Around these parts, we like to learn about and from people who are running their own businesses – business we patronize, love, and admire, and the ladies who are running shit behind the scenes. In this edition of mind your business, we talk to Chitra Agrawal who with her partner founded Brooklyn Delhi, where they make delicious Indian-inspired condiments. Chitra is also a cooking instructor, runs a food blog, and is working on a cookbook, so she’s basically a great person to have on-hand for dinner parties as well as a savvy entrepreneur. We interviewed her to find out how she developed and grew her business.
Tell us about your background and why you decided to start your own business.
Chitra: Since 2009, I’ve been writing the ABCD’s of Cooking, a recipe blog documenting my family’s recipes from India with local produce I receive in my farm share in Brooklyn, New York. I teach cooking classes and also host pop-up dinners throughout the city featuring vegetarian Indian food with a slant on seasonality. I’m currently writing my first cookbook with Ten Speed/Random House called From Bangalore to Brooklyn, all about South Indian vegetarian home cooking from my mom’s hometown. Since I was young, I always enjoyed eating achaar or Indian pickle, a relish made from local fruits, vegetables, spices, chilies and oil. I realized that a lot of achaars sold in shops were very salt-heavy, had preservatives and just didn’t taste homemade so I started making my own from seasonal fruits and vegetables in my CSA. They were such a hit at my cooking classes and pop-up dinners that my fiancé Ben offered to design all of the packaging (he’s a food packaging designer) if I decided to launch a line of them…and that’s how Brooklyn Delhi was born!
m: When you decided to start your own company, what steps did you take?
C: I already had the recipes for my achaars, so next we got started working on conceiving the Brooklyn Delhi brand. I worked really closely with Ben on figuring out what direction we wanted to go in aesthetically. I love a lot of retro Bollywood design as well as Indian street and truck art graphics so we started there. As far as the packaging design, Ben was a lifesaver as he has over a decade of experience in the area and was able to think about things I never even considered. It was important to me that we also launched with the Hindi name of ‘achaar’ and not just ‘Indian pickle,’ which is what appears on a lot of packaging in the shops now. My father has impeccable handwriting so I asked him to write the translation of all of our achaars in Hindi so his script appears on all of our bottles. The next bit was a lot of logistics—finding a commercial kitchen space, getting our recipes vetted for shelf stability, incorporating our business, etc. Luckily, I have a lot of friends in the Brooklyn food community who had started businesses already that helped advise me on a number of things when starting out.
m: Talk about the creation/development process of your achaar flavors.
C: I love combining Indian flavors and local produce. All of my achaar recipes were developed from the fruits and vegetables I received in my farm share. Some of them were traditional ingredients like tomato and garlic that are used in achaars in India and others were not like rhubarb and American gooseberries. What’s pretty great is that I developed many of these recipes using Wilklow Orchards produce and now I worked directly with the farm to buy in bulk for my achaars at Brooklyn Delhi.
m: Were you born in India (if so, where) and how does the specific region where you’re from inspire your product?
C: I was born in New Jersey, but I visit India quite often. My mother is from Bangalore in the South and my father is from North India, and much of his family lives in Delhi. I actually take from both types of cuisine for my recipes that I create.
m: How did you get the word out about Brooklyn Delhi once you were up and running? How have you been able to grow your business?
C: I promoted the line on my blog The ABCD’s of Cooking and at my cooking classes and pop-up events. And I just get out there: I participate in local food markets, go to stores and drop off samples with buyers, do in-store demos and given that I don’t really have a marketing budget, I used Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.
m: Your business partner is also your partner in life. What are the challenges/advantages of this kind of arrangement?
C: I love working with Ben. The brand is as much him as it is me. We have a lot of fun creating together, but of course it does get tough sometimes to turn it off and take a break since we’re together most of the time. It’s an exciting time for the business so it’s hard not to discuss new ideas, but we make a conscious effort to clear our heads of it. I think it’s important to do that.
m: What is the most rewarding part of running your own business?
C: The most rewarding part is knowing I’ve built something from scratch. It’s empowering to be able to make up the rules as you go along. It’s a little scary, but so worth it to be able to come up with ideas and put them out into the world. And when you get a good response, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.
m: What is the most challenging part?
C: The most challenging part is prioritizing things when you have so much to do. I find myself constantly weighting the different tasks at hand because there are just not enough hours in the day.
m: Do you have any advice for women who are looking to start a similar business?
C: My best advice is that if you have a passion, jump right in because you learn a lot more when you’re in the thick of it!
m: Any plans for expansion? New products on the horizon?
C: Since I’m writing a cookbook now, I’m constantly experimenting in the kitchen so I always have ideas for more products. I recently made a recipe with red currants for my blog and would love to try making an achaar out of them too. As a cooking instructor, I want to make it easier for people to make Indian food so I’ve thought a lot about products along that line. Nothing concrete just yet though!