All entrepreneurs dream of setting up their own business and making it a success. Dreams became reality for Simmy Dhillon, who dreamt up his company during his first year at university.
RNS Meals (Rice n Spice) deliver fresh, nutritionally tailored meal plans to your door. With the help of his mum and brother Jhai, the business has evolved from a university kitchen to its own headquarters in Hertfordshire. Now 23, Simmy has a well-established and fast-growing business, built on hard work and dedication. His clientele includes professional footballers, athletes, and celebrities, but its greatest endorsement is the story of Simmy’s success. So how did it all happen? I had the opportunity to speak to Simmy and find out all about it…
How was RNS Meals born?
I’ve always been into health and fitness, but really enjoy my food. My first year at university in Bristol gave me the chance to combine the two. A lot of the students in my halls were ordering overpriced, unhealthy takeaways. I thought this would be a great time to trial something. I cooked up a batch and started marketing on Facebook, and that’s where things started!
What challenges did you face starting a business at university?
I’ve always been a conscientious student and did worry about how starting the business might take over my academic commitments. But in reality, having the business made me super-efficient with time management. At the start, I was doing everything myself, so it was a great pre-requisite to transitioning from university into the working world. I had to learn in the moment. In my second year, I moved out of halls and lost that great market of student accommodation. So I tried to pivot more towards societies and groups. This was a turning point when I had to decide if I wanted to push the business forward. Up until then, it had just been me cooking and delivering everything, and I realised that wasn’t really sustainable. It’s difficult. You feel like you’re on your own a lot when you’re running a business. A lot of people have co-founders, but everything was on me, and if I didn’t do something it wouldn’t happen. So there was a lot of pressure and stress. That was a moment of doubt for me. I considered whether I should find an internship or a graduate scheme that would give me more security. But I had created something already and I didn’t want to let that go. The summer between first and second year my brother came on board to help me expand. I decided to defer some of my exams and take a supplementary year at university. I spent that year working really hard to set the business up to be self-sufficient, and it’s paid off.
How has COVID-19 affected the business and were you forced to adapt? If so, in what ways?
In unprecedented times and with a global recession, we were worried about whether our clients would be able to afford our meals. They’re well priced, especially compared to our competitors, but before Covid-19 we had considered raising our prices. When it hit, the first thing we did was freeze our prices. We also had our employees to think about. We made sure everyone’s jobs were secure. We took on more staff and so we were actually able to support people who had lost their jobs in restaurants. The business benefitted because we got some great new chefs in! We’ve had to adapt in the kitchen with our hygiene and safety, as well as with contactless delivery. We offered our clients the option to add on free meals to their order for elderly or vulnerable relatives, as well as discounted prices. Since late 2019, we’ve been partnered with a local homeless charity. When Covid hit, they suffered quite a lot with a lack of donations, so we increased the amount we gave. For us, the first few weeks were uncertain. But now we’ve got into a whole new market with working professionals who have less time to cook. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s slowly settled down, but looking back you remember the impact we have had.
Being such a young entrepreneur, have you ever found it difficult to be taken seriously or have you ever found that your age affected the way you were treated?
Initially, I didn’t put my face out there at all. We thought we would let the product do the talking. But we have a unique story, and that’s helped people connect with our business. At first, I worried people thought ‘who are these two kids’? When we developed our headquarters, I realised there’s a lot of price discrimination. Prices are made up on the spot and we felt like people may have been taking us for a ride. But we’ve always been quite savvy and shopped around. 3 and a half years in – with the great PR we’ve had – we do feel like we’re seen as serious entrepreneurs. My advice to young people starting their own business would be to have their wits about them. Do your research. I think it’s more about experience rather than age. Experience is invaluable and starting early has been great.
You’ve got some great celebrity clients. How did that happen and what was that like?
I’ll hear that a friend of a friend will mention the business having seen our Instagram page or an article about us and it’s surreal. We’ve spent nearly nothing on marketing, as we’ve relied a lot on leveraging relationships. Some people have been great and wanted to help get the word out. We’ve been really fortunate with the celebrities we’ve worked with. My brother was a professional footballer so we have a lot of friends who play professionally and were happy to support. It was a domino effect. But when you’re in a business every day – and it really is every day – you forget how far you’ve come.
You’re a family business. You work with your mum and brother, what’s that dynamic like?
We’ve always been a tight-knit family, but the business has made us even closer. There have definitely been difficult times, especially in the first year. We were all feeling our way and trying to work things out. Leaving the kitchen at 1 am on a Saturday when you’re friends are out partying are the moments that have really connected us. Spending time together every day has been fun. It’s helped the business because no one’s afraid to say what they think. It’s not without its problems, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.
What does the future look like for RNS Meals?
We’ve never actually had a business plan. It’s always just been pivoting and thinking about how we can improve. One of the big things for me is to become more tech and data driven. We always want to keep that great, personal customer service. But if we want to grow and compete, we need to leverage tech a lot. We’ve got a data scientist on board who is great. Our main intention is to become a big business, but act like a small business. We operate by being very personal and caring because our products help people save time and money. We always want to put the client first and this is our core ethos.
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