How I Started a Multi-Award
Winning Spice Blends & Sauces Business
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Arun, I have an ace little spice company called Green Saffron. Green Saffron is a multi-award-winning family business based in Midleton, Co. Cork, Ireland. It is entering its 14th year of trade, having begun life as a farmers’ market stall.
We have recently organized what we do into 3 Pillars, cost centres:
- Ad hoc demand, such as our Farmers Market and Food Event attendances and online sales,
- Branded sales through retail and food-service; and
- B2B trade of beautiful fresh spices from farms in India.
Green Saffron quickly grew into a significant Irish business, with products stocked in supermarkets the length and breadth of the country, before taking root in the UK. Our expanding range of ambient jarred sauces, packet spice blends, naan and fresh, plant-based meals are available throughout Ireland’s retailers, Dunnes, Supervalu, Tesco (Ireland) and at Centra and food delicatessen stores, a total of approximately 400 Irish doors. We have crossed borders to the UK winning nationwide distribution within the Waitrose estate and Holland, selling into the Jumbo supermarkets.
We import the finest quality spices and rice direct from farms in India – single estate, new season, highest volatile oil content spices. Green Saffron is an environmentally conscious business – sourcing spices certified by the Rainforest Alliance™, a globally recognised accreditation requiring that rigorous environmental and social standards for agriculture and labour are met. We’re involved in multiple projects on the ground in India promoting programmes including women’s rights and pesticide-free agricultural practices.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I was born in 1969 to a Hindu Indian medical practitioner father and Yorkshire-born ‘State Registered Nurse’ mother and raised in Lincolnshire. A loving combination, I grew up under a fusion of flavours, classic British dishes from Mum and exciting, exotic spicing from Dad. Growing up, it was all about food and the appreciation of good simple ingredients. Where most children had model planes, I had spices!
With my two brothers, the home environment created by Mum and Dad, two forward-thinking, ethereal parents was an exceptional and nearly always quirky balance of enthusiasm for life, loyalty, love and discipline. I was educated at Oundle School, Northamptonshire 1980 to 1987 before I moved to London in ‘88.
I formed my first limited company, a record label specialising in the newly founded wave of dance music at the age of 19 and launched the first-ever DJ compilation album. By the time I was 23, I was managing the restaurant in which I had started as a waiter’s assistant and continued to release singles and further ground-breaking albums.
In 1993, I left to join a group of like-minded businessmen; with this very capable London based team, I went on to compile dance compilations, run club nights in Ibiza and London, finding and recording (now) well-known artists achieving great sales and chart success. The group evolved into Business Angels with a broad portfolio of interests from scripting films to property investments.
I assumed the role of project feasibility and head-line director, which included the formation of a new organic cosmetic company for men. Responsible for setting up the project, I found, negotiated, implemented and co-ordinated strategic partnerships in Paris and Grasse, France and Somerset, UK to manufacture the end product and formed a hub in London from which I ran the project for its first year before selling on.
In 2004, I left the UK to attend the Ballymaloe Cookery School 12-week course. Finishing on 1st December 2004, leaving with a ‘Highly Distinguished’ certificate, I was immediately employed by Ballymaloe House as a cook and started 6 days later on December 7th 2004.
It was whilst working in the kitchens that I formed the idea to start a spice company. I wanted to offer premium produce to people from ‘every walk of life’, basing the project’s ethos on sourcing the most beautiful ingredients with utter integrity to offer added value products in a simple way so as to make them totally accessible to anyone and everyone. I started attending Farmers markets in late 2005 and in March 2007, I formed Green Saffron Spices Ltd.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
I started Green Saffron with my wife in the middle of a financial crisis. I was taking good cash money on our market stall and having the best of times creating many new dishes, making new spice connections in India and discovering the side of me I had lost in the frantically paced industry I had been involved in, in London. As we began to grow, the old side of me soon kicked back in and I didn’t want to miss any opportunity put in front of me. We were breaking down walls, flying over barriers and achieving.
Then in 2012, I joined a Bord Bia (the food board of Ireland) backed initiative that enabled the chance of getting out from behind our market stall and onto supermarket shelves. A chance I resisted for a couple of months – more focussed on wanting to grow the cash business – thinking of franchise opportunities.
However, I eventually joined up, wide-eyed and got stuck in. We went from servicing 4 weekly Farmer Market stalls and about 60 or so food specialist shops, to having to develop a brand image, discover shelf-friendly packaging, develop a business plan and strategy, cross our fingers that our supply chain would suffice and get onto 30 supermarket shelves. All in 14 months with very little money and certainly not enough.
Through many a happy coincidence, a great deal of goodwill and an awful lot of Irish luck, I teamed up with a well established European spice company, borrowed money from my parents, discovered a fantastic creative agency and made it onto the shelf.
Yep, we were now in debt, but my main concern was how to replicate what I did on the stall at retail shelf-edge… I could sell, shout and encourage at my stall. The retail environment was a whole different animal.
Who is your target market?
We are essentially still a new brand to market, albeit now with a proven track record. As a natural disruptor, a burgeoning challenger brand we have our sights on the big players in our category. We want to bring added value to category with an offering recognisable to the consumer, yet fresh and innovative enough to bring new consumers on-board. Demographics, age groups are all very well and something to which I don’t aspire, but I understand the marketeers’ need for parameters, and in that sense I believe our brand talks to the 21 to 64 year old, woman and man keen to try the true taste of Modern India.
I have no interest in the niche. I’d like our beautiful fresh, vibrant spice flavours to be available to everyone. The way I’d like to do that is ensuring that everything in our product portfolio conforms absolutely to our brand values; highest quality, most delicious produce presented in a simple way making it most accessible to all.
Green Saffron is a mass brand. We have global ambition, but understand we need to own our backyard first. We source the highest grade, new season’s crop direct from farms in India, working with local farming communities and their Sarpanches, combining them with the best quality ingredients to make the most delicious and innovative products for everyone to enjoy. Vegan certified sauces and spice blends, gluten-free and absolutely no nasties whatsoever. This is the way we have done it all along, only now are we reaching a point at which we are (more) able to shout about it.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
I put more sway into PR than marketing. We have learnt the hard, expensive way that as a small growing company, it doesn’t work paying big agencies lots of money for advice, creative and campaigns. I think the various marketing agencies work well to maintain a presence, but not to necessarily build a brand. Brand story, integrity and authenticity are ultimately more important than clever campaigns, it’s just trying to work out the best way of getting these values out to your identified audience, or target market.
For us, I believe best is to focus on in-store activity. Our product is our hero, our sustainable supply chain and clean label ethics, its support. That’s where our brand is, in-store, so that is where we are most likely to convert to purchase.
We’re fortunate that I appear on TV shows and have written a cookbook, with much more in this area in the pipe-line. This is something quite unique we have and can leverage to the brand’s advantage. The only (main) cost here is my own time and energy. The trick is ensuring my media activity can be linked to the brand, in the eye of the consumer.
A strategy covering brand awareness through a carefully crafted online, print media, radio and TV (interview) PR campaign, running in parallel with an in-store activation presence through shelf-edge, extended (gondola end) space, price point promotions and (outside of COVID) product tastings combined with competent merchandising activity is the way to go!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
At every brand touch point, we aim to communicate, connect and chat. I want our brand to accessible to all at every opportunity. This can be evidenced in the community position we happily maintain in India with our farmer suppliers, with our Irish Farmers Market stalls to our online presence through our website and social media activity.
Even QR codes on our packaging take you to cooking videos, then in-store shelf ‘wobblers’ to attract passers-by to our brand. There are so many opportunities to be found through a myriad of marketing collateral items. Use as many of these as often as you can. Get your brand into the public eye wherever and whenever you can; relentlessly.
We have a very strong customer centric focus. I’m constantly heard to be bangin-on that without the customer, we don’t exist. Customer service and placing the customer and consumer at the highest pinnacle of our priority list is essential. I encourage every Green Saffron employee to remember they are an ambassador for the brand.
To my mind, ‘caveat emptor’ when it comes to social media. Yes, social media can be great. It’s really nice having some lovely product images up online, a great reference point for customers and consumers. But even if you or your brand has 50,000 plus followers, how many of these are going to fully engage beyond simply clicking ‘like’ and boosting brand ego. How many are actually going to go out to a store or press the next few clicks to make a purchase?
I think particularly so for a company like ours, a branded food business, social is ‘a nice to have’ but not a key focus. Not to mention the whole host of quasi-nefarious ways that exist to boost ratings.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
At Green Saffron we work like a family. We are a small dedicated team of individuals whose combined talents make the whole stronger than the individual. Participative Management I believe is a phrase. Mucking-in where necessary, we maintain a very simple mind-set. Humble and hungry.
I know the journey I’ve been on to get where I am today and I know I have a long road ahead to achieve the vision I have. We work to a collaborative model from top to bottom, side to side. The collaborative culture is ingrained in our company ethos and its very DNA of doing.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
The most sophisticated pieces of software we use are probably Sage, Thesaurus and Asana; accounts, wage and project management packages respectively. Though Zoom has recently played a big part in our comms strategy. Otherwise, we are big proponents of XL and Powerpoint. All very simple.
As I have said, we’re a small company running to an asset-light, strategic partnership, collaborative model. The need for SAP systems and all such other heavy lifting tools is ably managed by our partners, personalities far more capable than us in their fields.
The one-piece of intelligence gathering we have found particularly useful of recent is a company known as Proquo and their fantastic AI tool which helps analyse sales and competitor performance and many other very nifty, handy little tricks. Definitely worth checking out.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
The first most important thing you’ll need is a really strong, believable proposition, not just from a consumer perspective but also something in which you and those closest to you have faith in. Then, plan, plan, plan and be prepared to adapt at the drop of a hat. Easy words to write, but I absolutely believe the more agile you remain, the better. It’s more a state of mind more than anything. Once you become stuck in rut, content with a certain way of doing things, you’re liable to miss opportunities. Stay feisty, work collaboratively and listen to those you trust.
Green Saffron and I have fallen down most open pits, but though it might sound trite, staying power, belief, resilience, the ability to dust yourself off and not to take things too seriously are extremely important qualities to maintain.
Being unclear of outcomes is not a bad thing, the bad thing would be the inability to react and know what to do in the face of both adversity and opportunity. Forming a company is like setting the co-ordinates in as Sat Nav. You know you’re about to start to journey, you think you know where you’re trying to get to, but you’re putting blind faith in something over which you don’t ultimately have control, so just strap-in and get ready for the ride, bumps, corners, near misses and all the wonderful things ahead.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Freedom. The right you empower yourself to do better, achieve more and act for the better of others, not merely yourself.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I actually don’t know any other way. Is there one?
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I’m not a big reader; people I trust I tend to listen to, take heed of and consult for advice. My father and mother, my brothers, key mentors in the business, creative, culinary and strategic planning fields. We are all familiar with the term, entrepreneur. However, in Indian culture, there is a word, ‘jugaard’. This roughly translates as, ‘if there is a job to be done, you just get on and do it’. It’s down to you and no one else to change your situation.
As I was starting out, nearly every piece of sage advice told to me made clear I was wrong to be pursuing more than one objective at a time; to be chasing the raw material supply and brand whilst maintaining a (very small) media presence – except one phenomenal and highly regarded chap, now my key investor.
I am a firm believer in the ‘jugaard’ concept of self-reliance and it was with this spirit that I established Green Saffron in Ireland. I believe you should listen to your heart, listen to everybody, assess their opinion – but if you don’t have a thought yourself, then you shouldn’t be in business.
One book I have read is the culinary musings of a chef I most admire, maybe even aspire to be in the kitchen, Fernand Point’s book the brilliant, ‘Ma Gastronomie’. More than a collection of freestyle recipes, it relates his philosophy to food, his conviviality and is mostly a tale of how to treat simple ingredients with respect.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
We should be nudging the e5m plus revenue mark, pushing our commodities throughout the UK and Europe with our Dutch based spice hub acting as the shop front window for fresh Indian spice. The brand as dominant on-shelf in Ireland, extended launch across the UK, entry more deeply into Europe and looking tentatively across at Australia.
The first ‘World Food’ brand to cross categories into fresh, frozen and ambient representing Modern India and the farmers that provide our core ingredient and a first TV show of mine successfully launched. Sounds a stretch to some, but such thoughts have been in my head since I set out on this journey, keeping me feisty, driving me on.
Now, as plans are forming, formalising and coming to fruition, I see our time is coming, the journey accelerating and our network stronger, more resilient and robust, ready to make this vision a reality. Let’s see…