Chef Bombay is making Indian food accessible to all

Chef Bombay is making Indian food accessible to all

· The Pulse

The "Trade Heroes" series highlights Edmonton region companies who have 'exportitude' — the mindset and commitment to think globally when it comes to their business. It's brought to you by Edmonton Global.

Khadija Jiwani's family knows Indian food. In 1999 her parents, Anis & Noorudin Jiwani, moved from Ontario to Edmonton to start Aliya's Foods, better known by their flagship brand Chef Bombay. They have since grown the business into a successful exporter, with about 80% of their business now coming from the United States.

Jiwani said that expansion beyond Canada was part of the plan from the start, and from day one her parents were laying the groundwork to ship their products elsewhere. "It wasn't like 'hey let's start small-scale in our kitchen,' it was always that we were going to start this big-scale thing," Jiwani said.

This foresight is what paved the way for the company, as its facilities were built and managed to the standards of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency right from the start. Doing so helped to quickly ensure everything was up to the standards of the equivalent agency across the border in the U.S. when they began exporting in 2004. Today, the company has a 100,000-square-foot facility in the Edmonton region.

Chef Bombay has a dual business model, split roughly equally between branded products and private label goods. But the customer is ultimately the same. "Whoever is going grocery shopping is our client," Jiwani said. "The general public is who we have in mind when we're creating our dishes."

Jiwani spearheaded the Chef Bombay branding once the company had more resources, transforming the company's identity to appeal to a broader audience. She said the goal was to make it more modern. "To make Indian food more accessible to the whole public," she said. "I think it's definitely doing what we wanted it to do."

The company's roots in the Edmonton region play a significant role in its story. A supportive business environment and government incentives for food startups are what drew Jiwani's parents to the region to start their business. A strong local team is a key part of what keeps them here.

"It may be cheaper to build a plant in the U.S. but we wouldn't have our team here that are like family, the people who've been working here for as long as the company's been open," she said. Today, Chef Bombay employs more than 300 people, and Jiwani said access to talent is a major reason they've been able to grow successfully here. "There's a good pool of talented people in the province and in the city," she said.

Other advantages of being located in the Edmonton region include access to high quality ingredients and the Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc. Exchange rate benefits help too, Jiwani said.

Challenges are part and parcel of the export journey, even more so when perishable goods are involved. For example, Jiwani said U.S. Customs has held trucks for up to two weeks at a time to perform quality checks. The company now accounts for that time when planning shipments.

Jiwani's advice for entrepreneurs thinking about exporting is to get started early. "Start planning to export way before you even think you're going to do it," she said. "Start getting all the little checks in place that you're going to need for export."

Exporting can seem overwhelming and daunting at the start, but Jiwani said making consistent progress pays off. "The market is huge," she said. "It's worth it."

Looking ahead, Jiwani said her family is looking at expanding to Europe and South America, once they have the capacity to do so. Europe is particularly exciting as it has a fast-growing market for both Indian food and frozen food, Jiwani explained. "We have a product that I think could do well there," she said.

In the meantime, Jiwani sees plenty of potential for growth in the U.S. market, especially given the company's focus on quality. "We're barely scratching the surface in the U.S.," she said.

Photo: Chef Bombay now does about 80% of its business south of the border, with plans to expand further. (Supplied)