The first thing I notice when I enter the Hunter Foods office in Jebel Ali is the wall with racks holding all kinds of munchies. Think handcooked chips, vegetable, fruit, lentil and coconut chips, rice bites, wholegrain corn and quinoa chips, baked pretzels, snap peas, rice crackers...

In one corner I spot three brands of chips I grew up with here in the UAE — Safari, Aladin and Ali Baba. Firm playground favourites, these crisps were kids’ munchies of choice in the 90s and they always hit the spot — parents’ attempts to get them to eat veggies notwithstanding.

Even as I’m getting nostalgic at the sight of the packets, I’m joined by Ananya Narayan, managing director of Hunter Foods, and his wife Yan, marketing director of the company, who lead me to a table that holds about 20 bowls, each with a different variety of chips. ‘Please taste a few,’ says Yan, with an excited smile. I try quinoa in flavours such as jalapeno and cheddar and sweet chilli salsa. I try purple sweet potato. There’s also carrot, pumpkin, okra, apple and strawberry. All crunchy, crave-able versions of the humble potato chip. All rich in flavour, but I’m left with no snackers’ remorse. ‘These are products that at one point were new to the region,’ Yan says. ‘You don’t just snack on potato anymore, but on beans and pumpkin and okra...’

Hunter Foods’ journey into the world of crunchy goodness started with Safari chips — the first brand that became an icon in its own right. Snack lovers will remember the original packing that had a cartoon of a lion, representing the red hot chilli flavour. Then there was the giraffe, an orang-utan for other flavours. ‘My father, Bharat Narayan, the founder of the company, loved animals. In fact part of the proceeds from sales went to the WWF for wildlife preservation,’ Ananya says. So passionate was Bharat about animal conservation, he also set up a club called anipals that kids could enrol in as part of a loyalty programme, and he would send them handwritten newsletters teaching them about water conservation, education and wildlife.

The brand has introduced new flavours and versions of the humble potato chip
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Bharat established Hunter Foods in 1985 a decade after arriving in the UAE from India. ‘He was an engineer and spent several years building housing for Dubai’s government members,’ says Ananya. ‘Once that project was over, he explored new business ideas, finally deciding to make high-end snacks 
for the local and international market. In fact, this was the first building in Jebel Ali Free Zone; it’s the first structure to be constructed in Jafza.’

The business had its rollercoaster moments. ‘Expanding overseas, he set up offices in Australia in the early 90s, but a few months later fell ill and had to be hospitalised, causing the company’s success to fluctuate depending on his health.’

Ananya and Yan’s entry into the business occurred much later.

Ananya, who was working in the hospitality industry in Hong Kong then, met Yan, who is from China and was also working in the same sector there, in 1998. The duo married five years later and in 2007, moved to Dubai where Ananya continued holding his hotel industry job managing nine offices from Sydney to Singapore to Cape Town, while Yan joined the marketing division of Hunter Foods.

Bharat Narayan established Hunter Foods in 1985 with the help of his wife Madhulika
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‘I’d helped grow my hospitality company from 13 to 191 hotels and was doing well in my career, but Hunter Foods was the family business, and as the only son of my parents, I felt it was my responsibility to take care of the company, which was at a very critical period. It had to change and evolve to survive and thrive,’ says Ananya.

Joining the company in 2014, Ananya quickly started steering the company on the path of modernisation. ‘Dad had [taken the back seat] for around 10 years due to health issues but we started building on the Hunter’s Gourmet brand. Of course, we did it while standing on the proverbial giant’s shoulder — there was a wonderful base; if we had to build a business from scratch it might not have been possible.’

New times, new ingredients

Ananya and Yan rapidly charted a plan to change the culture of the company. ‘The problem with Hunter Foods was that it hadn’t changed with the times; it remained stagnant,’ Yan says. ‘We had to push it forward, adapt products to lifestyles that people were looking for. We were clear — we wanted to tap into healthy, clean foods, which is where the world was heading.’

Adopting ‘Better For You’ as their mantra, they were keen to rekindle memories of the brand’s good taste, but wanted to improve upon some of the ingredients used to produce the chips.

‘While we were children, we didn’t know the truth about a lot of products we consumed. We didn’t want the same for the kids now. In hindsight, we are glad we changed — we saw what was coming with the increased emphasis on what people are putting into their bodies.’

The company has eliminated MSG, artificial colours and flavours from the ingredient list of their products
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Having extensive experience in the hospitality industry, the duo decided to implement some of the lessons they had learnt there into the food business they had taken charge of now.

Providing what the customer wanted rather than what worked for the manufacturer was one of the first things they did. While firm on preserving the heritage and goodwill of the brand — Hunter Foods — the couple wanted to take the company to the next level by expanding the product base.

Recognising that there was a vacuum in the local market for healthy snacks, they decided to enter the space. Eliminating MSG, artificial colours and flavours from the ingredient list of their products, they opted for a range of wholesome, healthy chips.

Once they had upped the quality of the products and introduced a variety of flavours, they looked at other areas to expand.

Although they have a manufacturing unit, they decided to source a few products from elsewhere and distribute them along with their inhouse products. ‘There’s lots of good products made worldwide, and we wanted to give people access to that,’ Yan says. ’Cost wise and logistics wise, it was better to ship in bulk. Plus that way we could offer multiple options for packaging, and do it quickly. Emirates might need something, Starbucks and Carrefour something different, a hotel might need something different for its bar.’ So they shipped in high-quality superfoods, chia and flax seeds and quinoa from Peru, and after repacking them at their factory, began supplying them to dealers.

Finding that a success, they began adding more products to their distribution portfolio — Lizi’s Granola, Nairn’s gluten-free biscuits and oat cakes, Flahavan’s oats, nut and nut mixes, salad and soup toppings... ‘We are the exclusive distributors for these products in the region, sometimes the region being GCC or for some products as wide as Asia,’ says Ananya, calling the journey ‘from manufacturer to packer to importer to distributor’ an exciting one.

Ananya and Yan with their kids Gyan and Tara, who they say inspired them to develop a healthy snack range
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The company spent time concentrating on the UAE market, then the regional and international markets, and it worked. Hunter Foods grew by more than three times from 2014, with a 35 per cent growth. In 2019 the company started the strongest ever, with a first-quarter growth of over 20 per cent.

It’s been a great start to the year for a company that might be 34 years old, but in effect is just five. ‘We expect to be 25 times bigger in the next 11 years,’ Ananya says. ‘The roadmap now is not just to be one of the best in region but among the best in the world. That’s the only way we can sustain that sort of growth. We need more people, processes, infrastructure, and keep up the vision in terms of product range. We plan to bring in more automation, we’re looking at opening factories outside the UAE — though Dubai will be our base, now we want to have a global manufacturing centre.’

Supermarket sprees

The going, of course, has not been easy. Reluctant to be copycats in terms of flavours, innovating constantly is a challenge they have taken in their stride, and it’s led them to developing an unusual holiday ritual. ‘Whenever we visit a new country, unlike other tourists who head to landmarks, we head to the supermarkets,’ Ananya laughs.

‘If once upon a time we used to check out other hotels while on a trip, now we do that with snacks,’ Yan says.

She admits that such off-the-beaten-track trips do ‘jeopardise our leisure trip, but we have to see what people eat, how they eat, what flavours they like… If we don’t know how a Thai green curry from a roadside joint in Thailand really tastes like, we’ll not be able to do justice to it when we create a Thai green curry-flavoured chips.’

She cites the instance when they visited Peru last October and sourced quinoa and chia from the farmers there. ‘We then had to find the flavours that go with a grain like quinoa and we brought back Peruvian pink salt. Now we have a line of Peruvian-inspired snacks — jalapeno with cheddar, pink salt.’

Identifying the flavour is only one part of the story. ‘Getting the intensity right is also important,’ says Yan. ‘If it’s for this region, the chilli has to be a bit spicier.

‘Black truffle is tricky — if it’s too strong or too pungent it won’t work, and if the flavour is too light you can’t taste it. It has to be just right because no one ever stops at one chip. It took us two years to get the right black truffle; same for the wasabi. All these subtle differences come only with understanding the market.’

Flavour favourites

Trying to satisfy the palates and perceptions of the 200-plus nationalities that make up the UAE is clearly not easy, ‘but we try our best,’ Ananya says. ‘There’re distinct favourites — the Indian market likes a bit more jalapeno compared to cheddar, while the other nationalities might find that too spicy. We did a taste test for the hot chilli pepper and a lot of south Asians liked a version that was slightly spicier, but the Europeans did not.

‘However, when creating snacks for air passengers, the intensity of flavours must be higher than usual as at 30,000 feet and above your tastebuds don’t work very well.’

The UAE has served as a taste test base for the world. ‘We always say, if something succeeds here, it can succeed anywhere in the world — because you have the whole world represented here,’ Yan says.

This international thinking has been translated in the company too, with the couple striving to include a mix of nationalities in their Jebel Ali office. ‘For 18 years we’ve been employees, and it’s only our fifth year as employers, so our mindset is different from other entrepreneurs,’ Ananya says.

‘We always think, what did we want as employees, and how can we give that to our team. A lot of people never get the chance to be on both sides. We’re still learning how to be good entrepreneurs.’

Hunter Foods is now set to give childhood grub Aladin and Ali Baba a healthier twist. ‘We also aim to rebrand and relaunch Safari with more flavours and different packaging; we need to update it, make the oil better, make flavour better, or this generation will stop eating it. We want to bring healthy ingredients to all our brands — we’ll retain the taste, of course, but make it better.

‘We’ll declare [all ingredients] in a flavour — maybe there’s one not-so-good ingredient, but we’d rather leave the decision to eat it to the customer. It’s the “simple but honest” philosophy.’

The company plans to bring in more automation and open new factories
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At the recent Gulfood 2019, Hunter’s Gourmet Mixed Tropical Fruit Chips won Best New Product Development. Ananya points to the growing acceptance of the brand. ‘People now point to Hunter’s for healthy snacks. No company has the range of snacks we do under one brand.’

Partners at work

Is there an advantage to spouses working in the same company, I ask.

‘It’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off, and while we might have different points of view, what we want to accomplish is the same,’ Yan says. ‘We started our relationship while working together, and over 20 years later we are still working together. It’s rare to get to work with your husband for so long. We might approach something from opposing sides — often I’ll fight with Ananya for a larger slice of the budget for my team, for instance. But we see what the other person doesn’t, so there’s less scope for error.

‘We share the stress, we give vent to our emotions, we brainstorm together, all with no reservations.’

Ananya adds: ‘We enjoy the business trips — just because we get to go together.’

Keen to do their bit for the community and for their consumers, Ananya is excited about a new initiative they are planning to launch — an experience room in the office where children will be educated about nutrition, how to read labels and how to make the right decisions about ingredients. ‘It’s basically not giving them the fish, but teaching them how to fish,’ he says. ‘Parents often tell their kids, “don’t have sugar”, but they don’t explain why sugar is bad. We’ve developed material taking feedback from students, so we’re talking to them at their level.’

So, is he happy with where they are now?

‘In 2014, people were telling us “we know you, we’ve grown up with you, but we haven’t eaten your products for the past 5 or 10 years”. Somewhere along the way, the connection had weakened. But over these five years we think we have forged that connection again. It is now strong and alive.’