Genga: Building a Healthy Business
Genga Ponnampalam had always suspected that someday he’d follow in his father’s footsteps and start a business of his own. When he was laid off after 10 highly stressful years as a computer programmer, he knew his moment had arrived. The only question was what kind of business to start.
As a young man, Genga had fled his war-torn home country of Sri Lanka at his father’s insistence. He arrived in the United Kingdom as a refugee and completed his primary education there; soon, however, he realized he needed further education and more job opportunities. He found both in Buffalo, New York, and made it his permanent home.
In Sri Lanka, where vegetarian dishes are the norm, Genga had been accustomed to eating plant-based meals. “We believe that eating vegetarian meals is good for your health,” he explains. In the U.S., however, he found it hard to get the foods he wanted to eat. And so, despite having no previous experience in the food industry, he launched Go Veggies, a vegetarian food company specializing in vegan and gluten-free veggie burgers and veggie rolls.
At first, Genga sold his products at farmers markets throughout Western New York. In 2004 he purchased a food cart and began selling hot, homemade vegetarian food at markets and events across the state.
In 2018, he was recruited to attend AARP Foundation’s Work for Yourself@50+ workshop series, hosted by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), an AARP Foundation partner. WEDI and Work for Yourself@50+ helped him develop his business plan and provided him with legal advice and growth strategies. Although Go Veggies had at times included catering, cooking classes and a café, the coaching Genga received led him to focus his business model on his core product: veggie burgers.
Before connecting with AARP Foundation and WEDI, Genga faced multiple challenges to expanding his business, among them access to capital, product packaging, and locating a commercial kitchen — not an easy thing to find for a small business in upstate New York. “When I started, I was sharing a kitchen,” he says. Since completing the workshops, however, he’s been able to start forecasting for growth and, also give back to his community.
“Now that I have my own kitchen, I let other people use it,” he explains. “I also teach them to do cooking, sanitation, licensing permits … how to start. I didn’t have this information when I started.”
Through his participation in the Work for Yourself@50+ workshop, Genga has discovered ways to support his neighborhood while supporting himself. And today, almost 15 years from its launch, Go Veggies is making major strides, including local distribution at 65 grocery stores, manufacturing at several small plants, professionally designed product packaging, and potential expansion to Canada.
At age 60, Genga feels he is right where he needs to be. And while he has high hopes for more growth and expansion, he is enthusiastic about his business. “I love being a business owner. It’s a vegetarian, healthy business, and people love it. When customers say good things about my product, I feel sure that it’s what I need to be doing.”