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From a Deep-Fryer in a Garage to an Indian Food Empire
By JOAN NATHAN
Published: Wednesday, April 23, 2003
through the hand-carved marble arches in Arvind and Bhagwati Amin's home in Bernardsville, N.J., is like being transported to a palace in their native India. The Amins have a suite on the main floor. Their sons, Deepak, 36, and Archit, 37, and their families occupy separate wings of the house. Each day, everyone gathers to pray together in the family's Hindu temple.
The luxuries they enjoy have their roots in a humble food: Hot Mix, a spicy Indian trail mix of fried noodles made from chickpea flour and tossed with cashews, pistachios and spices. It was the first item produced by the family business, Deep Foods, which Arvind Amin, 61, laughingly calls ''the Frito-Lay, Häagen-Dazs and Stouffer's of Indian food.'' The company makes 65 snack foods, as well as ice cream and frozen entrees.
Over three decades, Deep Foods has been a barometer of change in the market for Indian food in America. When the Amins came to this country, few Indian products were available, so they made their own. Their company, with headquarters in Union, N.J., is the leading Indian packaged food manufacturer in the United States, according to authorities like Julie Sahni, the Indian cookbook author and teacher.
Mr. Amin left Gujarat in India in the 1960's to take a degree in finance at Xavier University in Cincinnati, and was then hired as an accountant by Western Electric in New Jersey. Mrs. Amin and their sons came over in 1971. At the time, about 90,000 Indians lived in the United States, a third of them in the New York metropolitan area.
Mrs. Amin, known to friends as a fine vegetarian cook, started deep-frying thin noodles in their garage. Those noodles, stirred with spiced nuts, became Hot Mix, a hit among their friends. As word spread, Mrs. Amin stuffed it into plastic bags and shipped it around the country by U.P.S. for sale. On weekends, Mr. Amin visited Indian stores and introduced it in person.
Store owners wanted a wider variety of products, so Mrs. Amin began making different snack mixes as well as importing chutneys, basmati rice, chickpea flour and spices. As the business grew, more family members came from India to help. In 1977, the Amins incorporated the business; they set up a 650-square-foot factory in Lyndhurst, N.J., and named it Deep Foods, after their younger son, Deepak, whose name means lamp. In 1981 Mr. Amin quit his job to work at Deep Foods full time.
''When I joined the company,'' he recalled, ''my wife said: 'You work for the company and manage the business affairs, but you cannot touch the ingredients. There will be no compromising on quality.' ''
In 1985 they bought a small ice cream company and a freezer truck. Now Deep Foods sells 14 flavors, including fig, pistachio, mango and cashew raisin. Ice cream led to frozen entrees, which coincided with a high-tech boom that drew many Indians into the work force but left them no time to cook.
Mrs. Amin was ready to fill the need. Joined by other Indian women, she started cooking the vegetarian dishes she knew so well, spicing them and freezing them in small portions. An automated system now doles out the precise amount of spice for a given dish, letting the company produce 20,000 meals a day.
''We created the frozen food industry for the Indian population,'' said Archit Amin, the company's director of marketing. ''It was an alternative for the younger generation and for housewives who worked. Indian food is hard to make.''
By 1991, the Indian population had increased to 400,000 in the New York area alone. The demand for Indian food surged as well. Soon, mainstream stores began stocking frozen Indian entrees like kafta curry, palak paneer and samosas, many bearing the Deep Foods label. Today, the company has several lines: Deep Foods Indian is strictly classical vegetarian, Arch Foods offers non-vegetarian Curry Classics and Green Guru features Indian, Thai and Asian vegetarian and vegan dinners.
As the business grew, the Amins' sons went to college, joining the company afterward. Although Mr. and Mrs. Amin had fallen in love and married against their parents' wishes, both sons opted for arranged marriages. In 1988 Arvind Amin went to India to meet young women who might make appropriate wives for his sons. Archit Amin fell in love with one of them from a photograph his father brought back. ''I knew I was going to marry her the first time we met,'' he said of his wife, the former Monal Surti. Even their wedding, in 1988, tied in to the family business: the couple taste-tested many Indian ice creams and discovered one made with an improved mango pulp, which became a principal ingredient at Deep Foods.
A few years later, Deepak Amin also had an arranged marriage. His wife, the former Dipali Mehta, learned cooking basics from her mother-in-law and went on to the New York Restaurant School. She graduated with highest honors, despite some culture shock. ''It was so hard,'' she said. ''I had never seen a lobster before and was a vegetarian.'' After graduation, Dipali Amin started testing recipes for the family and helped it expand into pan-Asian foods.
At home the family talks constantly about food and tests and tastes recipes. The modern kitchen, which feeds the household's six adults and five young children, has a six-burner Thermador stove and a built-in wok base. An electric tandoori oven is ready to make roti, the flat bread. The pantry is filled with imported ingredients, including at least 10 kinds of dal (lentils, peas and beans), essential to an Indian vegetarian diet, and spices, which the family grinds fresh.
Bhagwati Amin keeps an eye on her daughters-in-law as they cook and clean, which they do together constantly, at home and at work. ''I treat them like my daughters and leave everything to them,'' she said. ''Love and self-discipline are the keys.''
As the matriarch of both the family and the family business, Mrs. Amin may appear to be taking a back seat as her sons and daughters-in-law take the company into its fourth decade. But she is still the center. In the family kitchen, she says, when no else is around, she makes her traditional vegetarian dishes and serves them with ''a daily prayer to God before each meal.''
Frozen Food, Hot Market; Niche Firms and Giants Capitalize on Growing Taste for Ethnic Fare [FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Aug 17, 2003
Text Word Count:
A headline on Style's Aug. 15 article on art curator Kirk Varnedoe misspelled his first name. (Published 8/16/ 03)
Adecade ago, Indian immigrants Bhagwati Amin and Ranbir S. "Paul" Jaggi were owners of two mom-and-pop food operations.
Bhagwati and her husband, Arvind, were packaging her homemade Dhaba-style meals (slang for the traditional spicy food sold by street vendors in India) and delivering them from a small kitchen in suburban New Jersey to grocery stores in Indian neighborhoods in the Northeast.
Paul and his wife, Sangeeta, were freezing the palak paneer (spinach and cubes of cheese) and vegetable korma (a spicy mix of veggies) prepared for their Boston area Oh Calcutta restaurants and selling them as packaged dinners under the brand name Taj Gourmet at a local natural-food store.
Both couples were targeting their frozen dinners at palates attuned to curry and turmeric as well as bored vegetarians looking to add new flavors to their diet.
And in so doing, they became part of one of the fastest-growing segments of the frozen-food industry, the $2.2 billion "ethnic" market. The two family companies have capitalized on the country's increased exposure to international foods, growth in the number of working couples and cooking-impaired singles, and a health- conscious pendulum that has swung from low-fat foods to natural and organic fare.
Those factors have helped drive the Amins' Deep Foods Inc., the Jaggis' Ethnic Gourmet, and other niche frozen-food companies specializing in Mexican, Chinese and Thai cuisine to unexpected success.
Deep Foods has grown into a 70,000-square-foot Indian snack, ice cream and frozen-food powerhouse. The Union, N.J., company can make 20,000 frozen entrees a day in 70 varieties, said Arvind Amin, the company's president.
"My people is saying, 'How do you make so many different kinds?' " he said, dabbing his forehead as he strolled through the steaming- hot manufacturing plant as palak paneer simmered in large metal kettles. "None is losing money."
Paul Jaggi's Framingham, Mass., operation has grown at an even faster clip. Three years ago, he and his wife sold their brand to giant food producer H.J. Heinz for an undisclosed amount. Paul, now general manager of Heinz's ethnic-food division, is planning to add Cuban and Vietnamese dinners to Ethnic Gourmet's established Indian, Thai and Chinese lines.
"People are getting bored with the same baked-potato-and- hamburger stuff," said Paul, who moved to Framingham from New Delhi in 1987.
Frozen-food sales confirm his assertion. Consumers are buying more chicken tikka masala, lasagna, cheese enchiladas, and sweet and sour chicken even as they take home fewer old standbys.
In 2001, sales for traditional "TV dinners" dropped 1.6 percent, to $1.17 billion, and pot-pie sales fell 3.4 percent, to $318 million, according to the most recent figures available from research firm ACNielsen.
During the same period, the frozen ethnic-food sector grew in double digits. Sales of Mexican entrees grew 20.6 percent, to $488 million. Figures for Asian entrees, which include Indian fare, climbed 12.3 percent, to $463 million. And sales of Italian food -- pizza, spaghetti and other pastas that most Americans consider their own -- increased 10 percent, to $1.28 billion.
"It's not 'Leave It to Beaver' America anymore," said Christopher Loretto, publisher of industry trade magazine Frozen Food Age. "The taste profile and flavor preferences are expanding."
In the food industry, "ethnic" is hot. A survey administered by Supermarket News last year found that 1 in 5 Americans is eating more ethnic food than two years ago. Food companies, investment firms and brokerage companies all appear to be reading the same reports. Food companies' research-and-development staffs are also following consumers' restaurant tastes. Ubiquitous Mexican and Chinese restaurants and, to a lesser extent, Japanese, Thai and Indian places have piqued their interest.
So it was changing tastes and, more important, the sales figures of the small niche firms that, perhaps predictably, captured the attention of Heinz and other big players.
The fastest-growing markets in the frozen-food sector are Mexican and Asian, according to the American Frozen Food Institute. Which is why, when the Pittsburgh-based ketchup king bought the Jaggis' Ethnic Gourmet, it also purchased Mexican frozen-food company Delimex from a private investment firm.
"We have proprietary research that shows the likelihood of a consumer tasting ethnic cuisine is rising," said Heinz spokesman Robin Teets.
Heinz has company. The Shansby Group, a San Francisco investment firm, bought Don Miguel Mexican Foods from the descendants of its founder, Alex Morales, for an undisclosed amount last November. The company makes El Charrito-brand Mexican entrees and Don Miguel burritos and chimichangas.
Big chain supermarkets may have noticed the changing customer and his shifting palate even before the big food firms, creating "international" sections in their frozen-food aisles. Smaller specialty grocers -- Whole Foods and Trader Joe's among them -- have been even more agile, often featuring much wider selections and dealing with small producers.
Frozen foods require expensive freezer cases, a substantial investment for supermarkets, which typically have low profit margins, said Loretto, the Frozen Food Age publisher. But the frozen- food aisles are the only consistently profitable area in most stores. To ensure their success, mainstream grocery stores charge manufacturers hefty placement fees -- sometimes $200,000 or more -- for the right to have their dinners in the grocer's freezer, the food manufacturers said.
For their part, the manufacturers carefully consider the potential of their products' success before agreeing to pay the fees.
Guy Lewis, owner of VIP Sales Co., primarily a frozen-fruit-and- vegetable company, took such a risk in 1996 and launched Tai Pei, a Chinese food line packaged in Chinese carryout containers. Since the company started selling sweet and sour chicken seven years ago, Lewis has continually expanded the line. This year he added cashew chicken and pepper beef.
"It can be pretty costly," Lewis said from his Tulsa office. "You don't want to have very many failures or you'll be out of business."
The risk is mitigated by the relatively high profit margins for the products. Prepared in bulk at a modest cost, they are sold for as much as $4 and $5 per dinner. The food companies -- all of which are privately held or subsidiaries of larger companies -- would not discuss their sales or income figures.
The ethnic frozen-food market appears to be poised for more growth, industry insiders said. Even Goya Foods Inc., which has traditionally marketed itself as a supplier of authentic rice and beans to the Latino community, has seen growth in the frozen-foods entrees segment, company spokesman Rafael Toro said.
"People just don't have the time anymore," Toro said.
The same need for speed helped propel the Indian frozen-food market, said Archit Amin, Bhagwati and Arvind's son and marketing and sales manager for Deep Foods. His wife, brother and sister-in- law are also company executives.
The company's growth was spurred in the 1990s by the increased number of single Indian men coming to the United States on H-1B temporary work visas granted to foreign professionals hired by tech companies, he said. In that decade, the Indian population in the United States more than doubled to 1.9 million, according to the 2000 census.
"There were bachelors coming over from India" who didn't know how to cook, Amin said. "Frozen food is convenient and not expensive. The next best to fresh is really frozen."
Food science backs him up. Entrees can be flash-frozen in minutes, with their original texture preserved and spoilage retarded.
The back of the Deep Foods chicken curry box -- sold under the brand name Curry Classics -- reads like a homemade recipe: chicken, onions, tomatoes, water, canola oil, spices, garlic, sea salt, coriander leaves, turmeric and green peppers.
"We make it just like Mom in the kitchen," Bhagwati Amin said. "Whatever she put in, we put in."
Indian food companies are helped by the existence of an audience for Indian vegetarian dishes that goes beyond emigres. Deep Foods recently developed the Green Guru label for the mainstream vegetarian and vegan market.
To Arvind Amin, this doesn't mean watering down authenticity. "The Indian consumer, since he or she was born, comes with a special palate and has cravings of a different variety every day," he said, laughing. "It is our responsibility to provide for our patrons. . . . No need to misguide the mainstream consumer and satisfy their taste 100 percent at the cost of our cultural consumer."
The company's spicy Mirch Masala line is targeted at the Indian community. It hits smack dab at the second generation who want mom's cooking but without the hassle.
"Their earnings are higher. They are busier," Loretto said. "It's one more aspect [of American life] they are willing to try."
By contrast, Ethnic Gourmet, called Taj Gourmet until 1996, when it added Thai and Japanese offerings, tempers the spice in its dishes to appeal to a wider frozen-food audience, Jaggi said. Similarly, Don Miguel targets its Mexican food at Americans on the run who'll stop at a gas station and pick up a burrito, not traditional Mexicans who relish the taste of homemade tortillas.
The preparation and packaging is at once simple and intricate, as Arvind and Bhagwati, who both came from India's Gujarat state more than three decades ago, show, walking through the plant.
Four workers chop onions and bell peppers for pad thai, the company's only non-Indian dish. In the next room, veggies for other dishes boil in three large kettles. A man mixes spices into the pad thai rice noodles using a pitchfork. Another worker stirs gallons of palak paneer in a big tub as he prepares to put it into the $4 million packaging machine the Amins bought eight months ago. The machine squirts palak paneer into 10-ounce plastic containers, four at a time, sifting out dinners that are underweight. The conveyor belt pushes them into a flash freezer. Forty-five minutes later, the packages come out frozen solid. The machine seals the containers airtight with plastic, boxes them and applies a bright-red sticker to the outside -- $1.99.
Bhagwati eyes a bucket of spinach-rich palak paneer with pride as it is readied for the machine. It is the company's top seller.
"You have to go by the eyes and the recipe," said Bhagwati, a traditional Indian wife who is still passionate about cooking nearly three decades after starting Deep Foods. "There's nothing [technological about] my palak paneer."
Passing yellow buckets filled with yellow-brown curry powder, deep-red chili powder and bright-yellow turmeric, Arvind said the company is planning a grand expansion. The family is building executive offices, a permanent place for its regular U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector and doubling its manufacturing space.
The Amins have turned down investment firms interested in buying them out. "We are having too much fun," said Arvind, who is in charge of business strategy.
They are at another turn in the company's history, said his son Archit, who represents the company at New York's annual Fancy Food show.
"This year is the first time I really felt that no introduction was necessary," he said. "People know curry. It's sought after now. America has another food line."
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Copyright 2010 Deep Foods, Inc.