When Brij Sehgal’s brother immigrated to Canada from India in 1970, his mother filled his suitcase with sacks of lentils and spices.

By The Gazette (Montreal) April 4, 2006

When Brij Sehgal’s brother immigrated to Canada from India in 1970, his mother filled his suitcase with sacks of lentils and spices.

“I remember her saying: ‘where the hell will you get these foods in Canada Best to stock up,’ ” Sehgal said in an interview.

Where, indeed He’d have been hard-pressed to find a grain of basmati rice, let alone a cardamom pod in this country 36 years ago. The memory of schlepping Punjabi spices halfway around the globe to enjoy the flavours of the old country was in Sehgal’s mind when he created his company, Nutrifresh Foods, in 1986.

Like other immigrants from the Asian subcontinent, Sehgal, who immigrated to Canada in 1973, missed the food he had grown up with. Fortunately, so did a lot of other new Canadians from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and that gave him a burgeoning market for a range of food products from those countries.

“During the ’70s, it was hard to find the food we have here now,” Sehgal said at Nutrifresh’s offices and warehouse in St. Laurent.

“This was what got me into this business. There was a demand for these foods from Indian emigres, but I wanted to introduce non-Indians to them, too.

”There were Indian restaurants in Montreal, but the raw materials for meals – things like black cardamom, garam masala and tandoori paste – were not easily available. I knew other Indian families who had spices shipped to them from family in India. They just couldn’t find the spices here.”

Sehgal had been in Canada 13 years when he decided to start Nutrifresh with his business partner, Roland Iny, who left the company eight years ago to start another one.

He had arrived in Canada in 1973, armed with a bachelor of science and a law degree from India.

“I had wanted to be a lawyer in Canada, but learned I would have to do law school all over again,” he said. “So I enrolled in accounting at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ont.”

It took two years of intense studying and a fuller-than-normal course load to finish a bachelor of commerce and an MBA.

“I realized that without a Canadian education, I wouldn’t have much of a future here,” he said.

After completing his studies, he travelled across Canada from Vancouver, stopping in every city to decide on “the best place to settle. Something happened when I got to Montreal. I knew I wanted this to be my home.”

Sehgal worked for almost a decade at a mid-sized accounting firm before winding up his accounting career as a comptroller in another company.

By the mid-1980s, he saw an opportunity.

“The face of the Canadian population was changing,” he said. “I knew people in the ethnic communities missed the foods they could get in their home countries and I knew there was a vacuum in the market. It was like the other vacuum I had experienced. I’m a vegetarian, but it was always difficult to find good vegetarian food when I arrived in Canada.”

So he and Iny, who had a background in baked goods, started Nutrifresh in 2,000 square feet of commercial space in Dorval.

“When I incorporated the company, a friend of mine, who’s a lawyer, said: ‘Brij, I thought you were smarter than this. Where is your market growing ‘ I said Vancouver and Toronto had larger Indian populations. But I wanted to stay in Montreal out of love for this city.”

The partners started with a few items: pickles, spices, pappadums, condiments, basmati rice, lentils and beans.

“We started by distributing goods to a few ethnic grocery stores, restaurants and bakeries,” Sehgal said. “Then we noticed that the market was beyond what we had initially thought. And it wasn’t just Indian. We started selling to Middle Eastern stores, too.”

Sehgal focused on keeping his clients happy

“If they asked for something, no matter how small, I’d find a way of getting it.”

Sourcing the foods, however, meant travelling the globe. A native of Amritsar, Sehgal was familiar with the food of northern India.

“We were accustomed to limited spices,” he said. “So I used to go and talk to suppliers all over the country. I never dealt with an exporter until I had visited them to ensure they could meet my customers’ needs. I also wanted to understand the product.”

That’s an understatement.

Sehgal, an erudite man, reads assiduously about foods and their history and origins. And he’s informed about agricultural practices.

“I invest my time to learn about the products,” he said.

His curiosity has taken him not only to India, but also to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, the U.S., the Netherlands, Britain and Turkmenistan, the last of which he ruled out as a country with which to trade because the supply looked too uncertain.

Last year, he visited Guatemala in search of cardamom.

“I wanted to know why Guatemala produces cardamom when it’s not used in the country’s cuisine,” he said. “It seems a Dutch farmer took it there in 1924 and began cultivating it. Guatemalans don’t consume it, so they export it all. This year, I imported two full 20-foot-long containers of cardamom. I have customers in Vancouver and Toronto for it as well as here.”

Sehgal clocks a seven-day workweek and has built the business, which boasts annual revenues of $7 million, into one that imports, exports and distributes across Canada. Nutrifresh has 400 customers that include ethnic and mainstream grocery stores, restaurants and bars and other small distributors and food processors.

The company is poised to move from 21,000 square feet of rented space to a new 45,000-square-foot facility that Sehgal plans to build on Metropolitan Blvd.

The current warehouse, which is too small, holds products from many countries other than India. Canned fruits, spices, pickles, chutneys and a broad range of offerings from all across Asia vie for space with pallets of basmati rice stocked to the ceiling.

“We’ve been very aggressive about bringing in new products,” Sehgal said. “I’ll bring in 15 new products and if 10 succeed in the market, we’re ahead.”

Occasionally, Sehgal’s customers tell him about a food they’d like him to import.

“But they name the food in their own language, for instance Sri Lankan, because they don’t know the English word, and I have to get someone to translate for me. One customer asked me for ’tishi.’ It turned out to be flax seed.”

One interesting fact would probably surprise Sehgal’s mother. Canadian growers are now cultivating the very foods his countrymen had to tote here in their luggage from India. And, says Sehgal, they’re doing a great job.

“Canada is becoming an important food basket for the world,” Sehgal said. “There are beans being grown here that I used to have to import from India. Canadians are growing red lentils and black chick peas, and they’re better. And here’s something funny. I’m now exporting them to India. I no longer import them.”

That’s the twist in this story. Who could have seen that coming back in 1970? Certainly not Brij Sehgal’s mother.

 

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