This Coho Q&A feature is on the Indian Pantry, a catering company that specializes in Indian cuisine, offering a vast line of spices and sauces such as Garam Masala, Chai Masala, Bengali five spices, as well as Makhani and Goan Vindaloo sauces. They're dedicated to bring the most sophisticated flavours from the Indian subcontinent.
In this interview, we spoke to culinary director and founder Chef Tushar Tondvalkar who's passionate about bringing authentic, regional Indian cuisine to Canada.
Coho: What's the origin story of the Indian Pantry? It seems that you're also running a number of different businesses - could you tell us about them?
Tushar: I was working in restaurants for almost a decade, and after a while, I wanted to do things on my own. I didn’t have the money to open up my own restaurant, and so I started doing private dining at first and I launched right before the pandemic, in January 2020. For catering businesses, January and February are usually slow, but I watched as things started to literally shut down in the food industry following those months.
I was thinking, what should I do with my company? I decided to just go ahead and launch. I was brainstorming and thought: “maybe I should launch a retail product, get it into some stores, and keep my business afloat.” So with Indian Pantry, we launched nine products of spices and simmering sauces, and they’re prepared in small batches.
I was doing some R&D on how to launch, and there were already so many small businesses at Coho with a retail lineup so I started talking to them.
Coho: How did you get the idea to do a retail line up for Indian Pantry?
I was seeing a lot of what other people were doing, and I realized I could do a regional line up for Indian products. So I started asking a bunch of questions to Asha from Kula Kitchen and Jordan from Sriracha Revolver, and they were both already selling their products in multiple stores.
And then Coho introduced us to SPUD, and there were some product managers from Choices as well, that gave us a one-hour online workshop called “How to Scale Your Business” and “How To Make Your Business Retail Ready.”
I got a lot of information from there, and did my own research, then I launched my retail line up in May or June. I was moving fast because I had to. If I didn’t, my company would have had to shut down or I would have had to find a job in a restaurant. And I didn’t want to do that.
At the same time, we had the ghost kitchen - Urban Tadka. We launched the ghost kitchen because we wanted a revenue stream that was going to support other aspects of our business and everything would balance itself out.
(Source: Indian Pantry Facebook)
So we launched the retail brand from Urban Tadka. There were five ready to eat meals, just heat it up and serve. It was very popular during the pandemic, we got into Legends Haul and Fresh Prep too.
Coho: Branding is one of the biggest challenges that new businesses face. Can you share your experience with us?
Tushar: Where we’re at with the business now, is we’re working on making branding changes to our products. When we first started, we didn’t have that much money to get a printed bag, as it costs a lot of money to get it in from China. Back then, we ordered 50,000 bags that came printed from China. Slowly, we started to realize that the margins are small in retail, so you need to order packaging at low cost and sell your products at a higher cost.
Branding is also a big part of being retail ready. For example, we just got into IGA, but they wanted us to get the branding updated so it’s more retail ready. We were in such a rush when we first launched that we missed a lot of the branding details, and now we realize now that if you want to get into the big grocery stores, the branding has to be really on point.
Coho: So why did you choose to work in a commissary kitchen, and what kind of benefits are there?
Tushar: When I was quitting the restaurant industry, I was looking for a commissary kitchen because when I got into private dining, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to do it from home because we needed the food licensing. Evan (business partner Chef Evan Elman) and I thought about renting a commissary kitchen together when he heard that Coho was opening, as a new commissary kitchen with updated facilities.
We got into the space when there was literally nothing. We saw a floor plan and envisioned where the line and all the stations would be, and were one of the first to step into the empty space in Strathacona.
Besides having the food licenses taken care of, there are also the added benefits of contacts that you can get from a commissary kitchen. In a restaurant, you only make relationships with your colleagues and guests, but at Coho - all the other businesses help each other score the connections needed to get into retail stores.
Asha from Kula Kitchen, or Matt from the Dumpling King have all helped me get those connections and I’ve made so many contacts there.
Coho has also helped me to think outside the box, grab the opportunities at the right time with the right people. People are so friendly in the commissary, and there’s a really great community there.
Coho: Do you think you'll stay at the commissary long term? What are your long term growth plans for the business and beyond?
Tushar: I’m not sure if I’ll always work in a commissary kitchen. Right now I want to grow my retail brand to go Canada wide as soon as possible. I’m working on going BC first, then Canada wide will follow that hopefully.
My vision is to own a restaurant, but it’ll be at least a couple years because it's a lot of commitment and a lot of money and research. The purpose of my catering company was to get the clients, then to apply that client base to the restaurant, so even when I open the restaurant, I won’t leave the catering business behind because it’ll help balance out the restaurant when it opens in the beginning.
Coho: You used to work with Mumbai Local right? What did you learn from your experience there?
Tushar: I learned a lot being a part of Mumbai Local on Davie from the very beginning, I was involved from the restaurant layout, menu planning, everything from the start. I saw in the beginning how it was, and how things started going down slowly, so I think I learned from those mistakes and the experience of opening up a restaurant.
It’s not an easy job, and you need lots of energy and money, especially with a physical space - there’s a lot of overhead cost. Right now, we don’t have much overhead cost and we’re so happy with that.
Based on that experience with Mumbai Local, I know that the first six months will be really busy at the restaurant, but after that the income will go down as it’s really hard to keep the quality up. So the catering business and the restaurant business will go hand in hand and support each other.
Coho: You're a big proponent of regional Indian cuisine. Why is that important to you? Also, how do you define success?
Tushar: Ultimately, the brand being known is how I would define success. Chef Vikram Vij is one of the pioneers of Indian food in Canada. His success is what I want to be like, not to be like a celebrity chef, but to get the brand recognized throughout Canada.
I’ve already started to work with local farmers in India, to support all the farmers back at home that’s working hard to grow the spices. To do this, I’d also like to cut down the wholesalers to buy the spices directly from the farmers. So there’s a connection there, instead of 10 different wholesalers in between to get the products to you, that end up sitting in the warehouse for a long time.
And eventually, with the restaurant that I’ll open, I want to promote the idea of regional Indian food, because Indian food is so vast and the way it’s done here is not how we do it at home. Here, it’s just made for the Canadian palate, and there aren’t too many chefs trying to give people a taste of different regions because they’re not willing to take that risk.
There are a lot of chefs now doing it in the US and the UK, but there are very few chefs here that are trying to push regional Indian food, and hopefully I will be able to get on that map and showcase regional Indian food here in Canada.
On our online shop Coho Market, we carry some of Tushar's incredible spices, simmering sauces via the Indian Pantry, or his ready-to-eat creations via Urban Tadka. Try out Tushar's creations and support local!