Rewriting the recipe for success: Family firm started quite by accident

Calgary Herald Monday, July 19, 2004
Page: C1 / FRONT
Section: Business
Byline: Lisa Schmidt
Source: Calgary Herald

Few people would dare to mess with Grandma's recipes. But when a Calgary family tweaked tradition, the result was a bustling gourmet business.

"We've been very fortunate," says Fauzia Kanji, owner of Thumbs Up Foods Inc., a food processor specializing in Indian cuisine, with her husband Amin.

"Through family support, and of course, Allah's grace, we've come a long way."

The venture started quite by accident eight years ago when Kanji's mother and grandmother started making a few samosas to sell from home. Kanji, who was working in accounting at the Delta Bow Valley, brought some into work and gave a sample to the hotel's chef.

"They enjoyed it so much they said they had to put it on the menu," she said.

After a couple of years of making products in their basement, the family decided the growing business could support itself in a commercial location. Amin researched and tracked down processing equipment, then adjusted it for the specialty foods.

"Sometimes when you mass produce you have to compromise . . .We didn't want to change the product to match the equipment," says Kanji.

"That is what made people come to us."

The business continues to be a family affair for the Kanji's, whose roots are in East African country of Tanzania. Its line of products -- samosas, roti and curries -- is named for Kanji's sister Serenna Ramji, who is also the company's production manager.

While the products were popular, the recipes were still refined somewhat to suit the Canadian palate (a little milder, says Kanji).

But there's was no compromising on ingredients, which include fresh herbs and vegetables, lean meat and authentic Indian spice blends.

The learning curve was steep at times, says Kanji, who like her husband had no experience in the food processing business.

Besides fine-tuning equipment, the family had to design and develop packaging. Assistance from groups like the Alberta Food Processors Association helped a great deal, she says.

But marketing of the products has mostly taken care of itself, with word of mouth bringing in clients all the time, Kanji says.

Serenna's is starting to enjoy some brand recognition, and has distributors in four U.S. states where it sells the roti and vegetarian ready-made meals. Its meat products -- beef and chicken samosas -- are only available in Alberta, since the plant is not federally inspected.

Initially, the company supplied some supermarket chains such as Safeway and Co-op, but decided to discontinue the deal because of listing fees were too high for their small company. Instead, the business has focused on serving several Calgary hotels and golf courses and exporting to U.S. retailers.

In Calgary, the Serenna's brand is available in several East Indian grocery stores and Sunterra Market, but the majority of production heads south of the border to retailers in Washington, Oregon, California and Illinois.

On Thursdays, the tiny storefront becomes a busy place when the fresh rotis are available for sale. Customers scoop up more than 10,000 of the whole-wheat flatbread in just a few hours.

The family started making about 100 samosas a day, and now produces 15,000 per shift. Its most popular product -- roti, an Indian flat bread eaten with most meals -- took a day to make 200 by hand. Now equipment is capable of processing about 4,000 an hour.

Squeezed into about 650 square feet of space in the city's northeast, the company employs 10 full-time staff. There's plans for expansion, but in measured amounts.

"We want to grow at a pace we can handle," says Amin. "We only grow from our profits."

Both Kanji and her husband recall the difficulty in getting work after arriving in Canada, and go out of their way to hire recent immigrants. Three employees just recently received their Canadian citizenship, Kanji says proudly.

"It's a business we hope can help people, it's not just to help the family or acquire wealth," she says.

Amin, who emigrated to Calgary from Tanzania in 1981, continues to works full-time driving bus for the city's transit department in addition to his responsibilities as president of Thumbs Up. Kanji, who handles sales and marketing, first moved with her family to California, then came to Calgary to marry Amin. Their house is home to four generations.

The couple also credit the incredible support from their local East Indian and African communities, members of which have provided services to help their business over the years, as well as loyal customers.

"A lot of people came through for us," says Kanji. "It's been like a family."

As for her grandma, who has long since retired from wrapping samosas by hand, she's delighted by how much the business has grown from a few Old World recipes.

"My grandmother, she is so proud seeing our success," says Kanji.

Thumbs Up Foods Inc.
339, 3132-26th Street NE
Calgary, AB Canada
T1Y 6Z1

Tel:(403) 250-9558
Fax:(403) 313-6558