Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Feature:
Sabah Ashraf of House of Kajaana

Meet House of Kajaana: Sabah Ashraf’s plant-based Indian food brand turning freezers into treasure chests

Sabah Ashraf, the founder of House of Kajaana, is a first-generation Indian-American who has long understood the power of the freezer. She says, “We had a cook who lived with us and made the most beautiful Indian dishes for every meal at home growing up. When he had to leave us in the early 80s, we put a big freezer in our basement and he cooked a year’s worth of Indian meals to store there. As a child, I learned that the freezer was this treasure chest of meals that could be stored and magically come back in minutes.”

As Sabah grew older, her professional career included many chapters that built the foundation for House of Kajaana. She started in investment banking focused on consumer products and later worked at innovation firms always focused on “understanding the unmet needs of consumers and delivering products that would bring them joy.” Throughout this time, Sabah remained passionate about Indian food and felt there was an opportunity to create meals that more closely matched the delicious frozen food she grew up savoring. “When I finally felt ready—even though you’re never ready,” Sabah says, “but when I felt the courage and the conviction to create a brand, I decided to start House of Kajaana based on my heritage and the experiences of my childhood.” ****Her read of the market was that it was also ready for more authentic South Asian flavors and meals to be represented in stores.

House of Kajaana, Sabah says, is “a 100% plant-based Indian frozen food brand. Our mission is to make it easy for people to joyfully nourish themselves without sacrificing their health, the planet, or their time.”

Developing House of Kajaana

As Sabah developed House of Kajaana, she first had to decide which dishes from the vast menu of Indian cuisine to focus on. Her summers were spent with her family in Kashmir in the Himalayas and she also went to boarding school in Southern India where she fell in love with a whole new spectrum of Indian flavors. To help her choose the best options and, more importantly, develop the recipes themselves, Sabah turned to her favorite chef and Pondicheri restaurant owner, Anita Jaisinghani. With so many delicious options to choose from, Sabah and Jaisinghani began development firmly rooted in their values for a brand at scale. Sabah explains, “There were certain things we wanted to stand for. We wanted to be 100% made from plants, and for [our meals] to be free from seed oils, gluten, dairy, soy, and nuts.”

Sabah and Chef Jaisinghani also decided to focus on classic Indian dishes for their first collection of dishes. Sabah explains, “When you go to an Indian restaurant, there are always a few meals that make it on every table —tikka masala, saag, and curry. We realized that if we were focused on selling in a grocery store, we better hit flavor profiles that people already know and love. As much as we wanted to do exotic things that people have never heard of, we knew we should focus on the basics as a new brand and build a relationship with our consumers first.” House of Kajaana’s First Collection launched with three meals: Cauliflower Tikka Masala, Roasted Butternut Saag, and Coconut Malabar Curry.

House of Kajaana’s Cauliflower Tikka Masala, Sabah says, has proven to be a “gateway meal” for many new customers, and was also a Startup CPG Shelfie winner in 2023. Sabah says, “When we learned we won the Shelfie, it was such an incredible moment. We were a new brand and it felt like nobody knew who we were, so to be recognized and put on the map was so important…It was such a joyful moment, and there might have even been some tears. We’re also finding that the recognition of the Shelfie has been valuable for us in our conversation with [retailers].”

Sequencing their retail expansion

Sabah and Lili Cohen are the two-woman full-time team behind House of Kajaana, and they have built an incredible network around them to be intentional in their launch into retail. The first store they landed was Pop Up Grocer in NYC, which, because of its small scale, allowed their emerging brand to spot blind spots and make changes. “The attachment rate [at Pop Up Grocer] was also an incredible data point for us,” Sabah says. After only two months at Pop Up Grocer, House of Kajaana was able to leverage this data to start a partnership with Fresh Direct in New York. Sabah explains, “It was the first time we were distributing to thousands of homes. We learned that over 65% of the people buying our meals were net-new to the frozen vegetarian meals category. We were picking up consumers who wanted better-for-you options but had not embraced this opportunity before. We also started to see that people were purchasing our meals repeatedly.”

Sabah again leveraged this data to open a conversation with Whole Foods. “Through some incredible friends and advisors, we had the opportunity to meet with a global head of frozen at Whole Foods. He tried our meals, and he saw where we were going as a new brand and gave us incredible feedback – including our need to get Non-GMO Project verified for launch.” As it turns out, their ingredients passed the test without a single change.

Now, after months of preparations and years in the making, House of Kajaana is officially launching in Whole Foods in three regions in the US (Southern Pacific, Northeast, and South  West). Sabah says, “It has felt like a dream moment. We have had our hearts set on this for a long time. [Whole Foods], and the community behind it, allows us to meet our customers where they are. We also get to demonstrate that people want better options than the products they’re seeing in frozen, and [retailers] are starting to understand the power of frozen.”

The leap to a national presence

Going from one region to three is no small task for an emerging brand, but House of Kajaana has been preparing for this moment since its launch. “We always knew that we wanted to scale, but this tested our readiness. Our partners and advisors helped us make sure that we chose manufacturers and teams who could scale with us when we were ready, so we didn’t have to find new partners to be able to scale because that work had been done.”

Still, with every new phase comes growth, and for this phase, House of Kajaana has been learning about distribution. Sabah explains, “You spend all your time dreaming of and working towards that retailer, but it’s also the distributor who is a key relationship between your product and the retailer.” To tackle multi-region distribution, Sabah and her team applied for the UpNext program with UNFI, which is tailored to emerging brands. House of Kajaana was accepted, and Sabah says it has been instrumental in their launch. Above all, when preparing to scale, Sabah says, “Find great partners, build trust, and do it before it’s time so you can enter into these big launch moments with confidence.”

Advice to fellow founders and the future of House of Kajaana

“Treat every single conversation you have as a pitch and an opportunity for people to learn about you and what you’re building,” Sabah says. “We will get on a call with an insurance team and start the conversation with a capability deck and an introduction to who we are. We also always send potential partners or team members our meals. It has allowed us to connect at a deeper level that’s less transactional. We can make other people recognize how important they are to our journey. We’ve always known the importance of not doing it alone and building our community.”

Looking toward the future of House of Kajaana, Sabah and her team are primarily focused on successfully rolling out their Whole Foods launch. Sabah explains, “Everyone says that the hardest part is not just getting on the shelf, it’s making sure that your products get off the shelf and into people’s homes. We’re doing everything we can to embrace the potential we have right now. We’re also approaching [our Whole Foods launch] almost like a book tour. We’re going to be in the stores doing demos non-stop, so please come and say hi.”

Centered around the regions in their Whole Foods footprint, the team is focused on building brand awareness in those communities before they strategically roll out in other parts of the country. House of Kajaana also has some exciting product development in the works, Sabah explains. “We’re showing great discipline in focusing on our current collection, but oh my gosh, we can’t wait to share some of the things that we have in our pipeline.”

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