May 11, 2011 · Updated 3:50 PM
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If North Van’s Vikram and Jasvir Bajaj’s foray into the Dragon’s Den is successful, they’ll have the capital to expand their mixed spice business. / Greg Hoekstra photo

At first glance, the nondescript storefront of Ace Grocery blends in perfectly with the others along North Vancouver’s Pemberton Avenue.

But much like a dash of spice in a simmering pot curry, the shop, dubbed “Little India of the North Shore,” lends its taste to everything surrounding it. Without it, the quiet strip of commercial businesses and diners just wouldn’t be quite as flavourful.

Of course, it’s not until one walks through the door of Ace Grocery that the shop’s full aroma kicks in. From front to back, the store’s aisles are lined with foods and household items from India, Pakistan, and exotic pockets of Southeast Asia.

There are cans of mango pulp and young coconut meat, “magic masala” potato chips, and aromatic soaps with the fragrances of strawberries and cream, lime, jasmine, and coconut.

There are ten-pound sacks of basmati rice, boxes of mahogany henna hair dye, and a refrigerator stocked with ginger paste, paneer cheese and tamarind chutney.

At the back of the shop owner Vikram Bajaj has assembled a wall of spices, with alphabetically organized bags of bishop’s weed, cardamom, Dhana-Jeera mix and tumeric.

And near the front cash register, next to the stacks of Persian and Hindi DVDs such as Om Shanti Om and Indian Cowboy: A Love Story, are Bajaj’s most popular items: hand-packaged spice mixes with step-by-step instructions for meal preparation.

The mixes, the brainchild of Bajaj and his wife, Jasvir Deol, have been driving in business since the couple first started selling them nearly six years ago.

In the early days, the couple mixed the packages individually for customers at the video store using a small coffee grinder in the back room. As the spice mixes grew in popularity, the couple upgraded to an industrial-sized grinder and, eventually, moved the operation to a separate facility in a nearby industrial park.

In 2007 the couple took their products — Ace Curries to Go — to their first trade show. That opened the doors to distribution in grocery store chains across Western Canada, such as IGA, Quality Foods, and select Safeway locations.

Every year since, they have continued to travel and spread the word of their products, sometimes attending up to six farmers’ markets a week, as well as tradeshows across Western Canada.

To this day, everything is still done in-house, from the grinding and mixing of spices to the labelling of the packages, says Bajaj one morning, over a cup of coffee at a local diner.

“I was told it’d be cheaper to have the labelling done elsewhere, but we care too much about the product to send it out,” he explains.

But the business has reached the limits of how far it can expand. Although there have been inquiries from Toronto, Montreal and the Eastern U.S., the couple simply can’t expand further without more capital. So, they turned to the Dragons.

Over Easter weekend, Bajaj and Deol travelled to Toronto to film an episode for the popular CBC television show “Dragon’s Den.” In the show, the couple described their business to five multi-millionaires — including Boston Pizza chairman Jim Treliving and IT mogul Rober Herjavec — with the hope that some of the Dragons will see its potential as an investment.

Contractual obligations do not allow the couple to say whether they were successful in wooing the Dragons, or whether their spicy business plan had them breathing smoke, but Bajaj says the experience is one he learned a lot from.

While other business owners were frantically rehearsing their spiels in the waiting room, Bajaj and Deol went in with nothing but a few talking points scrawled on a cocktail napkin at the pub the night before.

“The program is more like a conversation or an interaction; it’s not a sales pitch,” he says. “Don’t forget, for every comment you make there are five people trying to shoot you down. You just need to know your business inside and out.”

Bajaj describes the Dragons as being “larger than life” once the cameras are rolling. Inside the “den” they can sometimes come off as very harsh, but “they don’t speak out of harshness, they speak out of knowledge and business experience,” he says, with a smile. “Dragon’s Den is a true venture capitalist show. It’s all about the money. ‘Show me the money!’”

The episode will hit the airwaves this fall.

For more information visit www.acecurriestogo.com. You can also find Vick and Jas at the EPIC sustainable living expo at the Vancouver Convention Centre this weekend (May 13 to 15).

ghoekstra@northshoreoutlook.com
twitter.com/greghoekstra

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