If you’ve eaten a ready-made samosa in North America, the chances are fairly good that it was one of Anis and Noorudin Jiwani’s samosas.
The Jiwanis are the founders of Edmonton-based Aliya’s Foods Ltd., named for their youngest daughter, a business they launched 21 years ago in a modest 3,000-square-foot facility. Today, Aliya’s Chef Bombay brand is sold in most major grocery outlets in North America and the company just moved into a 100,000-square-foot facility.
They make about 100 million samosas a year, along with another dozen Indian staples like butter chicken and pakoras.”
Samosas were our first item, our entry into the market. What french fries are to McCain, samosas are to us,” says Mr. Jiwani. “And by the way, we do supply samosas to McCain.”
Aliya’s products are sold in retail packaging, club packaging and as white-label products for supermarket brands.
In Canada, they sell at Loblaws, Sobeys-Safeway, Walmart, M&M Meats and Federated Calgary Co-ops. In the U.S., which represents 85 per cent of their business, they sell through Trader Joe’s, Albertsons, H-E-B, Aldi, Walmart and Kroger.
North America-wide sales growth put Aliya’s Foods in the 315th spot on The Globe and Mail’s Top Growing Companies list for 2021 with three-year revenue growth of 101 per cent.
It all began with what Mr. Jiwani describes as a “mid-life crisis.”
They were living in Toronto. Both had good jobs, he at an actuarial consulting firm, she as a dietician consultant. During a long drive from Toronto to Vancouver, they chatted about what they would do if they were to start a business.
The idea took hold and when they returned, Mr. Jiwani wrote to the governments of Alberta, B.C. and Ontario to ask about agri-food business development opportunities. Only Alberta responded.
”We said ‘Okay, let’s move to Edmonton and see what we can do,’ " he says. “We just left our jobs. We said: ‘Let’s take a year and try it.’ “
With daughters in Grade 4 and Grade 5, they made the trek west. With support from Alberta’s Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc, where Ms. Jiwani developed recipes for mass production, and the province’s Agriculture Financial Services Corp., they turned Ms. Jiwani’s family recipes from a relatively unknown nosh into a North American staple.
Annual revenues are about $50-million. The company has grown from five employees to248. It has outgrown five plants and moved this summer to the 100,000-square-foot facility they own that Mr. Jiwani says should provide plenty of space for future growth.
Scaling production to the rapid growth of the company has been one of the challenges, he says.
Mr. Jiwani jokes that he’s lost his hair along the way but one thing the Jiwanis have not lost are their roots. Both immigrated to Canada, Mr. Jiwani with his family as a child from Kenya and Ms. Jiwani as a refugee from Uganda.
The staff at Aliya’s Foods includes a mosaic of Canadian society, he is proud to say.
”We will never question anybody if they’ve had Canadian experience, because my father went through that a lot when he migrated to Canada. The first question people would ask is, ‘What Canadian experience do you have?” he says. “So, one belief that we put into this business was nobody’s ever going to be asked, ‘Where do you come from?’
“Mr. Jiwani credits his staff – and his wife’s delicious recipes – for the company’s success.
Of the five people on staff when they launched the company in December, 1999, two have retired and three are now in senior management positions. Their accountant once worked in the shipping and receiving warehouse.
“Today somebody who was operating a machine does the purchasing of [goods worth] $18-million to $20-million a year,” he says. “We’ve seen people grow from within. That’s been our strength: the people behind the office walls.”
The Jiwanis have arranged English classes in the boardroom when a handful of employees were interested. Staff reflects various waves of migration, and today has a large contingent of Afghan migrants.
About 20 of his former staff now run their own businesses, he says with pride.
”This gave them a foundation. They got their houses, they got their children into school, and then they went into their own businesses,” he says. “To me, there’s pride in seeing them be that successful. It’s not always about money.”
While Mr. Jiwani does not intend to retire fully any time soon, he is pleased the next generation is taking the reins of the company he and his wife built. The Jiwani’s daughters and nephew have now joined the business.
Their new manufacturing facility was built for expansion and when travelling is safe again Mr. Jiwani plans to visit Europe, a potentially lucrative market for Chef Bombay. He still oversees finances, and his wife still oversees research and development, but the next generation has largely taken over day-to-day operations, he says.
”This expansion was the thought process of creating more capacity so that we could grow into more clients,” he says. “The new generation that is now taking over has obviously more enthusiasm, more fire in their belly to now see where to go next.”
In this series, we ask some of Canada’s Top Growing companies to share advice on finding new and innovative routes to success in an unpredictable business environment.