Sunday, August 4, 2013

Interview: Artisan food entrepreneur Deboleena Dutta

Deboleena Dutta
Interview by Tom Epler

A few weeks ago, our local natural market was showcasing samples from HerbNZest, a gourmet sauce and spread company. While all of their suggested recipes or uses for their products aren't vegan, all of the ingredients in their products are—and we were so impressed by the Caramelized Apple Champagne Mustard that we bought a jar of it on the spot. 

I learned later that the company was started and is run by Deboleena Duttaan artisan entrepreneur who sources some of her primary ingredients locally. Check out my interview with her below—and be sure to try (or ask your local grocer to stock) their delicious products!

New Vegan Age: Many corporate employees dream of someday leaving CubicleLand to start a company that offers something healthy and organic. You're actually doing it! Tells us how HerbNZest started as an idea—and how it became a reality.

Deboleena Dutta: HerbNZest (double-meaning: Urban-Zest) offers a new twist on gourmet food with condiments that are fun, healthier, and easy enough to build everyday meals around or showcase on special occasions. The products are made in Pennsylvania in small batches using natural, vegan, and premium gluten-free ingredients.

After 10 years in corporate America spanning investment banking, and private equity, it was as a Summer Public Fellow doing a microfinance project in a remote village India during my MBA at The Wharton School that got me to re-evaluate my career and think outside the cubicle. As a self-proclaimed foodie, starting a food company was the obvious choice. What I do now, as a food entrepreneur and founder of HerbNZest truly brings together all the elements of my experience: my love of food, my role as a busy mom, and my experience as a business-woman.

As a child spending summers in my grandma’s kitchen in India, I was surrounded by the smell and taste of spices and herbs. It was only as an adult that my love of food turned into an exploration and experimentation of flavors discovered through travel to over 20 countries. Food brings together people like nothing else does and I love the experience of food and the stories and memories that are created around the table when one is enjoying and sharing food with family and friends.

Locals sample Dutta's sauces at an area farmer's market
NVA: Once you knew you wanted to start a company, how did you develop and settle on a vision for it?

DD: I realized how unhealthy and limited condiments and prepared foods on the store-shelves were: high in sugar, salt, fats, and artificial flavors. As a busy mom, I care for nutrition, versatility, and ease of use and not finding those options prompted me to create them!

For me it was very important to have fun with the process: it was a blast creating the flavor profiles such as Fennel Saffron Pumpkin Butter and Vegan Curry Pumpkin Pesto. For many condiments on shelves, the first thing that you taste is sugar. I wanted to highlight the fruit and the spices and herbs instead. I chose many premium ingredients for their health and taste factors: such as olive oil over canola, or brown sugar over cane sugar or kosher salt over regular salt, brown raisins (no sulphites) over yellow raisins.

The challenge is to incorporate the flavors with less sugar, salt and little or no oil. I also try to highlight certain flavors and textures to create a sensory experience: for instance the Caramelized Apple Champagne Mustard has chunks of sweet hand-caramelized New York apples to provide texture while the back end is spicy from the brown mustard base. And that is done through execution, the process that we use to actually create each flavor. Everything from choice of ingredients, to source of ingredients to final process plays an important role in the taste and nutrition of the product. As a result, our products have 10-20 calories, up to 3 gms sugar, up to 60 mg salt, and no Trans fats per tablespoon. Plus, we make our products in multiple small batches to ensure quality and taste.

When I tell people that we used our Basil Peach Chutney
to make a Peached Iced Tea recipe, I love their reaction, “Really, no kidding!” Then they taste the tea and want to replicate it for their summer BBQ. That is success in my mind because we just gave the hosts an idea that took them less than 10 minutes to execute, started a fun conversation at their party and allowed them to be the creative star!

My hope is to inspire people to be creative and have fun with food: we provide recipe tools and the suggestions and you create the meals and appetizers with little effort and time. At the end, the fun is about savoring the food with family and friends.

NVA. Why did you decide to offer vegan condiments with HerbNZest?

Vegan naan pizza with pumpkin pesto
DD: Our objective was simply to offer flavor-filled, healthier sauces that use vegan and gluten-free ingredients so that both vegans and non-vegans could use them. The choice to be vegan is the customer's. But we wanted to offer options that helped them develop fun and tasty meals. We are developing more and more vegan recipes on our website. For instance, we just developed this fun and easy Vegan Pizza recipe recently using our Vegan Pumpkin Pesto.


NVA: How do you ensure that a growing company—with all of the triumphs, setbacks, and innumerable details and questions that must be addressed—follows that broader vision every day, with every batch of products made and every contact with a customer or potential customer?

DD: That is the challenge: to be true to your mission while growing the company. With time, products and paths may evolve to meet customer needs better or to reach a different set of customers, but the broader mission will stay the same: to make innovative, quality products to inspire and serve our customers. We would ensure this by instilling our mission and setting quality standards and processes for everyone that manages or handles our product or is involved in serving our customers.

NVA: Has running your own company provided flexibility that you lacked in corporate America? Or, as the company grows, are you finding that it encroaches on that time you'd hoped to reclaim as a Mom?

DD:
Being an entrepreneur is a 24x7 job, especially in the beginning. I like to think of HerbNZest as my other baby! It needs time and nurturing and if you don’t attend to it, no one else will. However, connectivity today lends a whole different level of flexibility to the new age entrepreneur, so I am able to work some of my schedule around my kids. For instance, I can work out of my home office or finish work after 9pm when I have put my kids to bed. This would have been impossible during my Wall Street tenure.

In-store display/taste test
NVA: What advice do you give to other women who are thinking of following an entrepreneurial dream—of offering something they're passionate about to the community?

DD:  I would say, if you believe in something, if you want to make a difference, go for it! Your passion is the foundation but to build a business, you need to develop a business plan, do your market research, and figure out what resources, finances, and partners you need to develop your business.

Especially as women, it is important to make sure you have the right support system around you, ask for help and hold people accountable. And be willing to re-evaluate, accept failure, and change! And finally, be patient. Many successful companies started out as something else that was not initially as successful but they stayed the ground and changed their path to become who they are today.

NVA: Is there a financial advantage to sourcing ingredients locally? How about an emotional one? Have you found that customers ask about and appreciate this aspect of HerbNZest?

DD: Customers are really going back to local when it comes to food. There is an increased awareness: people want to eat fresh local produce and know where their food is sourced from. Moreover, during economic downturns, people want to support their local community and buying from their community helps establish a relationship with their farmer just like the old times.

At HerbNZest, we source local as much as we can such as using Jersey tomatoes for our Chive Tomato Relish and our Spoonable Curry Ketchup. Right now, sourcing locally can be expensive for small producers but as we grow we hope to have more purchasing power. We see ourselves as part of the revival of American manufacturing by creating food that is unique and artistic and high quality. And we will innovate as we go!

NVA: Though you've started here in Central New Jersey, where would you like your sauces and spreads to be available in five years? In twenty years?

DD: We hope to be the company that is known for its innovative, fun, versatile, and simple-to-use flavors. We are in specialty stores and natural stores in the Mid-Atlantic region now and hope to continue to steadily in the Eastern belt in the next 5 years. Our main objective is to continue to innovate flavors that our customers grow to love and expect and gradually be a part of people daily meals and special occasions all over the country.

NVA: What haven't we discussed today that you like to tell people about your company?

DD: We hope that young folks will think of HerbNZest when they want to make a quick meal. Busy moms, dads, and professionals will think of us for their everyday meals, and party goers and party-throwers will think of us as “right out of the jar” food. Our mission is to inspire people to explore food through their own easy creations and have fun with the experience: from shopping to cooking to sharing with family and friends.

For this reason, we provide a recipe tool on our website to search recipes by product and have suggested uses right on the jar!

NVA: Any upcoming events or new products you'd like to mention?

DD: Given my heritage, for the longest time, I have had customers come and ask me to develop curry flavored condiments and we listened!

We just launched our Vegan Curry Pumpkin Pesto and our Spoonable Curry Ketchup. Our curry flavors are not intensely curry flavored but rather inspired by the Indian curry (see our Keep Calm and Curry On blog), so they are flavorful and versatile and go over a broad array of foods like pasta, noodles, and grilled vegetables.

For an entrepreneur, the first phase of product development and launch is really the honeymoon phase: it is inspiring and positive, but now is where the real work begins and it is a tough road! So, I ask you, our local community to give our products a try, and if you like them, spread the word to your friends and family. If you create a recipe using HerbNZest that you enjoy, post it on our facebook or twitter account and we will be sure to respond. Your support means a lot to us and it’s what keeps us going: our fans!

HerbNZest flavors are currently sold in specialty and natural food stores listed here and online at www.herbnzest.com. And for those who would like to use us for their parties or events, we have an affiliate program and volume discounts. Email us at partnership@herbnzest.com with your event idea.

NVA: Thank you, Deboleena! We wish you all the best and look forward to supporting you in the coming months and years. Keep us posted on your expansion and new vegan products!


Mango salad with mustard avocado dressing (recipe here)
Vegan garden salad with cranberry orange vinaigrette (recipe here)