By Jagmeeta Thind Joy Hindustan Times, New Delhi
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Since 1990, Geeti Bakshi, managing director of Astra Agro Foods has been dishing out a delectable line-up of pickles, chutneys, sauces and jams under her brand 'Spicy Treat', all made from recipes passed on to her from her mother and grandmother.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
What would an Indian thali be, if it wasn't accompanied by a serving of achaar (pickle)? Of all the gourmet food combinations in the world, nothing can quite compare to the pairing of piping hot paranthas (aloo would be a unanimous choice) with perfectly done, homemade pickle (mango would win hands down). The power of a pickle is most felt when a tiffin opens, either in a crowded room or an airplane. Open a jar of pickle and you end up opening a jar of memories.
For Geeti Bakshi, managing director of Astra Agro Foods Private Limited, an ISO 22000-2005 certified processed food company based in Mohali, the best recipes for pickles come from mothers and grandmothers. She can vouch for it.
Since 1990, Bakshi has been dishing out a delectable line-up of pickles, chutneys, sauces and jams under her brand 'Spicy Treat', all made from recipes passed on to her from her mother and grandmother.
With over 20 products on the shelves, the brand has over the years established itself in north India and in overseas markets through indirect exports.
The beginning "It didn't start off as a business venture initially," informs Geeti as we meet up with her and business director and husband, Jaspreet Bakshi at their factory located in Phase 2 of Industrial Area in Mohali. With treasured recipes in hand, Geeti began pickling as a hobby and on request of friends and family.
In the years that they have been making pickles, Geeti believes it's the consistent quality of product that has been the key to success.
"I started with pickles and would make in bulk to be distributed among friends," reminisces Geeti. With everyone wanting more, Geeti began bottling more special concoctions and exhibiting at Diwali melas. "The CII Diwali fair was where the product was well accepted and soon orders starting pouring in," says Geeti who worked out of her home in Sector 8, Chandigarh for a few years. When the volume increased, her father-in-law Lt Col TS Bakshi (retd) asked her to approach the business in a more professional way. "We wanted to maintain hygiene standards and quality," she says. They moved to Mohali -- first in a rented space and then their own factory. "We set up the factory in 1997 and got rolling with bulk orders," chips in Jaspreet Bakshi.
Women at the forefront The factory in Mohali is not hard to miss with wafting aromas of pickle and spices coming through. The neat and simple surroundings lead the way to the manufacturing unit that houses a laboratory, all under one roof.
As you look around you notice women togged in aprons dominate the workforce here. "When I started I began to employ women from the neighbouring areas who were keen to earn a livelihood," says Geeti who introduces us to staff members who have been a part of the company since the beginning. "Spicy Treat has always been a women oriented enterprise and supports women both financially and emotionally. Our rural and semi urban women are given skilled training in the field of food hygiene, food processing and food safety that provides them with an array of employment opportunities," informs Jaspreet.
The process of creation "We are a small unit that prides itself for the home style flavours and quality," points out Geeti. The raw material is either sourced locally or procured from other states. "Since pickles involve preservation, we have our own special way to do it hygienically," she informs as we see rows of 'bestsellers' like 'Mango Punjabi' and 'Mango Garlic' pickle being packed along with the season's special -- 'Gajar Gobi Shalgam'. The key to a good pickle, as she asserts, is good quality ingredients and the right ratio of oil. "I have a lot of Rajasthani influence in my recipes as I have lived there. I have also experimented with my recipes," says Geeti who also offers chutneys, sauces and jams with a home-style flavour. "Everything is made by hand and the bottling too. For the more strenuous labour, we have men helping us," says Geeti as we notice the well-demarcated production areas and impeccable hygiene levels.
The challenges Being a home-grown brand comes with its share of challenges. "For us, competition is both with the local pickle seller who offers low price points to the multinational brands who are able to dominate shelf space across cities," feels Jaspeet who looks after the distribution and marketing. With tight budgets, spending large amount on marketing, they tell us is not an option. "We have been lucky as our quality has been our biggest USP and marketing has been through word of mouth," admits Geeti. They are always on the look-out for fake local products that tend to copy brand name or logo.
The success mantra In the years that they have been making pickles, Geeti believes it's the consistent quality of product that has been the key to success. "It's very easy to cut corners but it takes a lot to offer the best to the customer. We pride ourselves for the quality control," she says adding how they keep a check on customer feedback personally. "Our biggest compliment is when customers write in to say that the taste hasn't changed over the years," Geeti smiles to say. Incidentally, the quality control is ensured through a fully equipped modern laboratory housed in the factory which is managed by certified food technologists.
Looking ahead While the brand's USP has been to offer home-style flavours in pickles and chutneys, Geeti is keen to add some new variants. "Even though our home-style recipes have been more popular, I am keen to add some gourmet options. These days since everyone is looking for new flavours and healthy recipes, I would be introducing pickles in olive oil. I have experimented with recipes for jams as well but will launch when I am fully satisfied with the product," says Geeti as she adds, "We want to grow our business with the same honesty and integrity that we use to craft our products."