Chris Goodfellow meets Sanjay Aggarwal, who runs Spice Kitchen with his mother and father, and finds out more about the food business that started as a family chat over dinner.
Spice Kitchen’s home ground, roasted and mixed spice sales weren’t meant to grow into a full-time food business. The idea was cooked up over Christmas dinner to take advantage of the matriarch of the family’s food expertise; to provide mum with a way to take advantage of her in-depth knowledge of Indian cuisine and something to do in her retirement.
Instead, Spice Kitchen grew into a 50-order-a-day artisan food business in its first year, leading to major re-modeling of the family home.
The spice mixes are based on recipes used in the founders’ home cooking and passed down through the generations, such as garam masala, a traditional hot spice blend with 10-12 ingredients, related cooking tools and accessories.
It’s made up of a mum, dad and son team. “It was only meant to be selling a few spices online and to keep my mum busy,” says Sanjay Aggarwal son and founder. “We’re completely blown away at how much demand there is.”
The rapid growth started in the run-up to Spice Kitchen’s first Christmas, when orders grew 10-fold in a short period of time.
The family home was adapted to ensure production and warehousing can be carried out effectively and the demand could be met. This meant incorporating traditional tools with modern day roasting and packaging equipment, and lots of clever storage techniques.
“We’ve converted a large room into a spice lab or larder, we’ve got tons of spices in there. We have a 100-year-old spice grinder that’s been in our family for a long time and some very traditional African pestle and mortars. It’s an antique store. On top of that we’ve complimented it with commercial grinding equipment that we need to process blend and roast; Walter White from Breaking Bad would be pretty impressed with the setup we’ve created.”
Getting the licenses to produce the products at home wasn’t an onerous exercise, according to Aggarwal, although he noted that if the company started selling to supermarkets there would be additional requirements.
Spice Kitchen is beginning to use its traditional production methods and recipes as a marketing tool, including using old photos of the grinder in its promotions and publishing traditional recipes, many of which have never been written down, on their website.
“The big difference is it’s not electric and doesn’t change the flavour of the spices. Normally when spices are processed commercially the heat changes the flavour and because these are manual, with a hand grinder, it’s almost like going to the gym,” Aggarwal adds.
Word of mouth
Spice Kitchen hasn’t invested any money in advertising so far, outside of cursory investigations into the effectiveness of Facebook. Instead, it has relied on word of mouth, listing on a range of online retail sites, and promotion through food bloggers and celebrity chefs.
Aggarwal says that before establishing a chance relationship with an Indian food specialist he wasn’t convinced by the need to work with food bloggers or other publications.
“Very early on we were approached by an Indian food blogger called Zoe Perrett,” says Aggarwal. “She taught me the benefit. I had no idea people read blogs that much. From seeing what she did, the response and the sort of readership she got I completely changed my mind about how beneficial getting people to write about it is.”
Since then press coverage in publications and blogs has come through a mixture of making direct contact with editors and getting requests for samples.
Products are sold through eight or nine online channels. This started with a personal eBay account, which was quickly updated to a commercial account allowing the company to move from 50 to nearly 1,000 positive seller reviews, and being awarded eBay’s Top-rated seller status.
The most effective new listing in terms of orders and website traffic is Not On The High Street, which curates artisan food sellers not listed by the supermarkets, and lead to order levels similar to eBay, the businesses biggest seller. Aggarwal says Spice Kitchen’s first application for a listing was turned down, but he tried a second time when the business had received a small amount of press coverage and the website had been relaunched with professional photography.
With no money spent on advertising and very little SEO work on the website, the most successful route to growing traffic and sales has been audience engagement, according to Aggarwal: “The fundamental thing is we engage with our customers as much as possible. We use social media, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. We talk to a lot of them over the phone. We ask them to mail us or even call us to tell us about custom orders.”
This has lead to establishing a series of business opportunities, including creating bespoke hampers, corporate gifts, designing wedding favours and a fledgling move to sell wholesale after being approached by a small number of well known chefs.
The business’ launch was bootstrapped and the company has not received any funding since. Aggarwal says that keeping a low level of stock inventory was crucial to ensure the ingredients were as fresh as possible and this naturally helped with cash flow, sidestepping the need to maintain an expensive inventory.
The level of advice they’ve received has been limited too, although food blogger Perrett has been instrumental in giving feedback. The family has relied on dad Ashok’s retail experience and learning as they grow:
“He [my dad] had a hardware shop that was an Aladdin’s cave. He would deliver for free to anyone in the local area and had the sort of customer service I’ve never seen anywhere else. I learnt this first hand and it’s what we now deliver,” says Aggarwal, who also runs a recruitment business.
The background knowledge of the recipes was fundamental to creating the business; “Our business only exists because of the knowledge my mum has, she’s the oracle. The company’s really a story of our family history and our indian heritage as much as it is a business,” says Aggarwal. Now the business has grown beyond the small scale dinner-table idea the question is how to leverage this ethos to promote and grow.