As a dietitian in the 1990s, Anis Jiwani recognized that the frozen meals available at grocery stores, while convenient, were low-quality, highly processed and not particularly healthy — not what she would recommend to her clients. As a home cook, Jiwani was confident she could make better-tasting, better-quality frozen food and founded Aliya’s Foods in 1999 — along with her husband, Noorudin — to produce and distribute frozen samosas. As immigrants to Edmonton, they noticed Indian food was not readily available in Alberta and they could introduce consumers to something new.
With humble beginnings in a 3,000 sq. ft. warehouse, Aliya’s Foods quickly became a go-to supplier for branded products, selling frozen samosas and meals in small, local stores throughout Canada. But Anis had bigger plans: She wanted her company to become a household name — “the Campbell’s of Indian food.”
To help her parents achieve this goal, Khadija Jiwani joined the company in 2015 after a career as a civil engineer and with non-governmental organizations. “I realized how much work my family had put into the company,” Khadija says. “They had such a good team and had put so much blood and sweat into building this company. I knew that I had developed the skills and ability to help to take it to the next level by building our brand and sharing it with the world.”
Campbell’s, Smucker’s, Kellogg’s… Chef Bombay? Khadija revived and relaunched Aliya’s Foods flagship brand soon after joining the company to give an identity to the ready-made, frozen meals available to the public, and distinguish it from the company’s private-label offerings. “Until that point, we didn’t have any brand presence really anywhere,” Khadija says. “With the Chef Bombay brand, we were able to distribute in larger stores in the United States and Canada.”
Today, shoppers will find bright, colourful boxes of Chef Bombay meals in the frozen food aisles of major grocery stores, including Sobeys and Superstore. To keep up with demand, Aliya’s Foods moved into a large production facility in Nisku, where a half-million samosas and 50,000 meals are made, frozen and packaged every day. But, even with increased production and distribution, Aliya’s Foods maintains the old-school practices that the business was founded on.
“Every dough, sauce and filling that goes into our products is made from scratch with high-quality ingredients,” Khadija says. “The process is the same as when the company was founded in 1999. We are committed to selling a really good product and what sets us apart in grocery store freezers is the fact that our food is made without preservatives and processed ingredients — it’s just good, homemade food frozen just hours after it was made.”
This commitment to quality pays off: “People say our meals are better than what they can get in a restaurant,” Khadija says. “Personally, I never cook rice at home anymore, I just eat Chef Bombay products. Our production team makes it better than what I could do, because our team took the time to perfect the recipe.”
While Anis and Noorudin still co-head the company, Khadija oversees operations along with her sister, Aliya, and cousin, Hafiz. The three are committed to upholding the values the company was founded on, and to carve out their space in the competitive frozen-food space by offering a good product. “We’re not looking for endless growth, we’re only looking to partner with clients and customers that value the quality of the product like we do and are willing to pay a little bit extra for what we have to offer,” Khadija says. “We’re not going to compromise on the quality of our ingredients or how long we spend cooking something for scratch. We are strategic about who we partner with and our customers understand what our values are.”
Chef Bombay continues to innovate the products it offers. Aliya’s Foods research and development adapted to consumer habits and preferences to create a new batch of Chef Bombay products. “People’s palates have definitely evolved [since the late ’90s/early aughts], and we are constantly seeing demand for spicier offerings when people used to say our products were too spicy,” Khadija says. “We’ve been able to satisfy those needs as Chef Bombay grows in the market by updating our recipes to keep up with consumer trends.” Khadija sees room to grow the type of products under the Chef Bombay label — now that shoppers know what a samosa is. “There’s a lot of room in the market and opportunity for us, especially in Canada, where the competition isn’t as large as it is in the United States.”
Even with plans to expand Chef Bombay offerings, Khadija doesn’t see changes coming to production any time soon — if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. “We can maintain the quality because every step of the process happens here in our facility,” Khadija says. “Our focus has always been the quality of our ingredients and the food safety of our products. My mom always says, ‘If I’m not going to eat it at home, I’m not going to serve it to anyone else.’ We make things that we want to eat and serve guests ourselves.”
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This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Edify