Still pinching herself after her win at the 2020 Canberra Women in Business Awards at the National Arboretum on Thursday, 5 November, Sunita Kumar was back in the kitchen of her beloved restaurant the morning after receiving her accolade.
“More than thrilled to win the award,” says Sunita, Canberra’s Business Woman of the Year for 2020, who adds that the process of accepting the nomination for the prestigious award forced her to think hard about where she has come from and where she wants her business to head to.
“The application process was a real learning experience for me,” she says. “Running a business, you get so caught up that you don’t take time to recognise all the ups and downs and the things you have sacrificed and gone through to grow a business.”
Sunita is a trained chef and the co-owner of award-winning Indian restaurant, Daana, in Curtin. She also has extensive business experience and a Master’s degree in business administration.
The idea for Daana was born from Sunita and her husband Sanjay’s love for cooking and a desire to change the stereotypical Indian culinary scene in Canberra.
“We wanted to bring the richness of the Indian culinary heritage to Canberra and showcase it in all its glory,” she says.
Originally from India, Sunita and her family bought a one-way ticket to Australia and arrived in Canberra in 2012. Determined to make their new life in Australia work, Sunita found full-time employment and they settled into their new life.
“I was happy; I was working full-time in a nine-to-five job with a stable income, but I knew I wasn’t following my dreams,” she says. “So in 2015 we took the plunge and started Daana in a shipping container at the Westside village in New Acton.”
After a couple of years of what Sunita describes as a lot of hard work, along with the highs and lows of any small business, the restaurant found success. They also ventured into corporate hospitality, but then COVID-19 hit.
“When shutdown was announced, my cold-room was stocked with four days’ worth of food for 1500 people,” she says. “Our catering business vanished overnight.”
But being determined and resourceful, Sunita introduced frozen meals that then moved into weekly takeaway.
“I knew we had to offer something special to make it sustainable so we introduced a new menu every week,” she says. “My husband did the deliveries and thankfully the community rallied around us with many people making weekly orders.”
Buoyed by their success, Sunita says Daana will soon be introducing a subscription meal service.
“We had been thinking about doing this, but with COVID-19, like everyone else, we have had to adapt,” she says. “The pandemic forced all of us to get creative.
“We had no other source of income and we have children and other family responsibilities. We could not afford to walk away. So we knuckled down to work smarter and harder. In small business, you just have to keep chipping away. I call it the woodpecker theory.”
As a tribute to their adopted home country, Sunita and Sanjay have recently introduced Australian native ingredients to their menu.
Involved in many community initiatives, Sunita is passionate about supporting the Canberra community and strives to be an inclusive employer.
“We try to employ people who have barriers to regular employment,” she says. “It is important for us to give back to the community that has supported us.”