When Tarush and Jasleen Agarwal were growing up in India, they ate lots of paneer; a fresh cheese known to most Westerners for its presence in a commonly ordered spinach or greens dish at Indian restaurants, saag or palak paneer.
Tarush is from Jamshedpur, in Eastern India; Jasleen is from Delhi. When they came to America – separately, as they were not yet a couple — the paneer here just wasn’t up to their standards. It was mass-produced to have a long shelf life, and they missed the freshness factor that they were used to. And forget about finding organic.
“Here, it’s usually been frozen,” said Jasleen. “It has a very low moisture content as they want to keep it on the shelf for six to seven months. They’re not optimizing it for taste, but for efficiency. It just doesn’t taste the same for us.”
So, like any entrepreneurial couple, they decided to make their own.
SĀCH paneer is made in small batches from organic milk. To make it is a simple process; a bit of acid is added to heated milk, and then the curds are separated from the whey, and the liquid is pressed out of the curds. Their product has only four to five ingredients; the milk, vinegar, salt and, in some cases, a flavoring agent.
Along with the original plain paneer, SĀCH offers flavors, such as turmeric, mint chutney and habanero. The founders have also made variations flavored with sea salt, basil-jalapeño and Thai curry. The couple believes they are the first to bring flavored paneer to market, anywhere. Paneer is not usually flavored, so as to absorb the spices of the food it’s cooked with, as well as to provide a cooling counterpart to the heat in some of these dishes. The couple envision the flavored products to be enjoyed as a standalone high-protein snack.
Both founders are vegetarian. A marathon runner, Tarush had a hard time finding meat-free snacks that are high in protein and fat. When in training, he said, “I would get super hungry, and whatever vegetarian options were available wouldn’t keep me full. Meanwhile, Jasleen was following the keto diet, which is harder to do for vegetarians.
Tarush began to dream about starting a business that could speak to both of their needs. As any new enterprise should, he saw a fresh, organic paneer company providing “a solution to a problem.” And that problem in his mind was that tofu seemed to be the only high-protein food of this sort, and the existing paneer here wasn’t great. (Speaking of tofu, they said their cheese has two times the protein of tofu).
The idea came to them when Jasleen started making her own paneer at home.
“I just started experimenting in the kitchen, and paneer became the focus of those experiments,” she said. “It became something we enjoyed a lot, and we began to think of reinventing paneer as a business idea.”
Jasleen has always enjoyed cooking, she said. Last year, while they were living in San Francisco, she joined a commercial kitchen. The kitchen was just starting off and was celebrating with a launch party, where Jasleen brought her paneer. The response of those who tasted her cheese at the party convinced them there might be a market for her product.
The Agarwals started SĀCH Foods in October 2018, but even now, both still work full-time jobs — Tarush in business development, Jasleen in tech. They hope to expand their business enough so that they can run SĀCH full-time. Given the number of Indians living abroad, they see vast growth potential. They also hope to introduce flavored paneer to India itself. And they want non-Indians to enjoy their products, too. Recently, the Cheese Board in Berkeley featured SĀCH’s paneer on an Indian-flavored pizza.
Sach means “truth” in Hindi. They chose the name because they want to be completely transparent about their product, but about their company too.
“We wanted to start a company, and partner with nice people, and create jobs for people. Having our own company would be the best way to do that,” said Tarush.
“We are creating a company that is empathetic and caring, not only about profits and making money but about much more than that,” said Jasleen. “We’ve had a very good experience here, and that’s shaped our point of view.”
Although the couple started the company in San Francisco and currently live in Oakland, their paneer is produced in Oregon.
While they started by making their product in a commercial kitchen, the Agarwals quickly learned they needed a cheese room, a production space for dairy, where no cross-contamination can occur. Being new to the food business, they had no connections in the industry, so they began to cold-call copackers (third party companies who make and package the product according to your specifications). They were turned down by most.
“They wanted volume,” Tarush explained. “We had to be out in the market but we weren’t yet. And we were asked a lot, ‘How do you know there’s a market for it since flavored paneer doesn’t exist?’”
Aside from being entirely new to the business, there were other concerns, like a decreasing dairy market and the low-profit margins of food businesses. “We had all of these reasons why we shouldn’t enter this space, but we didn’t let that discourage us,” said Tarush.
The Agarwals eventually ended up with an award-winning cheesemaker and second-generation American willing to produce their cheese in Oregon, who as it so happened, was also an incredibly nice person. They had found their partner.
With the help of the copacker, SĀCH now produces about 500 pounds at a time. Each batch differs slightly in flavor, as is how it goes with an artisanally made product.
The fact that SĀCH paneer is in about 20 local markets, with plans to be in 40 or so perhaps by the time you are reading this, shows their determination and entrepreneurial spirit has paid off.
“We had the mindset that we have to do something creative, and the whole American dream was very much entrenched in our minds, as we’ve been the beneficiaries of that,” said Tarush.
And the fact that the Agarwals’ business expresses their own cultural heritage? Even better.
Find SĀCH paneer at East Bay locations, including the Cheese Board, Berkeley Bowl West and Rockridge Market Hall.