A week ago, Rubina ‘Ruby’ Mehmi, the co-owner of Hemani Mehmi Restaurant, gave birth to the 11th child in her family.
A talented entrepreneur, Ruby is clear on her family’s philosophy, something that’s guided her from her early days.
“When you do something extra for someone, they always come back to you,” says Ruby.
Speaking to Ruby about her business is inseparable from a conversation about her family and their journey in Australia.
“My husband Gurmeet Ram came to Australia 30 years ago, as a powerlifter. He had his youth in Australia, then went back to Punjab in India, then came back. He started the restaurant 20 years ago.”
“By childhood he’s Australian. By nature he’s Punjabi. Australia is everything for him.”
“I came to Australia as a student, to study IT,” says Ruby. “I was a chef as well, and I met Gurmeet in 2011 looking for a job in a restaurant.”
“It was the second restaurant in Liverpool,” Ruby recalls. “There was only one restaurant before that.”
“I’m still doing that job,” laughs Ruby.
Hemani Mehmi restaurant.
When Ruby came from Lahore, Pakistan, she found a Punjabi cultural connection with Gurmeet. That familiarity evolved into a romantic connection.
But Gurmeet was Sikh and Ruby was Muslim. Gurmeet also had five daughters from a previous marriage.
As they navigated these differences, Ruby and Gurmeet’s practical and grounded approach to overcoming challenges helped them grow together in marriage and love.
“Gurmeet converted to become Muslim. Now, for my husband and me, culture and religion is everything. All our kids speak Punjabi at home.”
“I've had 6 kids as well including our newest little one, so together we have 11 kids. We run the business as a family, with our nephews and their wives, my step-daughters as well, all working together. There are more than 20 of us in our family.”
In her unassuming way, Ruby recalls the business began with one restaurant. But as soon as Ruby became involved, her entrepreneurial spirit brought the business to new heights.
“It was ok at the start, we were selling sweets and Indian food, and the shop was rented. He had one house.”
“I pushed the business - sponsored more people from overseas. We opened a few branches and bought a few buildings in Liverpool,” she recalls.
“Now we have 5 venues of the business with 2 branches in Liverpool, 1 in Marulan, 1 in Tahmoor and a 400 person function centre in Liverpool.”
I ask Ruby if she’s the secret behind the business’ success. “You could say that,” she admits humbly and unashamedly. You can hear the years of hard work embedded in her words.
The Hemani Mehmi function centre.
Success for Ruby is born from an ethos of customer service. “We don’t give an impression of strict rules in our restaurant. If people travel, sometimes over an hour to see us, we don’t say no to them,” insists Ruby.
“My husband is soft and kind hearted. He always tells our staff: whatever happens, don’t make people angry, keep them happy.”
“Money is not important sometimes; you have to see other things like your behaviour to others. Doing something extra. If you keep that in your heart, you’ll see money come back to you.”
It’s an approach Ruby and Gurmeet have passed on to the next generation of their family.
“Our kids feel proud working with us. People say it’s rare to see the kids staying with you and that strong connection that comes from working together.”
“We always have family around to help - and to celebrate. We work on weekends and have a party on the weekdays - we don’t need others. Even now with my baby girl, I have too much help.”
But Ruby also notes the challenges of running your own restaurant. Sometimes there are unhappy customers seeking apologies, or even comments from within their own community at the function venue rates.
“Every business owner has to have a thick skin.”
Ruby and her family’s tenacity has turned critics into repeat customers.
“We had a few customers who complained all the time. We even had to take photos of the food before we sent it out to make sure it was right. But they kept coming back. We even said: Why don’t you go somewhere else? They said: We just can’t say no to your food.”
“So we learned to always appreciate them even if they complain,” says Ruby.
Like other business owners, Ruby and Gurmeet are facing macro-economic challenges like the challenge of keeping staff in the gig economy, losing many to the promise of flexibility from UberEats and other platforms.
“I want to tell people that their work needs to be more than just the money they get. It’s about achievement and competing against yourself. I like to see people work and get promoted, not just run away from rules for quick, easy money.”
Ruby confesses that the restaurant business requires you to preserve your down time.
Over the past few years, Gurmeet has made Punjabi music videos under the name of Gurmeet Mehmi. His videos have earned millions of views. For the 2022 video, Gurmeet featured his wife Ruby. Unsurprisingly, in the two months since its release, the video featuring Ruby has already been the most popular, earning more than 2 million views.
To relax on a more casual basis, Ruby and the Hemani Mehmi staff like to catch a TV show after the restaurant closes, and that she has found her favourite Netflix movie.
“We never miss a Hindi, Punjabi or South Indian movie. TV refreshes us; it’s like oxygen for us. We close at 11 pm, and all the staff sit together to eat dinner at 12 and watch TV, sometimes with more family.”
“My favourite movie right now is K.G.F. Chapter 1 on Netfllix - it’s amazing,” says Ruby with delight. “It’s South Indian and in Hindi, so we watched it.”
It’s this cross-South Asian and Australian experience that defines Liverpool for Ruby. “Liverpool is home. It’s more beautiful than the city. Australia is a very beautiful country - with the chance for respect, love, money, and a good future.
“We have a lot of Fijian Indian customers as well as others, including Bengali and Punjabi. Over 20 years we have seen generations that have become our family. Even the Mayor Ned Mannoun. I met him when I first came here. When he donated his kidney to his son, and as he recovered he wanted our curries.”
“I told him butter chicken is Aussie. For me, goat curry is what I like.”
Ruby also reflects on the change in behaviour after the pandemic. “People are more forgiving after COVID. Customer behaviour and habits have changed. People want to be close to each other.”
For Ruby and her family, that connection happens around food and in celebration. "We are excited for the return of Starry Sari Night to George St in Liverpool, to celebrate our culture and share our food,” Ruby says. “It will bring that closeness to more people.”
SAARI Collective is a media partner for Starry Sari Night.
Sandeep Varma is the Founder of SAARI Collective.