How this engineer built Rs 1.5 crore business of flavoured salts in the Himalayas

Sandeep Pandey’s HimFla produces 55 varieties of handmade and organic flavoured salts sold in India and overseas. The Uttarakhand-based entrepreneur empowers local farmers and women, who grind the salts on sil-batta to make the traditional ‘pisyu loon’

Partho Burman
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Sandeep Pandey, founder of HimFla

Sandeep Pandey, founder of HimFla

Sandeep Pandey, an engineer who worked as a senior analyst at Chill Technology in Delhi, left his job in 2009 to start a restaurant in Kakdighat in Almora district of Uttarakhand. But his dreams were shattered in 2013 when a natural disaster devastated National Highway 109 where his eatery was located. 

The devastation led him to isolation for three months. One morning, when he walked idly into a neighbouring agricultural field, he saw some local women working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), taking a break from work. At lunch, they were eating homemade bread with onions and salt. They offered him food. 

“The first morsel itself was so full of taste that it gave me the idea to start a business of making flavoured salts. It was truly food for thought, and I never looked back,” says Sandeep, now 39.

Reviving traditional food culture

Uttarakhand has a rich culture of using ‘pisyu loon’ (also ‘pisi noon’) or coarsely grounded salts. They are prepared by manually grinding rock salt with fresh herbs on a sil-batta (grinding stone), which imparts unique flavours to salts.

“Salt has been on the food plate for centuries. Nobody noticed how the traditional salt flavours prepared by our ancestors evaporated from the platters. A food culture vanished and it went unnoticed. I thought of giving it a try as it would also empower women,” says Sandeep.

Also Read: Five food entrepreneurs reviving regional cuisines

himfla salts
Women preparing flavoured salts on sil-batta at HimFla unit. Pic: HimFla

He purchased a sil-batta for Rs150, which was his initial investment and set up “Himalayan Flavours” in 2013. The enterprise first operated as an NGO and became a private limited company in August 2021. “We created “HimFla Private Limited” by taking ‘Him’ from Himalayan and ‘Fla’ from Flavours,” says the food entrepreneur.  

Today, HimFla produces 55 varieties of organic flavoured salts made by women on sil-batta using the traditional method. The ‘Pahadi Pisi Noon’ or salts can be used in curries, salads, breads, fruits, curds or any other item. 

“Our 55 varieties of flavoured salts are shipped to the US, UK, Australia, Singapore, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and a few more countries,” Sandeep tells 30Stades.

HimFla sells the products through three of its own stores and 1500 retailers. Another 50 companies purchase goods from the company and sell them under their own brand. HimFla's annual turnover is Rs 1.5 crore.

Also Read: How this CA set up Rs 50 lakh food business with Rs 1 lakh investment

Women empowerment through salt

The conversation between the women and Sandeep over food was life-changing for all. The women told him how the work was uncertain and laborious. “The scheme assigns them to some difficult tasks like moving heavy objects, excavating dirt, hauling supplies for building roads, etc. They are almost bonded workers for 100 days. I decided to provide them work for 365 days,” recalls 39-year-old Sandeep.   

The next day he started looking for women to work for him as no one in Kakdighat knew him. Finding and convincing women to work with men was one of the main challenges. After a week-long search, two women accepted a job offer with an initial salary of Rs 3500. Subsequently, the percentage of women employees continued to rise from two to five and more.   

preparing herbs
Women preparing herbs for the salts. Pic: HimFla

However, there were many obstacles. Some of these women would frequently make excuses during work hours, like ‘going to the farm to finish pending work’. He had to adjust to these since women work in the hilly areas but men don’t.

Many women worked with their faces covered. “I learned that the bruises were due to domestic abuse," he says.

Today, these women are empowered and are the breadwinners for their families. Depending on the work, they earn between Rs 6,000 and Rs 10,000 per month.  

“I've made the work environment better. I want to change a few things for the Himalayas and women for their empowerment,” he says.

The breakthrough

Though Sandeep had started making the salts, finding a market was not easy. It was a bureaucrat, who helped in promoting the business after he liked the taste of salt samples brought by Sandeep to his office. 

At that time, Sandeep had just five salt flavours - sesame, green chilli coriander, garlic red chilli, yellow chilli hemp and garlic green chilli. On the official’s suggestion, he set up a stall during the Sharad Utsav 2013, in Nainital. 

“The response at the fest was amazing. We sold 30,000 salt sachets for Rs 10 each and ran out of products. For us, it was a turning point," says Sandeep.

He then participated in over 1400 fairs around India and customers offered feedback on customization. “We started creating salt tastes according to their recommendations and our product range continued to expand,” he says.

Also Read: Engineer couple builds Rs 2 crore laddu business with Rs 1 lakh investment

Handcrafted flavoured salts

HimFla’s ‘pisyu loon’ is prepared using Himalayan pink rock salt sourced from Pakistan. “We can’t import directly from Pakistan because of bilateral trade rules. We get it from a Dubai-based trader, who imports it from Pakistan,” informs Sandeep.

pink salt
A HimFla worker carries imported rock salt (left) and a packaged product (right). Pic: HimFla

HimFla does not use any machinery to prepare the salts. It offers 55 salt flavours and another 40 are in the pipeline. The flavours that are in high demand include hemp, garlic, ginger garlic, yellow chilli, and garlic-green coriander. They are available in packages of 100 gm, 200 gm, 500 gm, and 1 kg. The price per kg varies from Rs 800 to Rs. 1500, depending on the herbs blended.

“We also have salt that costs Rs 39,000 per kg. It is Yarsagumba, a salt variant derived from a fungus that grows on the high-altitude Himalayan caterpillar. It is produced in limited quantities only upon request,” he says.

Quality and consistency

The roles of women workers at HimFla are varied. While one team peels and washes garlic, cumin, coriander and other spices, the other team grinds them on sil-batta. A different team is assigned to inspect the quality and determine whether the colour, taste and smell are consistent. On passing inspection, the salt is sent for packaging.

HimFla holds an FSSAI license and has received ISO certification. According to Sandeep, the product longevity is important. “In the early days, we lacked testing facilities. We did it manually. We examined the lot by using it ourselves for three to six months. It was approved if there was no change in the flavour or colour.”

For the last three years, the products have undergone lab testing in Gurugram, Haryana.

Some of the team members at HimFla. Pic: HimFla

Empowering farmers

As demand for HimFla's handmade products increased, the company had to expand its network for sourcing raw materials. Earlier, HimFla needed 50 kg of garlic for the entire year, but now it needs 800-900 kg.

“We don't purchase cheap garlic since ‘only sales’ isn’t our motto. So we decided to include nearby villages in production. The more villagers cultivate, the more jobs we create for them,” the entrepreneur says.

“We have tied up with 80 villages in Uttarakhand. We urge villagers to plant a wide range of crops, such as hemp, perilla, sesame, black cumin, garlic, Szechuan pepper, yellow and red chillies, etc.,” Sandeep says. 

“An old woman farmer cultivates five kg of sesame on her small farm. She charges Rs10 more than the market rate but we purchase from her because of the genuine quality.”

Sandeep, who is based in Nainital, married a school teacher in 2013, and they have a 10-year-old son. 

(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)

Also Read: How this daughter turned her mother's pickle home business into a Rs 2 crore enterprise

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