Four years later, Spicemode is on the cusp of reaching 100 stores (half of them Whole Foods) and has doubled year-over-year sales. Singh is aiming for 1,000 stores and an eventual foray into foodservice, while maintaining the handcrafted quality of a truly small-batch manufacturer.
The choice to do Indian-inspired sauces was no accident, Singh told FoodNavigator-USA, noting that the category is severely lacking high-quality, US-made options for a cuisine that’s inherently healthful and spice-driven.
“There’s artisanal sauces, jams and soy sauce, but there isn’t really artisanal Indian sauce,” Singh said. “Most of the food in the Indian aisles is not made in the US. It’s also very inexpensive, full of filler ingredients like coconut milk and tomato puree, and really not all that healthy.”
Not only that, but Indian cuisine is often seen as complex and difficult for a lot of home cooks to replicate (and has thus lagged in mainstream appeal), with involved recipes featuring long lists of ingredients that can be hard to find.
“I like that I can take a recipe that might be 26 lines and condense it to three with this little jar,” he said. “That makes it more approachable and fun. And it gives the home cook the tools to create far more than curries. Spicemode is just a starting point.”
‘I can condense a 26-line recipe to three’
Like many small food manufacturers, Singh began in a friend’s kitchen, testing how to scale and package the same sauces he’d used to braise pork and brisket for the curry rolls he served on his food truck.
He launched the three sauces at a handful of independent Chicago grocers in 2012: mild North Indian-style Masala, spicy Goan-style Vindaloo and Southern Indian curry-style Madras—each concentrated enough that just a spoonful will give home cooks a good base for sauces, soups and stir fries. They’re gluten-free, vegan and free of preservatives and fillers.
He followed with hand-mixed spice blends in 2014. Vindaloo Fire with cumin, peppercorn and chili flake; Masala Herb with garlic, lemon zest and spearmint; and Tandoori Smoke with coriander, paprika and cardamom—contain deliberately coarsely ground herbs and spices to showcase their texture.
A true east-meets-west mashup
Singh gave the products “Indian buzzword”-type names to foster familiarity. But owing to his multicultural heritage—he was raised in Chicago to Burmese immigrant parents—the sauces and spices are similarly hybridized, with influences from China, Southeast Asia and the U.S.
“My parents were born and raised in Myanmar, so we grew up with a lot of different Southeast Asian flavors in our household,” he said. “But being in 1970s US, my mom also cooked spaghetti, lasagna and tacos. That’s why my sauces are a little different. I don’t just use typical Indian ingredients—I use California and Mexican chilies—and certain flavors borrow from barbecue tradition. It’d a true east-meets-west mashup.”
Some would say I’m watching money evaporate
Since 2013, he’s been working with a copacker in Southern Illinois—one of few that lets manufacturers bring in whole ingredients and still cuts and packs the product by hand. And every run starts the same, with Singh caramelizing a thousand pounds of machine-sliced onions down to about 300 with ginger and garlic—a process that takes some three hours. But that—along with the daylong drive each way—is worth it because it enables Singh to maintain control over the process, he said.
“Most brands don’t do that because it’s just money evaporating,” he said with a laugh. “But I just wanted to make the best product possible.”
Last month, he completed his largest run to date, roughly doubling production—six batches (two of each flavor), with each batch yielding 1,000 pounds, which translates to 1,200 jars. Spicemode is now in 15 Chicagoland and 23 Northern California locations of Whole Foods Market, along with specialty stores throughout Chicago, Minnesota, California, Oregon and Washington. The lines are also sold on curated artisanal product sites including Mouth Foods, Artizone, Door to Door Organics and Peapod.
But the brand has yet to reach profitability, as Singh has remained focused on production and keeping the business streamlined as opposed to aggressive selling. (A former art director, he also does all the brand’s web and logo design.)
“My sweat equity was really high in the beginning, but that allowed me to keep more money to focus on production, so I didn’t have to raise a ton of cash or have a ton of growth early to get to this point,” he said.
He has yet to embark on an institutional capital raise or crowdfunding campaign. But he is actively seeking sales and marketing staff with a goal of ultimately reaching 1,000 stores—and profitability.
“It’d be nice to finally pay myself,” he said with a laugh.
The importance of show and tell
Giving consumers the confidence and inspiration to cook with Spicemode requires a hands-on approach. That’s why demos are a crucial piece of growing the brand. It wasn’t uncommon for Singh to do five or more a week at various retailers and events (recently via foodie publications Saveur and TastingTable.com), though he’s since hired part-time help.
He also frequently posts recipes and cooking suggestions (“sautéing with Spicemode” or “using a mortar and pestle”) on Instagram and the company website—and celebrates his followers’ use of the product with re-posts. Using hashtags like #paleo has also helped his spices gain a following among the Paleo community, whose members cook a lot to control what they eat.
In stores, the product is situated in the decidedly lower-traffic international aisle, “where people tend shop by specific dishes,” Singh said. It’s also higher priced—retailing for $9.99 when most comparable products retail at $4.
Because he hasn’t assertively sold the product, “it says to me that our buyers really carry us.” He’s also made his product stand out in other ways, such as opting for brightly colored, contemporary labels—“no ‘So-and-So’s Kitchen’ on there” and a smaller-sized, nine-ounce jar.
“Every other jar is 16 ounces, so I knew that they were going to double-stack my jar next to all the others,” he said.
The lure of foodservice
Singh aims to cap his product line at 10, noting that he’d rather take the flavors into different verticals, such as institutional foodservice, delis, restaurants and cafeterias.
“To give chefs that initial shortcut would give them a lot of freedom to be creative,” he said.
Of course that means Singh will have to tackle a different kind of scaling—this time into five-gallon containers. But for now, he’s focused on growing the brand at retail.
“What I like about this business is you open a restaurant and touch maybe 20 square miles, but you start a brand and you can touch coast to coast,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much work it’d be to get the product off the shelf, but it’s cool to reach so many people.”