Live and breathe your business because success is not a one-time thing. Be willing to dedicate yourself and put in the time over and over to continuously learn, grow and improve. I still come into the office on Saturdays and, especially in the early days, I would devote my free time to reading trade magazines and clipping articles that gave me ideas.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deepak Amin.
Deepak Amin is president and CEO of Deep Foods, the largest U.S.-based manufacturer of Indian foods. Deep Foods was established in 1977, and started from humble beginnings in a 650-square-foot factory in New Jersey. Today, the company produces more than 800 SKUs including several popular lines of fresh-frozen Indian foods like Deep Indian Kitchen (formerly Tandoor Chef), Mirch Masala, Udupi, Reena’s Ice Cream, and many others. Under Deepak’s leadership, the brand has expanded its portfolio to include indikitch, a fast-casual Indian food chain based in New York City. A food science major at Cornell, Deepak was born in Gujarat, India, and resides in New Jersey with his wife, Dipali, and sons, Kishan and Nisheel.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born in India and primarily raised in New Jersey — with many trips back to India. I was literally raised around food as a way of life. My mom loved getting friends and family together around food and she was passionate about her recipes. She followed that passion by first entering and winning fairs and contests and then deciding to try to turn her food into a business. I remember beginning to help with the social gatherings and business at the age of 10 and learning recipes and the business from my mom the whole time. I’ll never forget how hard she worked on nights and weekend to create a business while still holding a daytime job. It was pretty unheard of for an immigrant woman in 1977, but that’s where the passion, work ethic, and ambition I have today started.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Back when I was in high school and trying to help my Mom with her business, there weren’t that many Indians around and we thought the opportunity was to introduce everyone to Indian food. So, we started going door-to-door to try to get non-Indians to try our snacks. We were ahead of the times and people were afraid of them. Then as more and more Indians immigrated to America, we realized we’d have a better chance with them. Over the next few decades, as the Indian community and Indian grocery stores grew in America, we grew Deep Foods to become the #1 brand and company serving them.
But we never lost our dream to share all of India with everyone in America. In recent years, we noticed how global flavors, Indian spices, and even yoga have been trending with millennials and foodies. Yet there wasn’t a brand that was both modern and authentically Indian to give these consumers the experiences they wanted. We decided the time was right and, in 2019, we created and launched our Deep Indian Kitchen brand of frozen food nationally. It’s the same high quality and authenticity that are in our roots, but with new modern packaging, products, marketing, sales and operations tailored to the mainstream market.
Education, awareness, and elevation of our cuisine are key and so we’re focusing on where people learn about new foods, such as on Instagram, in grocery stores, and in our 3 Deep Indian Kitchen fast-casual restaurants in NYC. So far, it’s been an incredible recipe for success and Deep Indian Kitchen has already become the #1 Indian frozen food brand in America and a leading frozen food brand overall, sold in over 8,000 grocery stores across the country.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funny thing is we don’t really believe in mistakes in the traditional sense. We view them as part of our trial-and-error process to continually improve our recipes, our equipment, and our processes to create better products. That exploration and experience over time informs all future projects and if you learn from the errors, you become smarter and better at what you do because of it. When you think about mistakes that way, it is easier to laugh and enjoy the journey!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I’ve seen is trying to do too much too soon. I’ve seen companies go bankrupt because they got excited about something and invested in it before they’d really done their homework. With food, it is personal and subjective. You may think you have a great recipe, but you need to take the time to test the waters with consumers and go in phases before over-investing in manufacturing or inventory. You can work with a small facility first and stay within your means. And the closer you are to day 1, the more you should keep your day job and get the help of family and friends on the side until you’ve proven yourself.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
- Make the product in your kitchen and get family and friends to taste it
- Listen to their feedback! Keep iterating in the kitchen until they tell you it’s perfect
- Then go beyond the kitchen to test scaling it up commercially. The taste might change, so go back and iterate again to match what you had before.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
The first thing you need to realize is you can’t succeed alone. You need help to turn an idea into a business and you’ll gain confidence the more you learn from others. Start by talking with people in the industry and ask for their guidance. There are also many universities who study industries and incubators that help businesses get off the ground. If it’s food or any other regulated industry, don’t overlook the regulatory and compliance experts because it’s not the same as cooking or using the product at home and you’ll need to address the requirements.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Consultants can help you understand preliminary feasibility at the pilot level. However, I wouldn’t rely on them much more than that. Keep in mind consultants are likely to give you expertise based on what’s already out there and what they’ve done before. If you really want to be unique with your invention, you have to have the self-confidence to chart your own course and invest in your own research and time to figure things out.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Venture capital wasn’t really an option for us in the early days. These days we get approached by investors all the time, but we haven’t taken on any. We remain private and proudly family owned and operated by 3 generations.
To decide, it comes down to what type of end game you’re playing and how much you attach yourself to your business. For me and my family, this business is more than a business — it is our life and our lifestyle. When something is part of yourself and your identity, you would never sell and you want it to last forever. However, if it is just a business that you want grow quickly and eventually exit so you can move on to your next idea, venture capital may be for you.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
For food, it’s very challenging to get patents and you have to keep in mind that it involves some publishing of your formula and process. We self-manufacture and source our own ingredients because both are key to having superior and differentiated quality. To source raw ingredients, trade shows and trade publications are helpful in doing research and then it’s about applying suppliers’ expertise to your recipe and seeing if it works well. With retailers and distributors, exhibiting at trade shows is a great way to get discovered but they are crowded and only happen a few times a year so it helps to consult your network and hire a broker.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Have the world’s best quality because taste is king in food. For us, that has always been and always will be the foundation of our business, in whatever category we’re competing. That means we’re constantly doing our research and comparing our products against competition and we’re always sampling products when someone else comes out with something new.
2. Always be in panic mode because only the paranoid survives. You have to do your research over and over again to stay ahead of the competition and we’ve been no different. We’re constantly comparing our products against competitive versions and sampling new products.
3. Live and breathe your business because success is not a one-time thing. Be willing to dedicate yourself and put in the time over and over to continuously learn, grow and improve. I still come into the office on Saturdays and, especially in the early days, I would devote my free time to reading trade magazines and clipping articles that gave me ideas.
4. Be curious about business and be a consumer to innovate. Constantly buy and taste things and keep an open mind to develop new products. And recognize most business improvements start from outside so always look externally for ideas in infrastructure, QA, distribution, etc. that you can build upon.
5. Build a great team and culture and invest in them both. As a leader you get to decide what gets emphasized and what passions are shared, and that creates culture. As you grow, it’s not about hiring the best people in the world, it’s about hiring the best people in the world for your culture and spending time working with them to make sure they they’re all stepping in tune and representing your values well. And then give them the ability to follow passions — for example one of our earliest salespeople used to get as excited as I do about product development, so we started working on it together and he’s now one of our lead engineers.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Start with what people want, what you think they will want, or where there’s an unserved need. You don’t need formal market research because you can figure most of it out with a combination of your gut, looking at restaurants, and looking at ingredients that are trending in other categories. Then apply that to your culinary strengths to create the concept that fits, but with your own twist. Most importantly, make sure whatever you develop has the highest level of quality and is authentic.
A good example for us is the Chicken Vindaloo we just launched. We noticed people are going crazy about coconut and wanting more and more spice. It’s not new to Indian cuisine or to our family, but the time was right to introduce the product since it’s now the hottest spice item we’ve ever had and it has a coconut-based spice. But you don’t have to take my word for how delicious it is because it just won the 2021 award ‘Best Frozen Dinner’ from People® Magazine!
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m so glad you asked, because this is very important to me, my family, and our company. Having spent so much time in India throughout my life, I’ve seen firsthand the sad realities of education for underprivileged children in rural India. It’s not like the US where everyone gets basic supplies and busses pick up the kids. Families have to make the hard choice between sending their kids to work on their farms, where they need the help, or to school, but they can’t afford to buy supplies and can’t provide transportation. That means many kids never get an education and get locked in a cycle of poverty without education as a way up and out.
We’re on a mission to bring our authentic Indian cuisine to households around the US at Deep Indian Kitchen, and that’s about educating and enlightening people in America, but we also serve an even deeper purpose back home in India. Every purchase of our products benefits our Deepkiran Foundation, which my family established to help provide access to education for these children in rural India. We give them the school supplies, transportation, and food supply they’re lacking, and more. Plus, we provide the schools with infrastructure support and education for parents — who themselves may not have gone to school — to help convince them that providing children with education is worth losing the extra hands at home.
We’re very thankful for the success of our business because every year we’re now able to help over 27,000 children across over 231 villages get the access to education they need to build their futures.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Many people don’t know this, but Deep translates to “enlightenment” in Sanskrit and our greatest hope is to inspire everyone to find enlightenment by sharing the best of Indian culture, which begins with food but goes much further.
When we say enlightenment from an Indian perspective, it is not a very Western concept, because money and possessions are not a means or an end. The starting place is education and skills, which are means for living life with intention and discovering what you were meant to do. We aim to light that path in America and through our Deepkiran Foundation so everyone can live in devotion and celebration of every moment and action. That is enlightenment and, once people love what they’re doing enough to pursue perfection, good follows.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Elon Musk. He truly innovates to create his own
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.