The destiny took an Estonian lady, Thea Tammeleht, from a leafy resort town of Pärnu to one of the largest cities on Earth, Mumbai, to produce and sell luxury marzipan candy in one of the most populous countries – India.
Holding a master’s degree in special education and counselling, Tammeleht used to manage the local branch of a private university in Pärnu, but the wider world attracted her to expand her horizons. She started her journey as an au pair in the United States, later embarking on travelling, living and working across the globe. Few years back she met her Indian partner and two and half years ago ended up living in Mumbai, where she recently set up her luxury confectionery business, Nordic Kandie Magic. We caught up with Thea to find out more about her experience of living and setting up and running a business in India.
You are running a marzipan business in India. How did you come up with this idea?
Actually it wasn’t an idea but more a case of realisation of the potential, the family tradition and history that Estonia holds in marzipan making – right from the legend of Mardileib/Mart’s bread: it has been believed that marzipan making began in the Hanseatic town of Reval (now Tallinn) in pharmacies. My family has been lucky to hold a marzipan recipe that has been in our family for generations, but we had never thought of commercialising it until late last year in Estonia when my Indian husband suggested we share this wonderful gourmet delicacy from Estonia with the world. With that thought, we set up our company in Europe and in February 2014, a week before Valentine’s Day, we launched Nordic Kandie Magic in India, to offer luxury gourmet marzipan.
Is marzipan sold in India at all?
At a macro level, marzipan is a non-existent segment in India, with the exception of a small section of Indians who make a local version of marzipan during Christmas time, using relatively inexpensive cashew nuts.
Authentic marzipan is always made from almonds, and the finest marzipan is made from Iranian mamra almonds and organic sugar. The good thing about India is that a lot of discerning Indians have global exposure and are open to new gourmet experiences; what we needed was educating them about authentic marzipan. Another important factor, that seems to help us in India, is that our marzipan is 100% vegetarian, trans-fat free and cholesterol free.
Marzipan as a product used to be the indulgence of the royals across Europe in the middle ages. Also, in those times, the nobility was seeking the elixir of life and gold was thought to be one such elixir. Our gold-covered and Belgian chocolate-covered luxury marzipan is an opportunity to create a completely new segment in the luxury gourmet delicacies space.
How has the local market reacted to your marzipan and how do you market your product?
Our gourmet marzipan product is intended for the niche luxury gourmet delicacies segment.
The results of our hard work and attention to detail with world-class production values and unique packaging, we got good traction in the local market within the first 90 days of our launch, but there are miles to go before we can go to sleep.
While our original recipe is with the natural mamra almond taste, we also added natural flavours, like green apple, mint, blackcurrant and cherry, that weren’t very common in the Indian market. That was well received.
India has been for many decades the largest consumer of gold in the world. Hence when we used the EU-certified edible gold and silver from a factory that produced gold for royalty since 1820, to wrap our Belgian chocolate covered luxury marzipan, we gained acceptance.
We also got some good media coverage across the leading Indian newspapers and magazines when we participated in the BBC Good Food Show and a few other events. Overall we are very pleased with the market reaction in India and we are planning to open a flagship retail store soon. We currently sell our marzipan over WhatsApp and our online store (we are in the process of revamping our store).
Is it easy to source necessary ingredients?
With the right connections, sourcing the ingredients in India is not very difficult. We mostly use specially imported raw materials like mamra almonds from Iran, Belgian chocolate that we use to wrap our marzipan and certified edible gold and silver from Italy to cover the chocolate.
How is your manufacturing organised? Are you selling it only in India or other countries, too?
We have a Food Safety and Standards Authority of India-approved artisan manufacturing facility at the Hiranandani Gardens, Powai, Mumbai. At the moment our focus is on India but we already have orders from various countries through the word of mouth. Customers have told us that they have taken our product to Australia, Europe and even the US. Also, whenever we visit Estonia we always bring along boxes for our customers.
How is it priced?
We sell it by piece and by box. One piece costs 205 rupees, which is approximately €2.5. Pure edible gold-covered candy costs approximately €4.5. For a box of nine, prices start at €24.
Doing business in India
Where are you based in India and how happy are you with the local environment?
I currently live and work in Mumbai at Hiranandani Gardens, Powai, one of the more popular expat locations in the city.
I can never complain about the warm weather or the friendly people. Other environmental things are different from what we may experience in Europe or the United States; however, once we understand the cultural nuances it is easier to adapt. With a population of over a billion and a large growing middle and affluent class there are numerous lucrative opportunities. However, I do miss a lot the Estonian fresh air, parks, a more organised life and, of course, the classical food, which is not available here.
How easy or difficult is it to start and run a business in India?
Doing business anywhere in the world is more about your state of mind. If there is will, patience and willingness to understand a culturally diverse market, then a country like India will reward you. However, there is a lot of paperwork in most things. But a number of government services is now getting online, which speeds up things. We actually thought that setting up an FDA-approved factory in India would be so much easier and cheaper but with the high real estate costs and timelines, that was not the case.
What are the advantages and disadvantages?
A big advantage is definitely being the fairer sex – there aren’t many woman entrepreneurs and that, at times, is definitely a big advantage, especially when dealing with large corporations and industry associations.
Funnily enough the flip side is that being a woman boss is sometimes a disadvantage, especially when dealing with male subordinates at the lower level.
Finally it is always up to the individual and their people management skills. Also the ability to speak the local language can be an advantage. I am already attending a Hindi class to gain an added advantage, but be aware – there are 22 official languages in India.
Should more Estonian entrepreneurs try their luck in India?
Definitely they should – a billion Indian people and a significant middle class should be the driver for Estonians seeking opportunities in India.
While there are lots of very talented people here in India, finding the right quality was difficult for us as a company. After a few botched attempts by photographers helping us with our product shoot, we ended up asking one of our friends to help us with our product shoot – she flew down for a few days and what we got was a truly amazing output with minimal intervention.
Is there something we could teach them?
In professional life, independently managing tasks without supervision and managing timelines are some of my personal observations in the brief time I spent in India. The fear of failure looms large here in India; failure seems to be a big stigma. People here need to understand that a screw-up isn’t a failure. We all learn from our mistakes. Many of them need to learn to think outside the box and be confident to make their own decisions.
And is there something we could learn from them?
There is a word here in India – jugaad. It is a term applied to a creative or innovative idea providing a quick, alternative way of solving or fixing a problem. As an outsider, looking at the background and the high level of struggle and competition that many Indians face for the mundane things in life like water, electricity etc – a lot of Indians use jugaad to surmount their problems, making them innovators. Jugaad/innovation in a tough constrained environment is something we could learn.
What are your plans for the future?
Our plans are to open two stores in India – one in Mumbai and one in New Delhi. Also, we are planning to expand ourselves across Europe. We are currently self-funded but we are in talks to raise funds in the near future.
Photos by Krõõt Tarkmeel Photography.