Lalah's Spices Food

Bringing home the spices

Blending it right Laavanya Manradiar with her daughters Photo: R. Ravindran  

In 1920, while India was still ruled by George V and Madras was still a Presidency, Punjab Mittulaul Lalah started a spice business from a small shed in Triplicane. His sisters used to help blend and pack the various masalas, including a curry powder that would make a mark for itself in kitchens all over the world.

Today, the company, known as Lalah’s, operates out of a swanky glass and wood panelled office on TTK Road. Their state-of-the-art factory is in Tiruppur district, with a capacity of 15,000 metric tonnes per annum. The machines might do the roasting, grinding and packaging, but the blending is still done by hand. And that, says Laavanya Manradiar, vice-president of marketing, head of new product development and great-great granddaughter of Mittulaul, is what gives their spice blends a human touch. The fourth generation to be part of the management, she is passionate not only about the history of the company, but also about its future.

“My maternal grandfather, Dowlathram Seth, took over the thriving business after his father. He was a dynamic personality and travelled the world over, taking the brand to 25 countries at a time when ships were the fastest mode of transport. However, he passed away early, when only my mother Jayshree was married, and so my father stepped in and took over the business,” she says. Jayshree and her husband Rajkumar Manradiar, who was from an agricultural family in Erode, worked together to consolidate the overseas business and expanded operations to the 37 countries they supply to now.

After running a software company with her husband Ishwar for a few years, Laavanya joined her parents in the family-owned business in 2012 (she has an elder sister who has settled in Coimbatore and teaches the visually-challenged). She says, “With meticulous planning, my parents put a lot of systems in place. My father believes in quality, service and commitment; he calls them the three pillars on which we function. My mother has a keen business sense, and she personally does the sourcing of our raw materials, which is the most important part of bringing out a quality product.” And 38-year-old Laavanya seems to have inherited that business acumen, as she did her MBA in finance at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom. “Since U.K. is a great market for us, I could actually understand Lalah’s as a brand while I was there. In that sense, I was initiated into the working of the company quite early,” she says.  

“My focus is on innovation,” Laavanya reiterates, seated in her office with an assortment of Lalah’s products lined up on the shelf behind her. “The most important thing was knowing our competition. We stopped retailing in India in the early 90s, but when we looked into the current market, we felt that the time was right to step in again. In India, only 30 per cent of the spice suppliers are from an organised sector. So on November 30, 2012, we decided that we would bring home not only the products we are best known for, but also a whole new range.”

And so they went back to the drawing board, to rediscover their own product, the original Madras curry powder, which she felt was a “champion” the way people spoke about it. “Even a champion needs to reinvent himself or herself. The market is already filled with region-specific brands catering to distinct palates. We wanted to make our curry powder so versatile that it could be used in any cuisine, from north Indian to south Indian to continental,” says Laavanya.

She was quite astonished that so many people could recall the brand, and more so, when they began singing “Lalah masala, ahaa, Lalah masala”. “We have been asked to bring back the jingle! It showed a lot of goodwill, and to capitalise on it, we took three years of ideating and production before we launched our new line,” she says. With 50 different spice blends and innovative packaging — each 100 gm packet has four sachets of 25 gm each — the revamped range began to retail in stores about a month ago. “Each of the sachets makes enough to serve four people. As it is individually packaged, it retains freshness. In spite of the fact that we don’t use MSG, preservatives or added colours, our products have a shelf life equal to that of other brands in the market.” But she refuses to call the products organic as she cannot vouch for the way the raw materials are grown.

Each packet comes with a recipe, most of which have been written by Laavanya. “We spent a lot of time on recipe development; our chef and I took a month to perfect a sambar recipe. But I also learnt a lot. For instance, we spent weeks trying to get a thick Alleppey fish curry the way restaurants serve it. After some research, I found that, in its authentic form, it was a watery gravy made by fishermen when they were out on their boats,” she says, adding that the recipes have garnered a lot of positive feedback, especially from people who are just learning to cook.

At home, Laavanya slips into an easy routine with her two daughters, Shriya (9) and Shakti (5). They read together, and spend more time talking than they do watching TV in the family room which is dominated by a photo wall. She does whip up meals at times, but says that her husband is the better cook of the two of them.

A former National-level tennis player, Laavanya encourages her kids to play sport; the elder one is an ace swimmer already, taking part in State-level meets and setting new records. The little one is quick to inform us that she knows how to bake a vanilla sponge cake, make volcano lava with vinegar and hot water and will one day be a doctor while her sister will be a scientist. Based on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, she also likes to think that the family factory produces chocolate and not spice mixes. But she also confides, “I like the masalas that amma makes. Punjabi paneer makhni is my favourite.”

The family is excited about their upcoming vacation to the U.S., but Laavanya has her mind more on business and less on Disneyland. “There is so much scope for our brand there, and I will be focussing on expanding our operations. But I am looking forward to going to Wimbledon later this year,” she smiles.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 9:21:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Food/how-a-chennaibased-spice-brand-became-wellknown-across-the-world/article7061498.ece

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