Fondly known as 'Ammiji' in Amritsar, 92-year-old Rajinder Kaur Chatha is whipping up a spicy success with her homemade blends. Her startup story is the perfect inspiration for women entrepreneurs
There’s truly no specific age at which one can become an entrepreneur. We all know of Col. Sanders, who was 65-year-old when he founded the now-iconic KFC. Closer home, 92-year-old Rajinder Kaur Chatha has provided her granddaughter, Amrita Chatwal, with all the necessary inputs to launch Ammiji’s — a culinary ingredients brand. Amrita describes herself as the Chief Chopper and Bottle Washer at Ammiji’s, and credits her entrepreneurial venture to her grandmother’s phenomenal ability to reach so many through the food she cooks.
In conversation with The Better India, Amrita tells us about her connection with food, Ammiji’s, and the growth of the brand.
Ammiji’s tryst with spices
The year was 1948, and independent India was barely a year old when Rajinder Kaur Chatha, an 18-year-old girl from Amritsar was married off. “Would you believe that Ammiji thought, until the moment she was married, that she was to wed the younger brother of her husband?” begins Amrita. “Perhaps the moment she walked in to be married was the first time she ever set eyes on her husband.”
In Ammiji’s own words, “I was married in 1948 and came to live with a stranger, in a strange house, and among slightly hostile strangers. In a world that was unfamiliar and sometimes heartbreakingly cruel, I sought comfort, which for me had always been chai. But I hated the chai in that house. It was a mud-like concoction, thick with sugar and devoid of flavour. So on one of my rare trips to Majith Mandi, the spice bazaar of Amritsar, I bought handfuls of different spices. I experimented with different combinations of flavours over the next week.”
She pauses, almost as though she has transported herself back to that year, and continues, “I discarded endless cups of tea and grimaced over the ones that were close, but still not what I was looking for. After a week, I struck gold. I had been trying to replicate my mother’s recipe, but it was not what I wanted then. So I whittled away at that recipe, taking off ingredients from the list, till I was left with a bare-bones recipe. But it was so flavorful that it instantly transformed my mediocre tea into a drink that felt like a combination of sunlight on a drab winter afternoon and the comfort of a mother’s arms. I’d found the means to keep my spirit alive.”
“For the past 72 years, she has stuck to that recipe of Chai Masala,” Amrita says.
“Even when she’s traveling, she’ll have a small dibbi (box) of the masala in her luggage. The recipe has been passed down to her daughter-in-law, my mother, and now me,” says Amrita with pride. It is this very chai masala that launched the brand – Ammiji’s, of which almost a hundred jars have been purchased.
Birth of a venture
Sometime in 2015, Amrita put out a post on Facebook, in which she wrote about Ammiji and her special chai masala. “It all started from there and I eventually started getting some enquiries and in April 2018. The brand Ammiji was launched with one product on an online retail platform,” says Amrita, adding, “ When I spoke about this with Ammiji, there was a lot of excitement, but also some amount of apprehension, because she wasn’t sure of how the venture would take off and whether or not there would be a market for the products.”
Speaking about the bond she shares with her grandmother, Amrita says, “Ammiji was, and still is, the number one storyteller in my life. From being lulled to sleep to being distracted from hurt and kept away from boredom by her stories, some of my best memories growing up revolve around her.”
Today, two years into operations, there have been several new products added and they retail close to 40 products.
“Some of our bestsellers include pickles, chai masala, and papad. People seem to love the variety of papad we retail,” says Amrita. The papad and wadiya are made at Amritsar under Ammiji’s supervision, while the rest of the products are made in Amrita’s home in Delhi.
“While we are far from making a profit as of now, we are putting back whatever we make into the business and are self-sustaining,” says Amrita.
Interesting customer reviews
Speaking about some of the customer reviews that have come their way, Amrita says, “Some of the calls we get are truly heart-warming. A young girl had purchased garam masala and called to tell me about how she hides the jar from her mother-in-law and takes it out only when she is making a special meal. Even after coaxing, the young girl refuses to part with her secret and basks in all the praises she gets for it.” Amrita says that every package that leaves her house is accompanied by a personal note she pens.
“I know my regular customers and ensure that I keep track of everything they are doing. It’s a very important part of the business,” she adds.
Products are delivered pan-India and a lot of orders are being received from Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and even from Assam and Nagaland.
Initially there was about one order every other day, but with some social media marketing, the frequency grew to one a day. Now, there are about seven to eight orders that come in daily. When asked where she sees the brand going from here, Amrita says, “We are looking to add many more products and keep bringing joy to our customers.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)