Sagharica Sawhney converted her dream of owning a hotel to become a supplier to many. Importer and distributor of processed foods, she is supplying to almost all 5-star hotels in the country, besides restaurants and catering units, and is set to launch her own range under Sagarika Exim Pvt Ltd
A graduate in finance, she was bitten by the food bug and travelled extensively in search of different cuisines. Looking back, she recalls that 8 to 10 years ago, imported food was not easily available. “There were no gourmet stores like Le Marche or Sugar ‘n Spice, and there were only a few Indian companies in the packaged processed food industry, where innovation was unheard of.”
“However, the hotel industry was growing, with both domestic and international companies entering the F&B space. But they all rued the unavailability of imported/gourmet products. Whatever little was available was hindered by inconsistent supply, government roadblocks, and oscillating prices.” She adds: “There was no brand consciousness, and no organised system of supply and storage. It was this vacuum that led me to enter the food business.”
“The initial days were tough, to say the least, as the retail environment was unorganized and bound by tradition. Hoteliers and chefs would buy products off the shelf at double the price or more, and they would approach different vendors for different products, so the distribution and supply was erratic.”
Growing the clientele
Sawhney’s first client was the Kwality group of restaurants, followed by The Lalit Hotels, Taj National Contract and others. The current set includes the Sarovar Group, Sky Gourmet Flight Catering (it supplies to 52 airlines), Park Hotels, and others. “We have the ability to import and source any product for chefs at competitive prices,” she claims.
Sawhney is supplying fruit pulp and concentrates, vegetable pastes, sauces, condiments, jams, murabbas, pickles, chutneys, premium drinks, and ready to cook curries. Her company is one of the largest distributors with 8 warehouses in Delhi/NCR. Two manufacturing units (one each in Noida and Central India) are equipped with advanced food processing technology, and are HACCP certified.
“Italian cuisine is here to stay,” observes Sawhney. “We have over 40 varieties of pasta based on colour, thickness, taste, etc. Mexican food is catching up, and there is a growing market for Mediterranean and Lebanese products. Also, demand for Arab spices and herbs has gone up. But pasta remains the fastest running item.”
The company imports products from China, Vietnam, Itlay, Spain and Greece, and the Arabian harissa sauces, tahini paste, saffron, etc, from Dubai. She informs that chefs and restaurateurs are highly aware as they travel a lot. Exotic products (like Greek olives) are widely in demand now.
“Earlier, we had to conduct tasting sessions, offer samples and demos to make our clients aware of the usage and novelty of new, exotic products. Not anymore; but we do have to constantly create demand for products from around the world. At the same time, the foodservice sector is becoming more organized, and there is a lot of brand consciousness. People now understand the nuances of different ingredients, tastes and flavours, and their quality. Chefs are trying out new products, and being very creative with fusions.”
She informs that in her company, food technologists develop new sauces, curries and pastes. Thai Curry paste, Asian honey chili sauces, pasta and pizza sauces, which are tomato based are some of the sauces developed in-house.
“The food service industry experienced a major upheaval last year when the FSSAI called for a new format of labeling on imported products from their country/region of origin, as many companies in Vietnam, Indonesia, Shanghai, Japan, etc, do not print labels in English,” says Sawhney, and adds: “It’s not easy to get new labels in the middle of the financial year. There were also certain import requirements which were very rigid. We had to drop a lot of products. Lack of skilled manpower and food inflation are other worries.
“The situation was particularly alarming last year when prices rose drastically.This affects our margins as we have contracts with hotels and restaurants, which we need to adhere to for a year. When prices increase in between a financial year it has a direct bearing on sales. I hope it will stabilize in the months to come.”
She adds that since raw material production is entirely dependent on weather conditions, unforeseen rains can compound the problem. “Storage and transportation are issues too since we deal with perishable items that have a limited shelf life. With the thrust on preservative-free products, the problem gets compounded even further.”
Sagarika Exim has a turnover of Rs 20 crore and is growing by 50 percent year on year since the last five years. The company plans to start manufacturing and labeling of its own vegetables, fruits and canned products this year for which it has identified a unit in Delhi/NCR with backward integration. “My ultimate dream is to export my brand and make Indian products as popular abroad as the Italian,” confides Sawhney.