Our Interview With Adnan Durrani, CEO and Founder of Saffron Road, on the Journey to Better

Adnan Durrani

Today, consumers are actively seeking out and experimenting with global cuisines, new tastes and flexitarian and vegetarian diets and are increasingly making linkages between wellness, premium ingredients, sustainable sourcing and purity. Saffron Road, an American food brand in ethnic frozen and packaged foods, is at the forefront of tapping into prominent trends in food culture. We’re fortunate to have recently interviewed Adnan Durrani, CEO and Founder of Saffron Road. Here, Adnan shares his thoughts on the journey to better.

THG: In a recent interview with Bloomberg, you described Saffron Road as a leader in natural and organic foods that honors the sustainable food movement in a journey that's better for farmers, consumers and health overall. How do you think Saffron Road differs from “big food” companies?

Durrani: Transparency and authenticity. We don’t take shortcuts on our sourcing standards and never self-claim. We have earned the trust of Saffron Road’s consumers by making sure we are bulletproof in terms of our premium quality and taste, clean labeling and World Cuisines that we champion with stellar culinary excellence. We try to emotionally connect a cultural group with consumers’ ethical values. Plus, Saffron Road has tribal affinity with its modern consumers, who may distrust large CPGs and what they stand for. In fact, Boston Consulting Group and AC Nielson two years ago came out with a report that 43% of the growth of the $800 billion food and beverage sector is being driven by small brands like Saffron Road. That was a game changer, and we have our game face on.

Thinking about the company's journey so far, how hard has it been to introduce mainstream America to new cuisines and consequently less familiar tastes and cultures?

The Journey to Better is indeed hard to climb — it’s not easy. But at Saffron Road we know, and are a power of example, that the modern consumer (both Millennial and aspirational Baby Boomers) is looking for innovation in world cuisines as well as adventure, ethnic diversity and ethical consumerism in their discerning food choices. Plus, ethnic cuisines are leading the growth in all categories — chicken tikka masala is to world cuisines now what vanilla ice cream was to gelato. Saffron Road’s recent debut of ethnic frozen entrees is crushing it in over 4,000 Walmart stores nationwide — which clearly demonstrates that Saffron Road’s premium World Cuisines have successfully innovated “ethnic” cuisines to scale a flavor profile to Pax Americana that have a very broad appeal.

Saffron Road Coconut Curry ChickenWith so many premium food distinctions at work in your products (ethnic, vegetarian, vegan, halal, gluten-free, purity, premium, natural, organic, etc.), how do you stay focused on providing core experiences to the cuisines and foodways Saffron Road celebrates?

I believe in the corollary that today’s modern consumers are not linear — their buying decisions are driven within a complex “food tribe.” Food tribes thrive on adventure, specific dietary needs, global culturalism, and are values-centric. Hence, only 15% of our consumers may be American Muslim or strict halal, yet 85% of our consumers love our ethical, halal values. Similarly, the gluten-free community is a huge supporter of ours (90% of our frozen entree sales are gluten-free) — on social, blogs and in-store point of sale. We were the first antibiotic-free entrees in Whole Foods; we are the first and only halal brand nationally; we were the first Non-GMO Project Verified frozen entree in the world. We are always innovating and pushing the envelope on higher sourcing standards as well as awesome taste experiences. Saffron Road’s consumers feel very safe with our exceptional standards and at the same time are enthusiastic about enjoying a Journey to Better on the Saffron Road — whether that journey takes you to a new cultural adventure or to a dietary mindfulness that fits your value system or tribal identity.

From your perspective, where do you see the consumer gaining this rapidly acquired knowledge from that’s informing their taste expectations these days? Is it more about social media feeds or newer offerings at grocery retailers and perhaps fast casual restaurants?

All of the above — as well as the fact that today’s modern consumers are also travelling a lot more, watching international cooking shows, the premiumization of fast casual (think Chipotle, Cave, noodle/ramen bistros), and of course the proven success of modern ethnic brands like Saffron Road have forced the major retailers to finally devote significant space in their aisles for these premium offerings.

From Hartman’s perspective, we see successful product portfolios, such as Saffron Road’s, serving as a source of discovery for many consumers who might be unfamiliar with the flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine. Do you find that today’s consumer is beginning to demand more nuance as they become more familiar with these flavors and ingredients?

Absolutely. Thirty years ago, hummus had less than 5% American household recognition — today it’s over 80%, due to brands like Sabra. But I think when scaling ethnic, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines, to be successful, one needs to “Americanize” the naming of the product line so that it's much more familiar to the American diaspora and not polarizing or too alien. We work hard on navigating that nuance with our product development teams — and we haven’t always succeeded at that. For example, when we debuted Korean six years ago (we were the first national Korean frozen entree brand), we were too much of authenticity purists and named them too ethnically (like Gochujang). It didn’t do well, even though it is an amazing product! We have evolved since then and are much more vigilant about making sure the product naming is something that can catch on with a mainstream consumer so that trial and retrial are gateways to more success.

To that end, we've seen younger consumers, especially Millennials and now Gen Z, embracing global cuisines and new taste experiences in a pronounced manner, and in addition our studies see eating behavior changing dramatically: For example, there are dramatic increases in snacking and eating alone. How do you keep up with the changing tastes and eating habits of consumers overall, and notably those of these younger eaters?Saffron Road Lemon Grass Basil

The Gen Z and older Millennials are an important focus for us (especially via mobile apps), the former driving decisions in three-person households 70% of the time for branded products, believe it or not! That’s where good marketing insights, digital activation (and being digitally focused and powered), listening to your consumers' virtual loop feedback, etc., are all very critical. Saffron Road’s younger consumers are using our high plant-based protein organic Chickpea snacks as possible meal replacements since they’re snacking like nine times a day — so our brand funnel-fits their lifestyle choices as well.

In addition to keeping up with rapidly changing taste expectations, how do you navigate the growing need for novel formats and upgraded packaging when it comes to the consumer who is increasingly demanding modern (as well as sustainable) convenience?

Good question. It’s a constant challenge, especially with packaging costs escalating and the fact that we can’t pass along any material increases on the shelf to our consumers or retail channels. So we try and make sure when a product is first launched that it’s sustainable or at least has a minimal carbon footprint — like our Non-GMO Verified Simmer Sauces, which have one-third the carbon footprint of glass jars.

We see Saffron Road active in several categories, including frozen entrees and bowls, salted snacks, hors d’oeuvres, broths and simmer sauces. Do you find that the simmer sauces are working to introduce consumers to actual cooking vs., say, the convenience of frozen meals?

Absolutely. Saffron Road's core identity and brand funnel is as a culinary or “meals” brand. Not only do our Simmer Sauces fit that sweet spot as well as being a gateway into our frozen entrees, but also our new ambient shelf-stable meals in Costco, like our Chickpea Masala in pouches, deepen our culinary brand value to consumers and rapidly build Saffron Road’s household brand penetration.

Are there any cuisines or food and beverage categories on the horizon you find interesting?

Saffron Road teamYes. Ambient or shelf-stable meals are now in our wheelhouse and doing remarkably well in the Club channel. We will continue to innovate there. Indeed, we would like to introduce some more Middle Eastern, North African (Moroccan) and Southeast Asian (Indonesian/Malaysian) entrees in the future. We also believe the Thai, Korean and Indian segment has numerous regionally authentic and culinarily robust offerings that we would like to dive deeper into in 2020-2021.