Meet the Spice Kings of Cork

In the first of our series on The Spice Kings of Cork, KATE RYAN chats to Arun Kapil who founded Green Saffron, renowned for their fresh spices, about the growth and success of his business
Meet the Spice Kings of Cork
Arun Kapil, his wife Olive and team at Green Saffron

WHEN Arun Kapil and his wife Olive, his Garryvoe golden girl, founded Green Saffron, they had nothing.

In 2004, Arun escaped his hectic life in the UK as the founder of a record label, “and all that came with that,” and invested his money in securing a place at Ballymaloe Cookery School, working in the kitchens of the world famous restaurant, enabling him to remain in Ireland.

The son of a doctor from India and nurse from Yorkshire, Arun was brought up in England watching his parents cook and eating food that blended together the culinary heritage of his mother and father. In Ireland, Arun hankered for the flavours of home — for fresh spice.

“My father put me in touch with my cousin in India and I received a 15kg package of fresh spice bought from one of the Mundis,” (an Indian farmer’s market where spice farmers congregate to sell their produce).

“From day one, Green Saffron has been buying fresh spice direct from source, from the Mundis,” adds Arun — a fact that he remains proud of. That’s not easy to maintain when moving from the simplicity of a farmer’s market to provisioning spices, sauces and meals to supermarkets.

“When we started the farmers’ markets, we ground spices in a little coffee grinder and wrote down the recipes. It was slow work, in about four hours we maybe managed to make ten little sachets. We were very fortunate that people seem to like what we do.

“Green Saffron has been formed on the goodwill of the Irish, particularly Cork, and I don’t believe I would have had the same opportunity in the UK.”

It wasn’t until 2012 that Arun and Olive started to take what they were doing seriously.

“We wrote a business plan for the first time in 2012 to get listed in supermarkets. That was the turning point really, I started to realise that we needed to work in collaboration with people for the better good — that’s Green Saffron’s whole proposition.

“Green Saffron was one of the first companies to take part in the Bord Bia Tesco Programme, it gave us the impetus to spend far too much money that we didn’t have! So there we were at the beginning of 2012 doing five farmers’ market and a food festival a year, supplying about 100 shops that had come to us along the way and packaging our own spices, and by the end of the year we were in 27 Tesco supermarkets with a whole new imagery, new packaging — everything! That was a frenetic year!”

Fast forward to 2019, and Green Saffron are the first Indian brand to have products in Ambient (sauce jars and spice sachets), Ready to Eat with their new Fresh Pots, and later this year a frozen meals range too.

Arun Kapil of Green Saffron For Spice King series
Arun Kapil of Green Saffron For Spice King series

But what makes Green Saffron different?

“Everything that we do is 100% natural, clean and beautiful,” says Arun.

“We have to be able to make it from ingredients in your store cupboard, not from a science lab — important because I want people to experience the beauty of fresh spice.

“Direct contact with farms means we have the world’s most secure spice supply chain. Because I don’t have the financial resources that a big company does, I have had to figure out how we can work culturally in the spice supply chain. So we are working in the local community in India, creating initiatives about women empowerment; earth worm and ladybird initiatives, we are talking about how we use our natural resources and we are working with Sarpanchis (Indian village chiefs), to give back to their local communities for education. We are also bringing in new technologies for negating the use of pesticides in food production.

“We started working with the Mundi’s, and now, within three years, we have got back to farm level with 100% verified traceability back to farm. Where most conventional spice companies are happy to put a spice factory in India, we’re backward integrating to source.

“There is a lot of exploitation within spice farming, this is our way to redress the balance. From day one, we have put money into the farmers’ hands by guaranteeing the entire crop of a farmer: we buy it, come what may. We are on the ground, in the community, so we can verify every single crop.

“We represent modern India: freshness, lightness, health; about flavour, taste and texture.”

I ask if in 2006, when Arun ran his first farmers’ market, he ever imagined this is the conversation he’d be having thirteen years later?

“No! Not in the slightest bit! When I came over I had every intention to do the cookery course and combine cookery with my music life and get some pubs in the north of England. But I fell in love with Olive, I felt accepted, and it gave me the opportunity to settle my head a bit and just calm down, reassess, and see what life is all about.”

At 50, Arun has run companies since he was just 18, when he formed his record label.

“I’m full of beans, I love life and I feel very fortunate to be here. So the relentlessness, the tiredness, the never, ever letting anything go and believing in the project and myself, this is something I was brought up with.

“Indians believe in ‘Jugaard’, an intrinsic spirit I believe I have been blessed with. It’s a relentless drive about getting on and doing what needs to be done to support your family and the ones that you love.

“Although not practicing, I live the ethics of Hinduism; my father once said to me, ‘Arun, Hinduism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy!’ and that’s how I’ve always lived my life. At Green Saffron, everything we do is always with integrity and honesty. If I lost credibility, I would no longer be a man of my word, and I tend to trade on the value of my word rather than a contract or a business plan!”

Green Saffron is Arun’s food journey, his story, who he is, and food integrity is a huge part of that.

Their latest product to hit the shelves are Fresh Pots — just heat and eat. The entire range is vegetarian and vegan-friendly, and manufactured in Little Island.

“When my father left India, his sister taught him to make three dishes, two of which we launched in the Fresh Pots: the Tarka Dahl and Dad’s Vegetable Curry. They are in honour of my father who was taught by his family. I’m incredibly proud of the whole Fresh Pot range.

“To me, every meal should be generous, joyous, delicious and healthy. I see spices as colours, and if you can capture the essence of that colour on the palate, then to me that’s a thing of beauty and then the food will sparkle. If you’re ever bored of your beans on toast, grind a bit of cumin into it and all of a sudden you’ve got a different meal. But just give spice a go, a bit of nuance; something different to a regular dish to make it more exciting. Because why are we eating, why are we cooking? We are nurturing the ones we love.”

Arun’s favourite spice is black pepper.

“Because,” he says, “there are very few people who have the experience of fresh black pepper, but when you do, it’s incredible and that’s what I want to bring to market.”

As Green Saffron move into a new phase, their vision is coming to fruition. For now, the excitement is firmly on their Fresh Pots. Later this year it will be their new range of frozen meals, pastes, naan breads and rice. Arun’s simple wish is to be proud of what he and his team are creating, and for us to enjoy it.

Next week in our series on the Spice Kings of Cork, we talk to the man behind Mr Bell’s Emporium in Cork’s English Market.

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