Spicy SCORE for Pakistani Cuisine

For entrepreneurs, it’s natural to believe in the viability of a business concept, especially when they conceived it, but they may not know all the commercial nuances.

Looking to introduce spices from her native Pakistan to American food, Huma Siddiqui knew what she was doing in seeking advice from the local Chapter of SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Siddiqui started her business, White Jasmine, from scratch in 2003, but when it came time to expand her product line four years later, she turned to people who know more about business than spicing up food.

The rate of new business failure is still unacceptably high, especially in these economic times, but entrepreneurs can improve their odds with a little help from people who have been there and done that. She met with three SCORE counselors to seek advice about marketing, distribution support, and the business planning associated with them.

“When you start a business, you feel pretty alone,” she confided. “You do need that support from other experts, and that’s why I contacted SCORE — to see if I could talk about marketing and distribution with somebody who understands it.”

She actually met with three “some bodies” that bring ample experience in the Madison business community who offered. They offered, and continue to offer, a valued perspective on how best to market her spice products. The counselors — Greg Wilkinson, who spent 30 years on the business side of TDS Telecom, and sales pros Joe Lovett and Dick Rehberg, who has since resigned from SCORE — have no experience in the food industry, but have served as sort of an advisory board for White Jasmine, particularly for product development.

Wilkinson doesn’t know who first came up with the idea for assorted spice blends, but that was the most inspired suggestion that came out of Siddiqui’s first encounter with her SCORE counselors. At that point, she was still in the very early stages of her business, and she was still working as an accountant, a nice skill for an entrepreneur to have. With White Jasmine, she was selling packages of high-end individual spices (ginger, cinnamon sticks, garam marsala, cumin), she had already written a cookbook, and she was conducting cooking demonstrations, but she was looking for advice to take her business to another level.

For Wilkinson, the thought of consumers paying $35 for a cookbook and another $35 for a set of spices was problematic. “I would certainly think long and hard about whether I would want to lay out $70 to see if I could cook like Huma,” he stated. “The idea was that you need a spice blend where people can go home and sprinkle it on a chicken breast or put it on a hamburger or something like that, and get a taste of the Pakistani prices that she was promoting.”

The counselors thought that had real market power because in the United States, we think of spices as salt, pepper, and perhaps a little garlic. American consumers really haven’t opened their taste buds to the wide ranging flavor of Pakistani spices. So Siddiqui invented a spice blend, which led to spice blend number two, and eventually to spice blend number three.

Now, spice blends are a major part of Siddiqui’s business. “Her goal was to introduce the U.S. population to the wonderful spices of Pakistan, and [with spice blends] she accomplished that goal in a much easier-to-use fashion and in a much more widely accepted fashion,” Wilkinson said. “I think the influence SCORE made was that it was nice to have several minds in the room and throw out ideas. That idea, particularly, came out of the discussion with the four of us through collaboration.”

To Siddiqui, the SCORE counselors really are business partners “thinking in the same direction with different brains,” not to mention palettes. Spice blends also are the “secret sauce” behind White Jasmine’s latest product introduction, spice-flavored cheeses, and her SCORE counselors served as a bit of a taste-testing sounding board. In this case, their taste buds were as valuable as their business acumen.

Several new cheeses with various Pakistani spice blends were launched in March of 2010 in a state that already produces several hundred specialty cheeses. Siddiqui has partnered with Meister Cheese Co. of Muscoda, Wis. to make and distribute the cheese, which is sold in retail stores like Whole Foods.

Siddiqui, who develops her own recipes and has a weekly cooking show, White Jasmine Everyday Cooking, on the local NBC affiliate, is encouraged by early sales activity and the number of repeat orders. She set out to create a specialty cheese that people can cook with — in other words, that could melt without loosing the flavor of the spice blend. She settled on creamier Gouda cheeses that can enrich the flavor of pizzas, grilled cheese sandwiches, and hamburgers.

Without SCORE’s counsel, Siddiqui would have to seek more expensive business counseling. The organization puts on two seminars a month, both on the nuts and bolts of starting a business. In addition, individual counseling sessions are free, and people can come back as often as they want. The organization has expertise in marketing and building business plans, especially plans acceptable to the Small Business Administration and other lenders.

“We won’t write your business plan, but we will certainly review it and be a sounding board for some of the pitfalls out there,” Wilkinson said. “People come in and they literally range from very well thought out business plans and a great course of action, to the other end of spectrum where they come in and say, ‘I want to start a restaurant.’ When we ask ‘what do you know about that?’ they say, ‘I like to eat.’ So it’s a wide spectrum.”

SCORE has made a believer out of Siddiqui, who has only one full-time employee and spends about 65% of her time in the kitchen experimenting and developing recipes for show. “This is just an extremely good resource for every business owner starting out, or looking for expansion in the community because you do need that support and that sounding board to work with you and work through your ideas,” she said. “We’ve built relationships, and I listen to their advice and trust them enough because they are interested in my business.

“They are just invaluable.”

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