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Maya Kaimal: Spice Girl 

click to enlarge FRANCO VOGT
  • Franco Vogt

Maya Kaimal has always loved to cook. As a teenager, she learned how to make South Indian specialties from her Indian father and aunt. As a young woman working in magazine publishing, she translated those skills into a very small business, preparing Indian lunches for colleagues at her office. "That experience showed me how eye-opening it was for people to eat homemade Indian food," recalls Kaimal, 50. "It didn't resemble what they were eating in restaurants."

In 2002, she turned a layoff from her dream job as photo editor for Saveur magazine into an opportunity, founding Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods. Its mission: to create all-natural, vegetarian Indian sauces that taste like those she makes on her stovetop.

Now her Rhinebeck-based company is in major expansion mode, moving into larger offices next month, hiring a new CEO, and landing on the shelves of big chains like Sam's Club, Target, and Safeway. "Indian food is a pain in the neck to make from scratch," Kaimal explains. "You have to have a lot of relatively fresh ingredients on hand, and there's lots of chopping and grating. Indian people have multiple people preparing meals, not one harried mother."

Hence, the concept behind Kaimal's Indian simmer sauces: "We do all that prep work so the flavors of India are available in a more convenient form and you get to experience really nice, deep, layered flavors. My hope is that Indian flavors get on tables all across the country."

From humble beginnings working at her kitchen table in Brooklyn, Kaimal now has six refrigerated simmer sauces, six shelf-stable simmer sauces and a spicy ketchup, three varieties of chick pea chips, and, launched in July, three flavors of naan chips. Her products are in some 3,500 stores across the country, including regional and national chains, specialty stores, and natural-food stores. In a big coup, Costco requested that Kaimal make fresh Indian meals, soups, salads, and frozen items specifically for its stores.

Kaimal's combination of having grown up in America and been taught to cook in Indian kitchens gives her an understanding of both cultures that she parlays into her food and the recipes in her two cookbooks, Curried Favors (Abbeville Press, 1996), winner of the Julia Child First Book Award, and Savoring the Spice Coast of India (HarperCollins, 2000).

"She has an incredible light-handedness," says Andy Arons, co-owner of Manhattan's six Gourmet Garage fine-food marketplaces, which carry many of Kaimal's products. "She has these very deep roots in Indian culture and society, and she was taught by Indian people how to cook, and she has layers of American culture and taste. It's an Americanization that stays true to the roots of the cuisine."

Being laid off was Kaimal's "moment of truth," she says. "What did I really want to be doing? Did I really want to be a photo editor, or did I want to do something in the food world?"

Close friend Arons and her husband, the journalist and author Guy Lawson, convinced her to go for it. "Her food was so much better than any Indian food I'd eaten before, and I'd lived in the UK," says Lawson, 52, who met Kaimal while she was in the midst of testing recipes for Savoring the Spice Coast and describes his role as a cross between consigliere and house-husband. "Talk about falling in love over food. There was an authentic quality she brought to it. You can't make up what Maya has."

To differentiate herself, Kaimal came up with the idea of creating refrigerated sauces. "No one was doing that," she says. "I also felt I could control the flavor better and make it taste more like a homemade curry. I didn't want to get lost in the middle of the store. It turned out to be a really lucky decision, because the people buying our product were often the cheese buyers, and they were very, very picky about what they brought in."

Kaimal's sauces met that pickiness test. Loaded with fresh-tasting, tropical ingredients like tamarind, coconut, curry leaves, green chilies, and ginger—typical flavors for the state of Kerala, from which her father hails—the sauces are tasty enough to eat solo. Among her best-sellers are the shelf-stable Tikka Masala, a classic Indian sauce that is familiar to many Americans, and the refrigerated Coconut Curry, a creamy concoction with russet potatoes and onions that tastes like a sweet stew. Although they carry steeper price tags than those of her competitors ($5.99 for shelf-stable sauces and $7.99 for refrigerated ones), customers keep coming back for more. "They're our best-selling Indian sauces," Arons says. "You put a cooked item in the sauce, and you sauté it and put it over basmati rice, and it becomes an incredible Indian dinner better than you can eat at any restaurant."

In 2003, while pregnant with her twin girls, Kaimal found a sauce manufacturer in Saugerties and launched three fresh sauces. Propelled by a mention in the New York Times's food section, they took off in Manhattan specialty stores like Fairway, Zabar's, and Gourmet Garage, selling $75,000 worth in the first year. The family moved to Woodstock in 2005 to be closer to the manufacturer and reduce their living expenses. Kaimal opened an office on Tinker Street with a staff of six and began to build a network of distributors. In 2009, she and Lawson moved to Rhinebeck, drawn by the school system, the restaurants, and indie movie theater Upstate Films. Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods set up shop in the M&T Bank building on Mill Street.

After filling out her fresh-sauce line, Kaimal turned her attention to shelf-stable, which stores had been requesting, using lemon and tamarind as natural preservatives. She also beefed up her staff, hiring her first CEO three years ago, and added West Coast and Midwest manufacturers. Meanwhile, the number of distributors carrying her products ballooned to 28. Among recent additions to her 19-member staff is quality-control manager Ankita Bhagat, who brings her valuable native Indian palate to the task of sampling sauces.

Kaimal added chips last year to boost her chain-store presence. With such new-product launches and a series of successful in-store promotions, the company's sales are exploding. Growth for this year is expected to double, following a 35 percent jump for each of the preceding three years."When they came out with something fresh that had the authentic Indian flavors, the customers responded immediately," says Andrew Shober, purchasing manager for Sunflower Natural Foods Market in Rhinebeck and Woodstock, who notes that Sunflower's sales of the chips have doubled in the past year. "In the beginning, it was a local company hand-delivering products. Now we go to the big trade shows, and they're there."

The company is poised for even bigger growth under new CEO John McGuckin, who helped grow the hummus maker Sabra from a $10 million to a $500 million brand. "I see no reason this company can't grow to be a very big brand in the next five years," says McGuckin, who will target conventional supermarkets along with millennials who "want to experience new cultures through food."

On January 1, the company will move to bigger digs at the corner of Mill and Market Streets, adding 1,000 square feet and trading what Kaimal calls a "test closet" for a glossy test kitchen. With a little coaxing from Lawson, she has claimed the corner office. "She's the cornerstone, and she's earned it," Lawson says. "This is the person the staff should look to for the heart and soul of the company."

  • Rhinebeck-based chef and entrepreneur Maya Kaimal dishes about the food business,

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