Number of lines: 10
Most UK food and drink start-up companies establish their brand close to home before branching out into the export market. But it seems the British Curry Company is not aware of this.
Its premium curry sauce and chutney brand, Bombay Authentics, may be relatively unknown in the UK, but it has been a household name for years in 12 other countries, including the US, Hong Kong and Denmark, with listings in stores such as Whole Foods Market, Safeway, Carrefour, Stop & Shop, Wild Oats and Dean & Deluca.
Now it looks like the company is finally beginning to ramp up its presence back home with listings confirmed in Waitrose from January next year to add to those it already has in speciality food outlets.
“Ours has been an unorthodox business model,” admits Maria Hellyer, who co-founded the British Curry Company with friend Patricia Forbes in 2001. “We started producing chutneys and curry sauces for village fêtes and some fine food stores in the UK, but we ended up exporting to the US and across the world. It was not the way we had planned to grow.”
How a brand that is largely unheard of in the UK has managed to do what many companies can only dream of - break into America - has been down to a combination of ambition and being in the right place at the right time. In 2003, the company became a member of Food from Britain, which gave it a £1,800 grant to take a stand at the New York Fancy Food Show. Beforehand, the company had found an importer in the US and quickly found Americans had an appetite for British curry. “The reception we got there was amazing,” says Hellyer.
Since then, the British Curry Company has also exhibited at the Gulf Food Show and now exports to Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as countries such as Guatemala and Hong Kong. Last year it won the FFB Best New Exporter of the Year award.
Paradoxically, its overseas success has opened doors in the UK. The brand is listed in London's Whole Foods Market, thanks to the links it has forged with the retailer in the US. “We met with a regional buyer for Whole Foods Market in the US who told us that his colleague was going to work in London, so he passed on his details to us,” says Hellyer. “Being in America, oddly enough, helped us in England.”
While its success overseas is a feather in the company's cap, both Hell-yer and Forbes won't be satisfied until they have fully cracked the UK market. Bombay Authentics is stocked in Booths, Harrods and selected fine food stores, but a major UK listing was what it has really craved. “We have had all this success overseas, but it is heartbreaking for us that we are not yet a big hit in the UK multiples,” says Hellyer. “This time last year we were formulating a plan to break properly into the UK and to approach the multiples and, finally, we have had success.”
This success has come in the form of a year-long deal with Waitrose to exclusively supply the retailer from January with all 10 of its lines, which include curry sauces, chutneys and a curry paste. But it wasn't a straightforward decision. In order to give exclusivity to Waitrose, the company had to turn down a larger multiple that wanted to stock the brand in a selected number of stores, a decision that Hell-yer says was painful, but ultimately the right thing to do.
“We recognise that Patak's and Sharwood's are core brands, but what we have done is rather like what Green & Black's has done - gone for the absolute premium end of the market, which we believe is unoccupied in curry sauces,” says Hellyer. “Waitrose is a great place to build our brand. The buyer asked us how long we saw our brand being around and we said we visualise it being around 100 years from now. Everything we do has to be about long-term growth. That's why we went with Waitrose, because it said it would support all our products and help build the brand.”
It's early days yet, but Hellyer expects more retailers will come on board after the year is up. And when they do, the company will look at expanding out of sauces into a number of new categories. “We will get into more multiples in the future and make new products. We want to produce a bread, a rice, desserts and even Indian babyfood,” she says. “After that, world domination. We want to have products in every country. We don't think that is unreasonable if we build it carefully.”
Just the facts
Patricia Forbes was born in Karachi but came to Britain in the 1960s and trained as a chef, working in several London hotels. Maria Hellyer trained as a nurse before spending 19 years in Hong Kong, where she ran her own property company. Back in the UK she worked for an ingredients company.
The British Curry Company was founded in 2001 when Hellyer and Forbes decided to pool their expertise. The pair started producing small batches for village fêtes before moving into fine foods stores. In 2003 they decided to grow the business further and began outsourcing production from a factory in Birmingham, where the products are made today. The company employs five staff.
The British Curry Company produces 10 lines - six premium curry sauces (korma, tikka masala, jalfrezi, rogan josh, madras and vindaloo), three chutneys and a curry paste, with prices starting from £1.99. They are listed in the UK in Whole Foods Market, Booths, Harrods and Proudfoot Stores, and will also be available in Waitrose from January. The company makes about 500,000 jars of product per year.
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