The Sabi spread

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Pattu from Sabi Foods is not just the biggest ethnic Indian food brand in the country, it’s also got the biggest spread, says Alys Francis

When UvarajaHariramakrishnan first moved to Australia to do an MBA in 1996, he had no idea he would end up making the biggest ethnic Indian food brand in the country: Pattu.

“I am basically a mechanical engineer,” says Hariramakrishnan, who goes by the name Hari and was born in Coimbatore, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The MBA whet Hari’s appetite for business and when he spotted a gap in the market for Indian food he decided to go for it.

“Indians are very passionate about their own food. No Indian can be without rice or dal for more than three days continuously,” he says.

Hari’s wife’s family founded Sabi Foods as a small spice manufacturer in India in the 1950s before expanding the company into Singapore and Malaysia. Hari offered to take it down under and opened Australia’s first Sabi Foods in Melbourne in 1999.

Back then, being a wholesaler in a niche market was tough. Hari says he spent much of his time trying to convince grocery store owners why they should stock more than one kind of rice. “There was no variety and retailers were not interested in (selling) any different or innovative product,” he says.

With three employees to pay and high overheads from importing and distributing goods, Hari struggled to get the business off the ground for several years. It was then that he decided to change track and go from selling food to making it; and so the Pattu brand was born.

Today Pattu is a household name for Indian Australian families. Its chutneys, lentils and atta flours are sought after countrywide, from swanky Sydney restaurants to minimarts in Tasmania.

Over the years the product line has also grown, and now ranges from raw ingredients like spices and pulses to processed foods such as curries, samosas and meals.

Meanwhile, Sabi Foods has also grown to be one of the biggest Indian food suppliers in Australia. The wholesale business sells more than 4,000 products and sells some of the biggest Indian brands, including the largest Basmati rice brand Daawat.

The range of Indian foods available in Australian shops has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks largely to Hari and others like him who pioneered the market.

Now instead of having to convince supermarket and grocery owners why they should stock more Indian goods, Hari says retailers everywhere have noticed the rising demand from customers and are trying to compete on variety.

Hari said he has managed to stay on top of the market and expand Sabi Foods over the years by putting a large emphasis on properly marketing products. “We are a manufacturer and specialised in marketing the product with efficient distribution, which is key in the FMGC industry,” he says.

The wholesale boss also keenly watches trends in Indian food. He says the latest craze in South Asian cuisines is for new processed foods. To this end, Sabi Foods has recently started carrying, “the new range of Indo Chinese called Ching’s Secret, which is the single largest Indo-Chinese brand out of India,” Hari says.

Hari admits Sabi Foods has weathered a few knocks over the years, with a drop-off in the number of Indian students studying in Australia in the wake of the 2010 attacks and economic gloom in recent years putting a dent in business. “There has been tough times in the last year and it is still slow. But we keep changing strategies to keep up to the market,” he says.

But Hari is also optimistic about the future and sees plenty of opportunities for growth in Australia’s Indian food market ahead. “We have huge plans for the next five to 10 years, more on (expanding) the range, brand and distribution. It will be hard for us to list them out now, but you will notice the changes in coming years,” he says.

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Australian Magazine)

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