Aarti Samant describes her mother’s cooking as a “bite of heaven”. She says, “My dabba (lunch box) was always the sought after one, whether in school or later at my workplace.” Any dish, no matter how well-made, sans spices will carry no flavour. Advocating for the right spices is a mother-daughter team Urmila (56) and Aarti (33) who launched Masala Tokri in Mumbai in 2019.
“Masala Tokri is my personal passion project and working on it for the last two years has been nothing short of a revelation,” says culinary enthusiast Urmila.
Speaking to The Better India, Aarti says, “I have always seen my mother as a working woman, and she was always dabbling in something or the other. From helping my father in his printing press business, to becoming a silent partner in his real estate business.” This was also the time when Aarti was starting out on her own career and with more time on her hands, Urmila decided to experiment with things that she wanted to do.
With an initial investment of Rs 1 lakh, Urmila and Aarti launched their brand in February 2019 and today they are making a revenue of about Rs 9 lakhs month-on-month and shipping more than 5500 packets each month. This is the story of how Masala Story came into being.
‘My mother has always been a culinary expert’
Urmila was always interested in cooking and in 2017 she enrolled for a course in Thane to learn how to make her own spices. That was a turning point for Urmila, who post the course started making her own spices and Aarti says she’d never seen her mother so excited. “She would constantly speak about it and took great pleasure in coming up with new spice blends,” says Aarti.
Aarti, who is a digital marketer, saw potential in what her mother was doing and broached the topic of starting her own line of spices. “By 2018, my mother had started sending out samples to her friends, who eventually started placing orders for the spices as well. It got me thinking about starting our own company and doing it formally,” says Aarti.
When it all started in 2018, Urmila was driven solely by passion and had no business acumen to run it. It was Aarti’s inputs that helped a great deal. “Soon my mom had her own WhatsApp group and people were placing their orders. It was all happening organically,” recalls Aarti.
One year of ‘test marketing’
For the entirety of 2018, Urmila continued to make and sell spices from her home to various other households in Mumbai, London, and Dubai. Aarti says, “Both my aunts (mother’s sisters) are based outside India and we started getting many repeat orders from them. They tapped into their NRI homemaker base and that became our testing ground.”
Aarti soon noticed the great potential in her mother’s spice mix. “I decided that by not helping my mother I would be doing her a great disservice and thus began my formal induction into the team,” she says. Finally, in February 2019, Masala Tokri came into being. Aarti adds, “Our competition was not with the existing top spice brands in the market, but was to establish a brand of great quality, even if it cost slightly more than the brands available in the market.”
Aarti also shares an interesting fact here, saying, “Spices are commodities, meaning, the cost of raw chilly today might not be what it is tomorrow. The fluctuation can be as much as Rs 10 to Rs 50. Just like gold and silver prices fluctuating, the cost of raw spices also fluctuates. So, we have to keep an eye out on the best price we can get.” The roles within the company are very well defined, while all matters of production and quality are handled by Urmila, packaging, sales, marketing are areas that Aarti handles.
“While I handle everything to do with the making of the spices and buying the necessary raw spices, Aarti brings in her expertise in marketing and advertising to help me,” says Urmila.
The right mix
The market is flooded with brands making spices and Aarti knew that they would have to work on something that makes Masala Tokri stand out. While she worked meticulously on the packaging, the taste of the spices in itself is the biggest differentiator. “Almost 80 per cent of our recipes are from regional heartland India. For example, it’s the Malwani Chicken masala, Avadhi biryani, Pindi chole, and Kerala Sambar masala that we retail,” says Urmila.
Another thing that Aarti has paid a lot of attention to is the packaging. She says, “Everything that we produce is chemical and preservative-free and are freshly pounded in our own masala chakkis (mills). This helps in retaining the rich flavours and also provides a coarse texture to our masalas.” The other USP is how the masalas are all hand-pounded and not ground to a fine powder.
Aarti says, “A lot of what we do is in keeping with the traditional methods of making spices. Spices are not meant to be ground and made into a powder. They should remain slightly coarse for the dish to be filled with flavours.” She adds here that all one needs to do is open up a packet of masala for the entire room to be filled with its aroma.
A set up that helps other women
With 10 women employees at Masala Tokri, Aarti says, “It’s a very women-friendly workplace and we are proud of having that set up. All of our employees are housewives first and employees second. They come into work once they finish their chores at home and work from 12.30 p.m. until about 8.00 p.m..”
Ashwini Nitin Fage (27) who has been working at Masala Tokri for over seven months now, says, “Working at Masala Tokri has been a lot of fun. There are times we have to deliver the order in a crunched deadline and all of us ladies put on some old Bollywood music and treat it like a competition. Sometimes we do not even realise how time goes by when we work, and isn’t that a testament to how much we enjoy our work? Prior to joining this line of work, I had no clue about spices, but just last month I perfected a blend myself and it was one of my happiest moments.”
As we conclude, Aarti says, “My biggest ambition is to work towards making my mother the ‘masala queen of India’. In running this business, I have seen that child-like curiosity return in my mother. She has become so internet savvy and enjoys the work she does. That has been my biggest reward.” For Urmila working with her daughter has brought her so much joy and she says, “ It has been such a rewarding experience, and the icing on the cake has to be working with Aarti.”
Some of the retail outlets where you can pick up Masala Tokri products include, Shital Innovative Foods, Zida Impex LLP, Amazon, LBB, Flipkart, Haiko, Dorabjees, and O basket. You can also log into the official website where all the products are available.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)