Kurry Guru makes dining Indian style convenient

A growing pile of red and yellow bell peppers mounds on a work station. A fragrant curry full of big chunks of vegetables bubbles on the stove. A steamer full of rice sounds a warning it's time for another stir.

In the kitchen of Kurry Guru, Mukta Joshi and two employees steadily chop and stir as they prepare Indian food that ultimately will be packaged as ready-to-eat meals going out the next day to local retailers.

Soups, salads, snacks, curries and rice are all being prepared in the small kitchen on Helen Avenue in Portage that was once the site of a restaurant.

Kurry Guru is the first fledgling food business to leave the Can-Do Kitchen incubator for start-up food businesses from the Kalamazoo area.

Joshi has adapted family recipes to fit her niche -- high quality, authentic Indian gourmet meals. Her meals are all freshly prepared -- nothing is frozen and there are no preservatives. They remain good to eat for seven days.

Together, Joshi and her husband came up with idea for the business and its name. They liked the sound of Kurry Guru and the uniqueness of spelling curry with a "K." "We wanted something that would grab you," Joshi says.

And as they looked at other ethnic foods being offered in a ready-to-eat fashion at local stores they decided Indian foods could be offered in the same way. 

Part of her mission is educational. "My philosophy is healthy, good food is not hard to find," Joshi says.

Joshi says a lot of people don't realize that healthy vegetarian foods can also taste good.

On a tour through the kitchen she identifies individual spices that give flavor to her foods and spells out some of their health benefits. This one she gives to her son as soon as he comes down with sniffles, it helps relieve congestion. Another one is good for the tummy. Here is Garam Masala, the magic spice.

Those who eat her meals may be broadening their palates beyond trying out new spice combinations. One of her salads offers not only the garbanzo beans that most Americans are familiar with, it has black garbanzos in it, too. The dish is rounded out with her special fresh dressing, bell peppers and spicy onions.

Once found only at a single location, Sawall Health Foods, Kurry Guru meals are now offered by five local retailers. Joshi's biggest customer is Bronson Methodist Hospital, which offers her food in both its cafes. As a result, her business grew by 300 percent in the past year.

The business continues to expand and today Joshi has lots of good things to say about the support and nurturing environment of the Can-Do Kitchen where she was able to refine her recipes and grow her business.

"They provided an environment where we could get the feel of the business," Joshi says. "We could see other people doing it."

She realized it was time to leave Can-Do kitchen when found she needed space to store food she bought in bulk. The mother of two young boys, 4 and 8, also needed a more flexible schedule than that provided at the incubator where companies must follow a schedule that allows everyone access they need to the facility.

Her boys are not old enough to be part of the family business yet, but her son Aniket, 8, already has become her greatest public relations spokesperson, Joshi says. He's promoted the business to his teacher and school. ("Have you heard of Kurry Guru? That's my mom!") And when dad asked Aniket what he wants to do when he grows up the boy says he wants to help his mother at Kurry Guru.

The route to her own kitchen was not always smooth for Joshi. She is particularly thankful to John Schmitt of the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, a regular advisor to businesses going through the incubator. She recalls a day when he was visiting Can-Do Kitchen and she was about ready to give it all up. She had just gotten back from a visit to India and in trying to catch up it seemed the business would never return the rewards she needed to make all that work worthwhile.

Schmitt convinced her the business was sound and that with the work she already put into that she could make a go of Kurry Guru. "He might not even remember that day," Joshi says. "But I will never forget it."

Lucy Bland's face lights up as she recalls the first time she tried Mukta Joshi's food. Kurry Guru catered a Fair Food Matters luncheon. "Everyone loved it," Bland says. 

The success of Kurry Guru is particularly rewarding for Bland, the manager of the Can-Do Kitchen, because it was one of the original businesses to get its start in the incubator back when itself was in it's own early days.

Bland has taken the kitchen from the idea stage -- when she envisioned a community kitchen -- to it beginnings in a trailer on the Kalamazoo County Fairgrounds, to its current location in the First Baptist Church in downtown Kalamazoo and is preparing it for the move to the space it will share with the People's Food Co-op at 507 Harrison Street in 2011.

Currently, 10 businesses use the kitchen and a number of others are doing the preparation work that must be completed before they can get started.

The kitchen provides not a nurturing enviroment, but also some of the fine details young businesses need to succeed.

With assistance from Schmitt at Mi-SBTDC, business ideas are honed, markets identified and strategies developed. The kitchen also helps connect entrepreneurs with a graphic designer for assistance with a logo and label. They provide Information on label requirements, such as sell by dates, weights and ingredients that must be listed.

During what is known as the First Shift, the new businesses become acquainted with the kitchen. Bland says a lot of emphasis in the first meeting is placed on what it means to share a kitchen and the importance of leaving it clean for the next person who will be using it.

Tips on how to work more efficiently and how to succeed when the state health inspector visits are all part of the educational process. So is helping the business owners find locally grown producers of foods they can use. For example, Mike's Famous Michigan Black Bean Dip originally was made with canned beans. Now Michigan beans are used in the dip.

Can-Do Kitchen, a business operating under the Fair Food Matters umbrella, does all this on a $25,000 annual budget.

In the hallway leading to the kitchen a sign on the office door reads "Pastor." Bland says the First Baptist church has been gracious in allowing the use of its kitchen for the budding businesses and working its needs for the kitchen around the entrepreneurs.

In return, church staff and parishiners have gotten to experience some good smells, but some good meals, too.

"Almost every day someone comes along; they're brought in by the smells," Bland says. "We have customers built-in right on site."

Those built-in customers will be gone when the kitchen relocates next year. Instead the kitchen will be part of a "food-hub,"  Bland says. "There will be a lot of new opportunities."

Kathy Jennings is editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance editor and writer.
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