanth’s Roast Paan celebrated five years in their present location at De Fonseka Place.
Run by two sisters Aru and Tash de Silva (Aru is the maven behind The Sugar Shack and Tash is the brains behind Tosakanth’s Roast Paan), these two businesses have run side-by-side for five years with Tosakanth’s ‘little kade’ welcoming those visiting The Sugar Shack’s cafe and vice versa.
The Sunday Morning Brunch chatted with Aru and Tash on what building their food businesses has been like, how they’ve each built their own identities within the space of food, and more.
A chip off the old block
The de Silva sisters have food in their genes – their grandfather founded Hasthigiri Bakery some 60 or 70 years ago, and today, their mother manages the day-to-day running of the bakery. As such, food has always been a part of their lives, and each of them began their individual food businesses after coming back to Sri Lanka from studies abroad.
The Sugar Shack, while it has only existed in its physical space for five years, began almost exactly 12 years ago in 2010 when Aru had her very first Christmas bake sale, something that has since become a tradition for The Sugar Shack and its customers. From that first bake sale, The Sugar Shack began slowly building a following of loyal customers and was initially something Aru pursued as a side business.
The same is more or less true of Tash’s Tosakanth’s, which first met the world at The Sugar Shack’s 2015 Christmas bake sale as a means of offering a savoury option in addition to The Sugar Shack’s sweet treats.
At the time, the roast paan sandwich was something of a novel idea, and Tash explained that the idea had come to her when eating a normal kade paan sandwich at a friend’s house: “I was just like, ‘Wow, these are great!’ I love sandwiches. In general, I eat them all day, every day. Since we have a bakery and I have free access to roast paan, I thought maybe this was something I could do. I started off at akki’s bake sale, just as a side business, and then started doing pop-up markets.”
For Tash, Tosakanth’s is her way of taking the family business into the future. Hasthigiri Bakery, which her mother runs, is old school. It has a wood-fired oven and very little machinery. The proof is in the pudding because Hasthigiri is a trusted bread supplier to many restaurants and establishments including the Ministry of Crab.
“It was also about taking that old school and moving into the future,” Tash explained of Tosakanth’s and what she saw it offering. “It’s not just roast paan, parippu, and pol sambol, but a newer version; a fusion [of old and new].”
From side hustle to main business
Both Aru and Tash began their food babies as side businesses – something for extra income that also allowed them to be creative and play with food while pursuing their respective careers in the corporate world – but by 2017 both were ready to take their food businesses to the next level.
It began with The Sugar Shack. Opening a cafe was something Aru had been planning to do for a long time. Initially, Tosakanth’s wasn’t part of the plan but the suggestion of their mother to have something savoury as well saw The Sugar Shack/Tosakanth’s Roast Paan space as we know it being born.
“It happened when we were two weeks away from opening,” Tash explained of Tosakanth’s joining the space. “Mum said why not have a small kade and come after work and on the weekends, so that there’s a savoury element and more things to choose from. I said yes, drew up a sketch for the petti kade now outside The Sugar Shack, and we just put it all together.”
Aru recalled how the short timeline meant that even on the day the two spaces opened, workers were still putting the final touches on Tosakanth’s Roast Paan.
“It’s worked really well because people come for the roast paan and stay for the cupcakes or the other way round,” Aru said of having both businesses in the same space, noting that while the businesses were in the same space, they technically ran as two separate but collaborative businesses. “It’s two similar businesses that are not competing but in the same space. We’re there to support each other – if one is struggling, the other one is there to lend a hand. We’re both very hands-on and sharing the same space is good because we can support each other.”
Tash also commented on how the two approached their businesses, noting that because they each personally made the products they sold, they were better able to commit to quality. “We know it’s the same product and standards are maintained. For us, it’s not just about business; we want to see people enjoying our food. Our businesses are basically about heart and soul, and not just about money.”
Five years side-by-side
For both Tash and Aru, making the switch from side hustle to main business was easy. For Tash, the corporate world was not to her liking, whereas being able to focus her energy on Tosakanth’s gave her the means to be hands-on and creative. For Aru, her passion made the switch easy.
Now, five years after having opened their physical doors, Brunch asked what took them most by surprise about moving into food full-time.
“I wasn’t prepared for just how difficult it would be,” Aru recalled. “That first six months was a blur of being tired. To go from part-time to doing it full-time, maintaining the cafe and making sure it’s ready to start at 6 a.m. and going on till 7 p.m. really took me by surprise and took a little while to get used to.”
“For me the switch was alright – I enjoyed it,” Tash said. “For me, making sandwiches was fun and it still is. The only thing that took me by surprise was how rude customers can be as well as the dumb questions you get sometimes.”
What the sisters agreed on completely was the amazing feeling of a job well done and seeing happy customers. “The best feeling is when someone is sitting in your cafe and they call someone and say, ‘I’m at The Sugar Shack and you need to come over’. Even now, that gives me such a thrill.”
“When people recognise me as Tosakanth’s and say, ‘I love this’ or ‘I love that’ or when you can see on UberEats how many times someone has ordered something and can see that they love my products, you know you’re doing something right,” Tash said, adding that since she experimented a lot with different chutneys and sauces in her sandwiches, when she got positive reactions, especially from customers who were sceptical going in, it made her day.
The struggles of running a food business, Tash and Aru shared, were no different to the problems every food and entertainment business was dealing with in these trying times.
Since 2019, Sri Lanka has been plagued with circumstances that have threatened businesses, from the Easter attacks to Covid to the most recent economic crisis. Both sisters shared that there were days where they just had to close shop because of extended power cuts or lack of fuel, meaning people couldn’t travel to them nor could they send products to customers because of a lack of delivery partners.
2023 and the future
The Sugar Shack’s signature Christmas sale this year is a bittersweet one, for Aru recently announced that The Sugar Shack would take a break for a while.
“I’m hoping to move next year, which is why I’m taking a break. I don’t want to close down The Sugar Shack but I also don’t want to run it without me here. The staff is very competent, but I want to make sure the quality will stay the same and rather than letting it run and managing it remotely, I’m taking a break to see where life leads me,” Aru said of the decision to go on hiatus.
However, the show will always go on, for Tash will be using this opportunity to expand Tosakanth’s. “The plan is to convert it into a breakfast-y, brunch-y kade and offer a full range of food instead of sandwiches only. We hope to launch towards the end of January,” she explained of what 2023 holds in store.
“It’s scary to have it all to myself, and everything is quite uncertain. Investing more money in this economy is a risk, but it also makes sense to hold on to this whole space. It’s a big step and quite daunting, honestly, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The Sugar Shack’s final (for now) bake sale will take place on 24 December at The Sugar Shack at 20, De Fonseka Road from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.