Entrepreneur interview: Sanjiv Kakkar, managing director of Himalaya International

Himalaya International: Indian food hasn’t taken off because there’s no standard of identity

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

Sanjiv Kakkar (pictured): "Indian cuisine could be the next big thing if it’s done right. I think the biggest associations in consumers’ mind when it comes to Indian food right now are ‘spicy’ and ‘curry’. That's the impression that needs to change."
Sanjiv Kakkar (pictured): "Indian cuisine could be the next big thing if it’s done right. I think the biggest associations in consumers’ mind when it comes to Indian food right now are ‘spicy’ and ‘curry’. That's the impression that needs to change."

Related tags: Indian cuisine, Us

The flavors of Asia have no doubt made their mark on American palates—as Chinese, Japanese and Thai influences have made their way from niche to mainstream retail and foodservice outlets. Even tiny Malaysia appears to be moving up the ranks of popular flavors among US consumers. 

Yet Indian cuisine has curiously lagged in popularity among mainstream consumers. Sanjiv Kakkar, co-founder and managing director of India-based agribusiness firm Himalaya International, says it’s because a standard hasn't yet been created for this distinctively spicy and aromatic Southeast Asian cuisine.

“If you order Kung Pao chicken at any restaurant in the US, you get the same dish,”​ Kakkar told FoodNavigator-USA. “Compare this with Indian food. If you order chicken tikka in Chicago or New York, you might not get the same product. That’s because a standard of identity has not established for Indian cuisine, which is the major reason we haven’t seen Indian food take off the way it should have in the US. That’s what we’re trying to do with our products.”

Himalaya International has edged its way into the US frozen food market since the early 1990s when it began supplying frozen commodity vegetables to restaurants around the Northeast. It launched US retail manufacturing in the late 1990s starting with a single SKU: milk cake, an eggless Indian dessert comprising mainly milk and sugar that is one of Kakkar’s favorites. The brand, dubbed Himalaya Fresh, has since grown its all-natural frozen product line to 31 SKUs—including a number of Indian appetizers, main dishes and desserts.

Everything Himilaya Fresh produces is all-natural—meaning it’s free from preservatives and “nearly” organic. Kakkar says that the US manufacturing facility hasn’t been certified as organic is because its factories in India follow European organic standards, which are different from US standards. “In effect, we’re producing organic but we're not certified.”​ The facility is also zero-waste.

Himalaya Fresh products are available in 1,600 of the roughly 2,000 specialty Indian stores around the country. Currently, about half the company’s sales come from retail, with the other half coming from foodservice and industrial. Retail sales are split evenly between appetizers and desserts and sweets.

But last year marked something of a breakthrough at retail, when Himalaya Fresh secured distribution of its all-natural vegetarian samosa line in 85 Costco stores.

It took six years and upward of 60 samples to convince the Costco buyer to stock the appetizer line, but now the company is producing roughly 100,000 samosas per day, with plans to ramp up capacity in the next few months. “We’re barely making our requirements, but it has to be handmade,”​ Kakkar said.

IMG_0013
A pack of 100 samosas retails for $9.99 at Costco.

Samosas: the world’s favorite appetizer (outside the US)

The handmade, triangular-shaped stuffed pastry snack is filled with a savory blend of spiced potatoes, peas and coriander and fried till crisp. In a way, it’s a microcosm of Indian cuisine, Kakkar says: it’s handmade from fresh ingredients (even the spices are bought fresh and ground at the factory), aromatic and spicy but not hot.

“Samosa is probably the largest-selling appetizer in the world,”​ he said. “It’s pretty new to the US market, but all over Europe, India and Asia it’s very popular. Although it looks like a very simple product, the way the dough is made and the proportion of spices make it very unique—very aromatic and spicy but not hot, which is something a lot of people confuse.”

When they see our name, they’ll know what to expect

The company will launch a second SKU, paneer tikka (a frozen entree comprising fresh cheese marinated in spices and grilled in a tandoor), at Costco around Thanksgiving. It is also in talks with Sam’s Club and a few national and regional supermarket chains, and aims to add a few more big customers by the end of the year. Kakkar says he’s deliberately going after club chains and big-box stores in an effort to set the standard in prepared Indian cuisine for a mainstream audience.

“We’re trying to establish in the consumer mind a certain standard on the product, so when they see a product by particular name, they know what to expect. That’s why I’m getting in club stores and talking to big grocery stores like Ahold and Safeway.”

The big hurdle that remains, he says, is not in production but in marketing.

“I feel that the US consumer is looking for something new,” ​Kakkar said. “Indian cuisine could be the next big thing if it’s done right. I take upon myself the responsibility to do it right so the customer benefits from a good product and something new. I think the biggest associations in consumers’ mind when it comes to Indian food right now are ‘spicy’ and ‘curry’. Indian food is about so much more. That’s the impression that needs to change.”

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