Christina Slyper founded Dubai’s healthy but affordable food cafe and catering concept Zest in 2005. The Swede first opened Zest in Ibn Battuta Mall before relocating to larger premises in Dubai's Arjan district three years ago. Ms Slyper, 47, lives with her husband Malcolm, an Emirates pilot, and their cats Tigger and Baloo in Mira Oasis, Dubai.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
We were in Sweden for the first 11 years of my life. My father started a management consultancy which grew and we moved to London. Mum was a chemistry teacher, but started a relocation firm when we moved. I have an elder brother and sister and a lot of value was given to education and going into the world and doing what you want to do. I was surrounded by hard work and brought up having respect for money. There wasn’t frivolous spending. It was well looked after.
Did you work from a young age?
I had a paper round when I was 12/13. It was really low pay; £1.50 (Dh7) per week. My brother was doing one first, so I thought it a cool thing to do. We got pocket money (Dh2) every Saturday. It was expected we contribute to the household … ironing, cleaning up. I remember feeling jealous of friends where this wasn’t the case, but now I’m really grateful for it; we were a family unit, everyone did their bit. I was also a runner in a burger bar, aged about 16, working evenings. The salary wasn’t high, but we got really good tips. One of the reasons I liked it was my interest in serving people. I had a calling.
What brought you to the UAE?
I came in 2004 with the intention of setting up Zest. I stayed with my brother, spent time doing market research, and put a business plan together. We opened the day Ibn Battuta Mall opened.
The majority of investment came from me. I’d saved and also invested in stocks. They did OK and I sold them and put that into Zest. Family members also invested and we had two external investors.
In 2017 we left Ibn Battuta. Our delivery service was growing and we wanted to do events and corporate catering and needed a bigger kitchen. We thought about our catchment area and wanted to be closer to those communities.
What prompted you to set up your own business?
I was in London, working as a graphic designer for five years and got the opportunity to be in New York one summer. They had these juice bars and salad counters — there wasn’t really anything in London where you could just grab healthy food. I was in the rat race, hungry for something more, so thought I’d start a restaurant. I’ve always had passion for food and nutrition, the impact food has on well-being and health. My brother was in Dubai and my father had worked with a company here since the ‘70s. I’d come on vacation a few times … setting up in Dubai was favourable.
Is healthy eating a luxury?
We’ve always tried to make sure we can be competitively priced; we want to be accessible to everyone. It shouldn’t be something only people earning within a certain bracket are able to enjoy.
If you’re using high-end ingredients it’s going to be more expensive; people interested in health and well-being are aware of that, but our target audience is the masses.
Are you a spender or a saver?
I’m fairly balanced. I’m more of a saver, but when I was younger — in my 30s — I was more of a spender. I love shoes, handbags, that was my vice, although my indulgence was more high street. We used to go out a lot and party; go out to brunches. Now I’m older I don't have the same interest in that lifestyle. I really value time with family, connecting with people I care about, sitting in the garden with my cats. My husband and I are both really busy so time together is precious.
Another reason for spending less is I’ve become a lot more aware of the environment, more conscious of not consuming so much.
So you are wiser with money?
We’re really good at managing everything we spend. We have a spreadsheet and budget for the whole year. I learnt that through the business because you have to be organised, but I am also organised as a person. You have to know what your costs are, when payments are due, be on top of cash flow. I’m really sensible.
What is your best investment?
Zest. Not just money investment, but the decision to fully go for it; money, time, passion, heart and soul. I’ve put everything into it, the gutsiest move I’ve ever done. And it’s been so rewarding. It’s created the most phenomenal career for me. I eat, sleep and breathe it.
What is your philosophy towards money?
It’s energy, to run a business. I have a good relationship with money, but it’s never been my motivation, why I get up in the morning. I’m driven by what I’m passionate about, but it’s important to have money, especially if you're unwell or there’s something going on with family.
What financial lesson do you value?
My brother told me a long time ago, with every pay cheque, to put 10 per cent away. I did it a few times, but to think back to my 20s, if I’d done it every pay cheque, been a bit more consistent with saving … when you've done that for a few years, all of a sudden you see something magnificent. It’s discipline. That’s something I’ve learnt as I’ve got older; it’s not about doing one big thing, it's your daily habits.
What has been your biggest indulgence?
Five years ago we were renting a villa but purchased a house, and had a three-month period in between. We were going to stay with my brother on the Palm and then this adorable six-week-old kitten (Baloo) turned up on our doorstep a few weeks before we were to move. We completely fell in love. My brother is allergic to cats so we rented another villa for three months, for Dh8,000 a month. My family thought we were insane.
What are you happiest spending money on?
Our biggest expenditure is food in our household. We don’t skimp. We’re buying organic, fresh, and doing cold press juicing. In terms of product development, that’s where it starts. If I wasn’t living it, it would be tricky to run Zest.
Do you plan for the future?
There are a lot of plans for Zest; expanding catering and delivery. We’re focusing on more vegan products and sustainability, expanding the menu.
My husband and I were also thinking about our next step, what our life looks like in 10 years — where we are going to be and what we will be doing. Both of us have a passion for people’s well-being and everything that falls under that, so that’s probably something we’d look at developing, more than a restaurant.
We had property in Arabian Ranches we sold last summer and the first property I invested in, an apartment on the Palm, sold last year. Now we’re more mobile.