2011 AIMES Award WINNER Spice ‘N Easy - Best Start-up Business 2011 AWARD
Proving that Passion is the spice of business
The Business Channel’s Aidan Bennett talks to Sanjay and
Vibha Soni of award winning North Shore business, Spice n Easy.
Probably the most enjoyable aspect of profiling award-winning businesses is that the owners, or leaders, are always passionate. Yes, being clever and doing the right things are very important. But my belief is that it’s the passion that sets them apart. They invariably love what they do.
That’s what makes the Spice n Easy story such a neat one. The husband and wife team behind the business are hugely passionate about their offering. For the purpose of this article, I spent an hour with them in their Mokaia Road, Birkenhead base and the two of them were bubbling with excitement about their business for the entire time. They recently won the Benefitz Best Start-Up Award at the 2011 Westpac Auckland North Business Awards.
Sanjay and Vibha Soni came to New Zealand a little over a decade ago, from their native India. The city of Mumbai to be precise. New Zealand offered a new life for the two of them and their young family - son, Swayam and daughter Niyati. They settled on the North Shore, but struggled to find suitable jobs in the IT industry like they had in Mumbai. Their frustration is what led to them starting Spice n Easy.
“One thing we noticed after we had been in New Zealand for a short time, was there was not many places actually selling good spices,” says Vibha Soni. “We saw this gap in the market, particularly around the Birkenhead area, so we decided to open a store. While we didn’t know that much about spices at the time, Sanjay did know about business, so we decided to give it a shot.”
The Sonis had no retail experience, but found a suitable store in Mokaia Road and opened for business in 2001. At first they stocked spices, herbs and cooking products from their native India, the Mediterranean, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Sanjay gave up his job to work full time in the store, while Vibha kept her full time job elsewhere and worked in the store after hours and on weekends. The popularity of the store grew and provided an excellent opportunity to find out what their customers wanted.
“For the first few years we sold the spices from bulk bins, with customers taking them loose in small plastic bags,” explains Sanjay Soni. “Many of the customers showed real interest in learning more about cooking with the spices, so we came up with the idea of running cooking classes. Vibha ran them at the Highbury Community Centre and they became very popular. We had students, chefs, housewives – people from many walks of life – come along. Eventually the cooking classes grew to be three nights a week and involved over 100 people. So Vibha left her job and we realised that this really was an opportunity to establish a serious business.”
Sanjay and Vibha Soni are two pretty smart people. What they had established was a significant customer base that became their very own market research group. They would provide feedback on the products by using them both at home and in the Highbury cooking classes. This became the testing ground for Spice n Easy. They would provide all the ingredients and the classes were very hands-on. The eight-week courses involved cooking both main meals and side dishes.
“We eventually came up with the idea of packaging the spices in a step-by-step kit to make the cooking process very easy and convenient,” adds Sanjay. “Taking the guesswork out of making great Indian food. The emphasis was on taste, ease of recipe, time and it was important that it could be made from scratch with the freshest ingredients. Around this time I went to India to source the product, which we packaged initially in tubs, like butter. We were continually testing these new products with our customers. While the spices proved to be very popular – the tubs were too bulky – so we found a sachet supplier in New Zealand, which was much better. This was a significant breakthrough in our overall product development.”
The most popular dishes in the cooking classes were made into packs and the Spice n Easy recipe kit concept was ready to be launched on a
Sanjay and Vibha enthusiastically approached the supermarket chains to stock their exciting new product. But the big players at first said no. A knock back that would have put many off – but not the Sonis. They looked for other avenues and decided to approach outlets that sold the fresh ingredients that went hand-in-hand with Spice n Easy – Butchers and specialty shops. The breakthrough came when The Aussie Butcher chain said yes.
“The knockback from the supermarkets meant that we just had to take a different route,” says Vibha. “We were thrilled when The Aussie Butcher and a few others said yes, so we put all our efforts into supporting the product in their shops. We did tastings and cooking demonstrations, which was really important when educating customers about this completely new concept. It was very rewarding to see this product we had conceived, become so popular. The customers loved it.”
A massive part of the Spice n Easy product is how healthy it is. The range contains no preservatives and is 90% gluten free and Sanjay says it has been developed based on a simple principle that they set from the start. – “What we put into our product is what we would feed our own family. There are so many products on sale that give no idea what the ingredients are. In our products it is up to you how much salt etc. you add, and there are no artificial colourings.”
There are now 37 different products in the Spice n Easy range. 40% are curries (meat, seafood, vegetarian), 20% marinades, 20% rice and lentil packs and 20% snacks and starters. A new Spice n Easy ‘Slow Cooker Range’ was also being launched as this magazine went to press.
It must be hugely satisfying for Sanjay and Vibha Soni that all the supermarkets are now firmly on board. In fact the product – which is still packaged from their Birkenhead base – is now available through 450 outlets throughout the country. Their sales growth in the past 12 months has been a staggering 340%. They are also on their way to exporting products to Australia and are keen to go into Canada and the United States as well. No similar products are available in these markets.
All the packaging design and marketing to date, has been done by Sanjay and Vibha. With his IT background, Sanjay is very proficient with computer graphics, so he is able to create virtually everything they need and Vibha has a flair for design, so she also has a significant input into the look and feel of the brand. For the past three years they have invested in National television advertising as well to support their growing brand.
They were advised early on to engage a third party for their sales and merchandising and have been thrilled with the company they teamed up with, Alliance Marketing.
“Alliance have an excellent online system which provides great reporting so we know what our sales, stock levels and trends are, on a daily basis,” says Vibha.
The product being available at an affordable price has also been a key ingredient in the Spice n Easy success story. They have kept it around the $3.00 to $4.00 mark, for a meal for up to three or four people.
So what key lessons have the Sonis learnt along the way?
“At times we have really struggled from a cash-flow point of view, due to our rapid growth and the tightness of the economy,” says Sanjay. “But we have had some great support from the National Bank. We started out with David Barrett at our local Birkenhead branch, who was also president of the local business association. As our needs have changed, he introduced us to Keith Lupton at Takapuna and they have really understood our vision. We can’t speak highly enough of them. We have learnt that having a good bank is very important, as is having a good accountant. Our accountant Vijay Talekar has provided us with great assistance.”
“We are also indebted to the local Birkenhead community who have embraced what we are doing. We have six outlets stocking our range in Birkenhead and the locals have really encouraged us. Being able to utilise the Highbury Community Centre for the cooking classes provided us with a great start.”
An early attendee at their cooking classes was lawyer Genevieve Gill, from GenLaw in Herne Bay. Genevieve has played a big role in helping them protect and trademark their brand and she was also instrumental in helping them overcome a legal issue, relating to someone else using the same name.
“We learnt the hard way that IP (intellectual property) is a pretty grey area and you need the experts working for you,” adds Sanjay. “Genevieve has done a great job for us and it helped considerably that she also loved cooking with our products.”
“We wouldn’t have got where we have without the support of Ngaio (Merrick) and her team at Enterprise North Shore, now ATEED. We initially went to them for a grant to assist us with exporting. While we didn’t get what we wanted, they loved our story and have provided us with massive encouragement and advice. We have had some excellent guidance from Laurie Conder and they encouraged us to enter the Westpac Auckland North Business Awards, which we are thrilled to have won in different categories, for the past two years. The whole process has been very rewarding and has played a part in our success.”
Ultimately though, it is their passion for what they do – providing an easy platform for people to make great Indian food – that has made Sanjay and Vibha Soni and their business Spice n Easy so successful. Passion – it’s the spice of business life.