The big-city living experience and Toronto’s multi-cultural restaurant scene were some of the early factors shaping Meraj Ellahi’s (HBA 2017) decision to attend the University of Toronto. “That and the Hogwarts vibe,” she says, adding, “and that it is one of the best universities, of course!”
During her first semester, living in the St. George student residences, it became clear that the diverse student and faculty body was a vast asset, and making international friends and contacts became something Ellahi relished throughout her studies. But what the Founder and CEO of Kimchi Girl, a highly-successful Pakistan-based culinary venture, didn’t know yet was how deeply the diverse network of her student days would influence her life path and aspirations.
Ellahi, who is originally from Pakistan, met Hallie Jeon, an international student from Korea, in the residences while researching an assignment on Kant. “My essay only earned me a C+, but I ended up making a new friend,” Ellahi says, “Hallie and I become close and we quickly realized how similar our cultures, interests – and our food tastes – were!”
Venturing into Toronto’s boundless restaurant scene with her many international friends is one of Ellahi’s favourite memories. While she had tried Kimchi, a Korean dish consisting of salted, fermented vegetables, before, it was at U of T where Jeon taught her to appreciate quality differences. “Hallie knew all the best hole-in-the-wall Korean eateries. She taught me to recognize good Kimchi, and how to integrate it into almost any meal,” Ellahi recalls, “She helped me acquire the taste, and I soon became a little addicted.”
Ellahi returned to Pakistan after completing her Master’s degree at Queens University, planning to build and open a school with her father – a plan that derailed with the onset of the first wave of the global pandemic in early 2020.
“I always loved cooking and feeding my friends back at Woodsworth Residence,” Ellahi recalls, “and I was missing my U of T friends. So I decided to recreate some of the foods that reminded me of them.”
A pandemic hobby aiming to re-create the nutritious, global flavours of her student days, quickly took on a life of its own. Through Instagram, requests started flooding Ellahi, who was initially giving Kimchi away for free, then selling at cost, until finally deciding to scale up into a small business.
Operating out of her parents’ kitchen in Lahore, she soon expanded the menu, transforming Kimchi Girl into a popular take-out restaurant. Frequent Zoom calls with many of her international friends from U of T not only made the pandemic more bearable, but also gave her new recipe ideas and support. “For example, Hallie allowed me to ask her mother for advice virtually on the fermentation status of my kimchi!” Ellahi recalls.
“The biggest challenge, however, was not food preparation or marketing, as demand kept growing organically,” Ellahi explains, “but it was often very difficult to obtain the needed ingredients.”
With import laws changing frequently in Pakistan, Ellahi faced an unreliable reserve of the produce and spices she needed. When she learned of her husband’s family-owned agricultural land in rural Pakistan, she decided to solve her supply chain issue head-on by integrating the farming of her ingredients into her business model.
“The best part is that, now, the ingredients at Kimchi Girl are local and organic and I can be sure that they are free of chemicals or pesticides,” Ellahi says, “and this has made a noticeable difference in flavour, too!”
In addition to its take-out business, Kimchi Girl is now also present in 26 small to large retail outlets in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, where the kimchi, frozen meals, handmade pastas and other products are top sellers according to some of Ellahi’s distributors. Coca-Cola has featured her in an advertisement campaign, and she was recently highlighted in a book on female entrepreneurs in Pakistan.
“Many of my U of T classes were instrumental to what I’m doing now,” the International Relations and History graduate says. “Thinking back to classes such as in economics that really explained what entrepreneurship is about is just part of it,” she explains, “but also history classes I took, for example, on the Partition of India and the history of Pakistan; the open and respectful discussions and the way I always felt heard and valued by my classmates and these incredibly knowledgeable professors, definitely stayed with me.”
Ellahi, who describes herself as a cautious and risk-averse entrepreneur, is keen on growing her business, “But,” she says, “only if I can do this with full confidence that I won’t lose quality.” Her vision for Kimchi Girl includes gradual but steady growth to scale up the catering business significantly and to add a sit-down restaurant branch over the next 3-5 years.
However, the 27-year old also has other endeavors. Her initially halted plans of starting a school in Pakistan with her father are still on the table for the future. And, besides spending time with her 13 dogs and husband, she hopes to travel a lot more in the coming years.
“I’ve never been to Korea and would love to visit Hallie there,” she says, “Much of the healthy and fulfilled life I’m living has to do with my time at U of T and the community I found there. I am certain that I will keep these connections for life, and I hope to visit as many of my international friends as possible!”