Capturing our Hearts Through our Stomachs – The Incredible Story of Sukhi Singh
By Vidya Pradhan
Browse in any major retail store in the Bay Area and the vibrant orange boxes with mouth-watering pictures of Indian delicacies in the refrigerated section are sure to grab your attention. Bearing the eponymous logo of accomplished entrepreneur Sukhi Singh, these bright packages evoke a nostalgic sense of home to Indian Americans and an easy introduction to an exotic cuisine to others.
“We are delighted to welcome Sukhi to the board of the Sikh Foundation, especially at a time when we are getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary” says Sonia Dhami. “Sukhi catered her incredible food for the Sikh Foundation’s silver anniversary and it seems fitting that she is joining us as a board member for our golden one” she adds.
A native of Dehradun, India, Sukhi Singh lived the pleasant and uneventful life of an Air Force officer’s wife, travelling both in India and abroad, and running a pre-school and nursery to engage her entrepreneurial spirit. The tragic events following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 turned her simple world turned upside down. “Overnight I became a Sikh instead of an Indian,” she recalls.
She heeded her younger sister’s call to immigrate to the United States and arrived in California in 1985. “It was a huge change for my husband, who had to take early retirement and give up the only life he had known.” But Sukhi was determined to keep a positive attitude and start afresh even though the couple were in their 40s. They soon invested in a deli in Oakland.
“When my husband was posted in London for a year during his air force days, I was very interested in exploring the city. I had always been a good cook and I figured out ways to pre-prepare gravies and sauces that I could quickly whip up into a full meal when I returned from my jaunts.”
At the deli, Sukhi placed jars of these masalas on the counter and found that they were quite popular with her customers, especially Americans who enjoyed preparing easy Indian meals after work in much the same way that Sukhi had in London many years ago.
This state of affairs could have continued for a while but fate had a challenge in store for the intrepid couple. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Bay Area and several of the buildings near the deli were damaged. Businesses chose to break their leases and leave, drastically reducing traffic to the area. Sales at the deli were badly affected, and after a few months of trying to salvage matters, Sukhi and her husband reluctantly decided to sell the shop for a third of the price, ending up with a debt of $70,000.
It was a setback that would have daunted a lesser person, but Sukhi immediately began to look for other opportunities. Luck favors the brave, as they say. Around this time Sukhi’s sister Maninder Arora had taken some chicken cooked with one of Sukhi’s masalas to work. One of her co-workers loved the dish and said she wished she could cook some at home. It turned out that the co-worker’s husband was Dan Kataoka, the owner of the famous independent supermarket Berkeley Bowl. He immediately asked for Sukhi’s masalas to be stocked on his refrigerated shelves. Sukhi realized that her hobby had the potential to be a full scale business.
“I was very lucky to find a niche no one had explored yet,” she says. Like Amy’s Foods which caught the wave of the vegetarian/vegan movement in California, Sukhi’s was launched at the right time to capitalize on the influx of Indians into the country to work on the Y2K or Millennium bug. Companies were scrambling to accommodate the food preferences of their new employees, and busy Indians in the Bay Area were looking for quick ways to get a taste of home.
Sukhi’s Foods’ journey to success was not easy, though. Before the business became self-sustaining, it was a long and arduous process of making the rounds of farmers’ markets in the Bay Area to introduce the products and doing demo after demo in retail stores to promote sales. Catering over the weekends paid the bills while the business was taking off, and one important catering project that helped make her a household name was the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Sikh Foundation, where family and friends pitched in to make the grand event a success. “My children and their friends were the servers!” recalls Sukhi.
Family members also worked late hours at the factory to get the masala jars filled, labelled and packed. The children would come home from school and get to work. “I regret sometimes that my kids never had a real childhood,” says Sukhi ruefully. “They could not go camping or to skiing trips with their friends because their weekends were spent at the factory.” She herself has put in 17-hour days, seven days a week for nearly two decades, only slowing down in the last couple of years.
As an entrepreneur, Sukhi says she was able to achieve as much as she did only because of the unwavering support of her family. It also helped that she did not know what she could not and was not supposed to do! “Ignorance is bliss!” she laughs about her gradual understanding of the licensing and approval process associated with the food business.
After the Berkeley Bowl break, another big opportunity for Sukhi’s came in the form of the food service business at tech companies. Again, fortune favored her efforts to get name recognition in the Bay Area by stocking her products in over 100 retail stores in the area. A phone call by the food service manager at Hewlett Packard about a tandoor was soon parlayed into a contract to provide Indian food in bulk to company cafeterias, a lucrative and growing business.
“My objective with this business was never to get rich,” says Sukhi, “just survival. But the success of my company is a true example of the American Dream. Where else could a person with $70,000 dollars in debt end up with a $45 million business?”
Sukhi readily acknowledges the role of serendipity in her success. “I always say that I have been in the right place at the right time with the right amount of luck.” She has been keen to give back to the community that has always supported her. “It’s just that I have always been too busy with the business to devote any of my time to these causes, so I’ve tried to give back through my food.” She has catered pro bono for local non-profits but “Now that the business is in the capable hands of my children I look forward to a new chapter in my life, where I am ready to help in any way that I can.”
Vidya Pradhan is a Bay Area Blogger. Her blog is Water No Ice. She wrote this piece for the Sikh Foundation