Hemant Bhagwani and Derek Valleau never intended to stop at one restaurant.
The business partners, former sommeliers who played various roles at different establishments, opened upscale Indian restaurant Amaya in Toronto in 2007. They soon opened a nearby takeout version, and today, they have two Amaya restaurants and five takeout locations, with plans to open three more takeout spots this year.
Their most recent launch is a line of bottled sauces, which made their debut on grocery-store shelves this spring. The four sauces – butter chicken, coconut curry, spicy Indian ketchup, and mango and mint chutney - can be found in about 125 stores, both independent and chain, in six provinces, from B.C. to Quebec.
Here, they talk about why – and how - they served up the taste of Amaya, not only in their restaurants but in people’s homes too.
Question: When you opened the restaurant in 2007, part of your long-term plan, even then, was to have a line of grocery-store products. Why did you want to go in that direction?
Hemant Bhagwani: Derek and I had flown to India before we opened the restaurant and we stopped in England for a couple of days. When we went through Marks & Spencer, we were just blown away by how Indian food on shelves is doing. We came back and saw what was happening in the Canadian market and felt there was huge potential.
Derek Valleau: Another thing we noticed, in London, was that a lot of high-end restaurants market themselves in grocery stores and that hasn’t happened in this country yet. They recognize demand for their product and diversify themselves and that’s also behind what we’re doing with our sauces. We’re a small restaurant chain in Toronto and this will give people outside of this area the Amaya experience at home.
Question: How did you go about researching what products you would launch with?
Mr. Bhagwani: We started Amaya Express (a takeout location) a few months after we opened the restaurant. And we thought, ‘Ok, we’ll put some shelves and fridges in here and it won’t be just a takeout and delivery place, it could also be a sort of Indian grocery store.’ We started promoting our prepared meals and sauces there. We were selling them in plastic containers and seeing what the response was. And we did get feedback that helped us launch this line.
Question: How did you choose a distributor?
Mr. Bhagwani: We have chosen the best partners in our sauce distribution - Neal Brothers Foods are representing us in Ontario and Quebec, and Left Coast Naturals on the west coast (Manitoba to B.C.). With their existing relationships with many grocery stores, we believe we will be able to get into many stores. It will take time but we are convinced with our quality and pricing that we will be in every grocery store.
Mr. Valleau: We needed distributors who could really get behind our product and hand sell it to their clients. We don’t just want it to be another product on a shelf. We want the salespeople in the store to be as passionate about it as our chef at Amaya. With a family-run operation, they have relationships built with these stores for the past 20 years. So it’s more of a friendship as opposed to just business.
Question: What about finding a manufacturer?
Mr. Valleau: Again, sourcing was not that easy. We went back and forth with our ideas with choosing the right producer. We wanted somebody who had values and integrity similar to us and understood choosing the top ingredients. Somebody who was also convinced that Indian sauces would do well in this market. The person making your product or selling your product should have similar values because these guys are representing you too.
Question: Why do you believe yours is the best Indian food product in Canadian grocery stores today?
Mr. Bhagwani: Using the best quality and all natural ingredients in our sauces is very important to us and the pricing we have suggested ($5 to $5.99) is lower than any other Indian sauces imported or made locally.
Question: What proved to be challenging in this process?
Mr. Bhagwani: The bottle. Initially we had chosen salsa jars – (which we thought were) bigger and better. We designed the labels and basically almost finished the process with salsa jars. And then we understood that the price per jar would go up. It would take more real estate on the shelf, which grocery stores hate, and shipping would be expensive. So we decided to go with a taller and slimmer bottle.
Mr. Valleau: The recipe process was a big eye opener. Cooking in a small pot in the restaurant and moving to mass production changes the recipe quite a bit. It took longer than we anticipated but we didn’t want to release a product that didn’t represent the Amaya experience. The sauces we have are incredibly similar in terms of quality and taste. That took a lot of going back and forth. Hemant and myself and the chef literally stood in the plant and adjusted the amount of spices going into the vat. The company we were working with was very patient and they were also on same page that they wanted to see a superior product.
Question: How do you plan to market the line?
Mr. Bhagwani: Initially, we just want to roll them out in the stores and learn from the feedback. We will have in-store discounts, coupons, demos. We were just in Vancouver at a trade show where we had samples for people in trade and we did demos out there. Once we’ve spent some time in the market and have resolved all our teething issues, we will then move with our marketing plan. The idea is to really go out and advertise with the media.
Question: Why did you feel the need to diversify?
Mr. Bhagwani: Most restaurants have a life span, like any other business. Unless you keep changing it, and we do change menus and décor to keep it fresh. We knew Amaya would have more outlets but we wanted a product line because we wanted to make sure Amaya stays on top. And in this economy, it’s better to diversify. A 46-seat restaurant will only achieve to a certain point. We want something more.
Question: Are you laying the groundwork with this product line to make Amaya a national restaurant chain?
Mr. Bhagwani: That is the way to go. Right now all the stores are corporate. I think we are looking into a potential franchising formula but want to make sure first that if we get into that it’s done right. If it happens, we have to have the same values. We are looking at taking Amaya national because we feel nobody’s done it with Indian food. They’ve done it with Italian, Mexican, Chinese. But no one has touched Indian, so there is huge potential in doing it right.