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December 31, 1999
The Merchant of Spices
You see it from the air even before your flight lands at La Guardia Airport: red, five-foot high letters spelling out 'HOUSE OF SPICES' emblazoned across the roof of a 110,000 sq foot warehouse. Finding it on land is not so easy as it is hidden deep behind a virtual bazaar of auto parts, tires and muffler shops in the heart of an industrial area on Willets Point Boulevard in Flushing.
Yet this unlikely place, a stone's throw from Shea Stadium, is the gigantic spice cauldron of New York. Here, every single day 12,000 pounds of chickpea flour, 300 cases each of ginger and garlic paste and pickles, among other foodstuffs, are produced. Every week, thousands of cartons of Indian snacks and sweets along with packaged spices are whisked away in container trucks to several states. Enter the cavernous warehouse and you see mountains of cartons containing everything from mango pulp to salty snacks to pickled lemons.
"I have enough supplies here to feed the entire city of Mumbai for one meal!" chuckles Gordhandas L Soni, the affable creator of this fortress of spices. While feeding that densely populated metropolis might be a stretch, he is certainly the largest manufacturer of Indian groceries in the United States. The House of Spices company has over 1600 products under its umbrella, and its customers range from hotels and restaurants to specialty stores and supermarkets, and of course thousands of Indian-American families.
Over the last decade, the South Asian population in America has exploded and there are countless ethnic grocery stores, restaurants and fast food places in New York. It was a different situation when Soni came to America from Kerala in 1964 as a 23-year-old student. After doing his masters in civil engineering in Fargo, N Dakota, he moved to New York and worked with the city as an engineer. He went to India in 1969 and returned with a wife.
The couple soon realized that Indian foodstuffs in America were a rarity and decided to start a side business of importing small shipments of spices from India. A store was going out of business in Jackson Heights and Soni rented it for the then princely sum of $ 200 a month. He stored his shipments in rented garages and soon found that his fledgling business was soaring. The engineer turned into a full-time entrepreneur and expanded to more retail stores.
For a man who had little to do with food except to eat it, Soni soon mastered the spice business. In 1974 the budding businessman had a nightmare experience when the FDA seized and destroyed his shipments from India which had failed the inspection. He decided to start manufacturing his own products and set up his plant to ensure quality control.
Today House of Spices Inc has a turnover of several million dollars. While the headquarters are in Queens, the company has warehouses in Washington DC, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. The company also operates retail stores including Dana Bazaar and House of Spices, a vegetarian restaurant called Anand Bhavan and Shamiana, a wholesale outlet for Indian sweets.
Enter the manufacturing plant throbbing with machines, and you get the aroma of fresh garlic, ginger and turmeric marinating in huge vats, ready to be ground and packaged automatically. Over a hundred products including ginger paste, garlic paste, pickles and chutneys are manufactured right here without the addition of chemicals. The garlic paste, for instance, consists of pure garlic, water and vinegar -- a nice shortcut for cooks wanting to give the fresh taste to their food without having to peel mounds of pungent pods.
Soni employs about 90 people in the New York plant and another 40 in the various warehouses across the US. Workers pack spices like poppy seeds, coriander and garam masala, which are all manufactured in Mumbai by The House of Spices's sister company to ensure quality control and consistency of the spices.
In the Flushing plant, American-made machinery is cunningly used to recreate Indian delicacies: Ghee is extracted from American butter while traditional Indian pickles and sauces are made here with local fresh produce, rather than importing them from India. At another assembly line, women workers turn out a whole array of orange, pink, green and yellow Indian sweets of milk, sugar, nuts and butter. For Indian-Americans these sweets are a nostalgic reminder of their homeland and are a must at celebrations.
All the snack foods are machine-made, and Soni has adapted huge peanut fryers to produce hot and spicy Indian snacks including fried chana daal, sev and gyantha. Rich ethnic breads like paratha, roti and naans are churned out on the sheeter, and the huge ovens are filled with the aroma of nankhatais, the buttery cookies that Indian grandmothers bake for the children.
If the borough of Queens is a delicious melting pot, this Master of Spices can certainly be credited with adding heat and flavor to it.
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