When Jasleen and Tarush Agarwal started their artisanal paneer company, Sach Foods, out of an Oakland apartment in 2018, they never thought that they'd be trying to scale up during a pandemic.
Their organic, high-end cheese first went to market through Berkeley's Cheeseboard in September 2019. And by the beginning of 2020, they were in 10 local Bay Area stores.
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“As soon as the pandemic happened, food service went to zero,” said Tarush. He had product stocked that didn’t get used because the demand from restaurants like August 1 Five, Greens and Rooh just wasn’t there anymore. But Tarush always wanted to have a diversified approach to supply. They were still able to ship their cheese, and retail business went up. Tarush knew he wanted to be in grocery stores and in accessible places for a variety of consumers.
By June, Sach was in 47 Whole Foods stores. The next month, they launched in Washington state and Oregon. In non-pandemic circumstances, the couple would be demo-ing their products in stores to familiarize customers. But, without samples, it’s been difficult to get people to find the paneer. On top of that, each store layout is different, said Tarush. So, even if a customer was looking to buy it, it’s hard to know where to point them.
To combat these challenges, Tarush and Jasleen have had to rely heavily on social media and other customers to spread the word about their product. But, if it weren’t for retailers, Tarush said that it would have been very difficult to find new customers.
They market their paneer as a high-protein vegetarian option and as a substitute for tofu. And while it is more expensive than most paneers one could find at the local Indian grocer, Tarush is looking to fill the needs of a different customer base—one that wants organic and has never tried paneer before. The fresh, non-melting cheese is used in a variety of different Indian dishes, and Tarush pushes that boundary with different flavors, tapping influencers to show how the cheese can be used. He says he doesn't want to sacrifice quality in order to scale the business or lower the price point.
For him and Jasleen, scaling has to be smart and in-line with the product values. In September, they plan to expand further into Mollie Stone’s and New Leaf markets.