The freezer aisle of the grocery store wouldn’t be the first place you turn for a home-cooked meal, but that’s exactly what Maani’s Artisan Indian Cuisine aims to deliver.
“This is food that we eat at home and I wanted people to eat like that,” says Monika Arora, the chef and businesswoman behind the enterprise.
Twelve-ounce containers offer two portions of some of the most popular dishes of Northern India. There’s Chicken Tikka Masala, with a tomato-based spicy, creamy, flavorful sauce.
“That’s the easiest dish to identify with,” Arora says.
Even someone largely unfamiliar with Indian cuisine has likely heard of it. Maani’s also offers spinach-based Saag Paneer, and soon, lentil-centric Dal Makhani.
“None of the dishes have curry in it, so that’s a misconception,” Arora adds.
Onion, ginger, tomatoes, garlic and spices give the dishes their rich flavor profiles.
Stores like Lucky’s, Weiland’s, Whole Foods at Easton and Dublin, and The Hills in Worthington stock the main dish component that retails around a $9.99 price point. Diners make their own rice and bread to round out a traditional meal.
Arora has been serving up authentic Indian food in one form or another nearly all her life. She grew up in the restaurant business, working at her family’s joint Rajmahal – the first Indian restaurant in Rochester, NY. Arora would start her own family and career in strategic planning with Fortune 500 companies, but there was always cooking for family and friends – family and friends that would clean her out of tupperware with constant requests for more eats.
Eventually Arora came to the point where she thought, “I thought if I don’t start it, I’ll regret it forever.”
While there’s plenty of competition in the frozen food space, “Frozen food is not a niche market, it’s’ statured, and those are the big players, the big companies,” Arora says.
She opted product over restaurant to build a consistent, scalable offering. She knows it’s consistent because she does everything herself, from cooking the recipes at a catering kitchen on Harmon Avenue every Wednesday, to hand-ladling and packaging every container, to self-distributing to store shelves.
“It’s a lot of work but it’s just so fulfilling,” Arora says. “They can really taste that passion in the food.”
A labor of love, building a frozen food business hasn’t been without its challenges. Maani’s hit store shelves last summer, but over two years of work went into creating the final product.
She first turned to friend and business owner Tara Abraham of Accel in New Albany who helped her make the first mock-up for store shelves.
“Then I knocked on so many doors,” Arora says.
From ECDI, to women’s groups, to other food producers like Darista Dips or Willy’s Salsas, many phone calls were made.
Perfecting the recipe for large batches took over a year. “It’s chemistry,” Arora says, not just a matter of multiply the original recipe by a certain number of portions. Manufacturing a product with chicken in it also comes with a strict set of regulations. Labeling, however, represented one of the biggest challenges.
“There’s so many facets,” Arora says. UPC code, nutrition facts, dimensions – and everything has to be in a very specific ratio. The final result is packed with meaning for Arora, who chose Ganesh, an elephant of good fortune for her logo, and the name Manni coming from her son’s nickname.
“It’s just trial and error and good old fashioned work,” Arora says.
As a one-woman operation, she’s primarily focused on managing the accounts she has (the Chicken Tikka Masala barely stays on store shelves), but more dishes could be in the future. In addition to lentils, Arora would like to add a Chicken Vindaloo or Coconut Chicken Curry to the Manni’s lineup, along with lunch-size portions that include a side of rice.
For more information, visit maanisfood.com.