Shana Dandeniya

Despite having lived abroad for most of her life, Shana has always felt very much at home here in Sri Lanka. “I was born in Sydney, Australia and when I was three years old my parents relocated to the UK,” she explained, adding that she “made a great deal of friends coming back every year on holiday and so when I moved back it felt like coming home.” 
Having moved back to Sri Lanka after completing her education in both Photography and Creative Advertising, Shana opened Café Kumbuk, which has been serving up healthy food made using locally sourced - and sometimes organic - produce. We caught up with Shana, high off the success of her café, to talk about her journey, her influences and her future plans. 

You completed your degree in creative advertising. How much has it supplemented what you do now? 

I completed my degree in creative advertising, not knowing what to expect when I started. The degree course was experimental and it helped me heaps in terms of developing my own taste. I have been able to market Café Kumbuk in an organic, fresh way using social media rather than traditional paid methods. It was through my degree that the realization of the café concept came to be. My time at university allowed me to grow immensely as a creative but even more as an individual. As much as my formal education has been important, I am grateful for the friendships made along the way. Many of these friends are working in the advertising industry; they were there when I had the idea for the café and have been really supportive along the way. 

What made you decide to open your own café? 

I had always entertained the idea of opening up my own café but I never really thought it would happen so quickly. Coming back to Sri Lanka with the intention of working in advertising, I quickly realized that apart from the salary, I would not be passionate about the work I was doing. At this point I thought it was at least worth trying to get the café up and running. The right space became available with enough time for me to craft my brand and menus at the Good Market prior to moving into a permanent space. 

What's behind the name - Café Kumbuk? 

I’d like to say there’s a great story behind the name of Kumbuk but personally I don’t think the story is all that interesting. On a visit to Sri Lanka, in a car with one of my friends I saw this big and beautiful tree and asked what it was called, to which they replied a Kumbuk tree. The way the word Kumbuk rolled of his tongue, it felt catchy and had this beautiful organic sound to it. I couldn’t get it out of my mind and so it stuck. Our counter, the centerpiece to the café is crafted out of Kumbuk wood, which solidifies the name and concept quite nicely. 

How challenging was it to learn the ropes of this industry? 

I am still learning everyday; there are good days and not so good days. One of the toughest things for me was learning how to manage my team. We’re constantly improving and everyday I feel it’s beginning to get easier. Receiving your first negative review can be really disheartening, but it is an all-important part of the learning experience and not taking these things personally is equally as important. Now I realize that any feedback or criticism is a chance for the business to improve. My work is definitely challenging me all the time and without things to overcome the success of Café Kumbuk would feel less deserved. 

There are a lot of cafés in the city - what do you feel sets Café Kumbuk apart from the others? 

Thinking away from food and drink, the physical space of Café Kumbuk is something that I believe sets it apart from other cafés in Colombo. We tried to make the café feel cozy and comfortable, a place where people can feel at ease. Our location is central but you don’t feel like you’re in the city when you are at Café Kumbuk. In terms of the menu we gear everything towards a healthier lifestyle, cutting back on sugar and artificial flavors without compromising on taste. Our menu is seasonal which means its ever changing, keeping things fresh and giving our customers a reason to return. We also endeavour to locally source as much of our produce as we can, working closely with our suppliers. 

How do you balance your work life and personal life? How important is that to you? 

The café has been open for a few months now the lines between my work and personal life are pretty blurred. I spend a lot of time at the café, not just because I work there but also because I enjoy being there. Gradually, over time my plan is to give more responsibility over to my team allowing myself to focus more time on nurturing my entrepreneurial passions. Luckily from time to time my mum steps in to watch over things, giving me time to recharge. I think the key to balancing work and personal life is planning ahead, finding a routine that works for you and getting in those all-important holidays when you can afford to! 

What do you do during your downtime? 

When I do have a day off from work I really allow myself the chance to take it easy! I’ll usually catch up on sleep, watch a bit of Broad City, maybe go for a swim, the simple pleasures. I try to squeeze in gym and yoga where possible, looking after myself is important especially seeing as I’m surrounded by key lime pie all day. Being at the café almost everyday means, that I am constantly surrounded by people – which I love, but when I do get the chance to relax I must say I do enjoy my alone time. 

Who are your influencers and role models? 

As cliché as it sounds my parents are my biggest role models, they are also my biggest supporters. They have helped teach me the business side of things and from time to time you’ll even catch them behind the counter at the café. I admire those people who put themselves out there and make things happen. Luckily for me, I am surrounded by great friends and family who lead by example. 

What's the one mantra you live by? 

I’m still figuring that one out, but for now basically, don’t sweat and stress the small stuff. Things always have a funny way of working out. 

Describe yourself in 5 words. 

Really quite good at chilling. 

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 

As much as I do have future goals and aspirations, I am enjoying taking it day-by-day and watching the café evolve. Café Kumbuk is an experience that I would like to take with me wherever I go. 

What advice would you give someone looking to kick-start their own venture? 

Be authentic. Don’t try to do what everyone else is doing; create something that stays true to who you are. I read a book recently called ‘The E Myth’, a good read for anyone looking to kick start their own venture. Try not to overwork yourself. From the get go it is important to get systems in place, make sure that your business is not solely dependent on you, if it is then there is a great chance you will burn out fast and start to dislike what you do. I have learned that I cannot micro manage everything and everyone and that it is totally okay for all of us to make mistakes, which is the only way we continue to learn! The book explains it much better. 

Interviewed by Rihaab Mowlana 
Photographs courtesy Benjamin Jones

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