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Monica Chia puts added spice into Kent curry market with chutneys and sauces range Karimix, produced in Selling, Faversham

By Lesley Bellew

Move over Posh, Sporty, Ginger, Scary and Baby Spice.

Monica Chia is all of you rolled into one. The ultimate Business Spice.

The feisty, fast-talking self-confessed foodie has spiced up a former apple store to create a taste of South-East Asia deep in the Kent countryside.

Monica Chia with father Siew and mother Fifi at the opening of the new Karimix premises at Selling, near Faversham

Surrounded by orchards in Selling, near Faversham, Monica produces chutneys, curry pastes, sauces and chilli jams for companies including EAT and Lakeland.

The sassy entrepreneur, who created Sainsbury’s Yo! To Go brand more than a decade ago, set about making Karimix a unique fusion food brand just before the recession hit.

The company was originally run by friends, a husband and wife team from a kitchen table, supplying a couple of farm shops and two specialist food chains.

Monica, 53, with decades of business acumen, could see the potential and bought out the couple with an offer they could not refuse.

She not only set about transforming the company with a clear business strategy but single-handedly revamped the product line, creating new recipes and preparation methods.

Monica Chia and her team at the official opening of the Karimix premises in Selling, near Faversham

New ingredients were selected to improve the quality, consistency and taste of the range which now includes 65 store cupboard essentials.

Monica, who has a daughter and is a grandmother-of-two ‘ankle-biters’ aged three and seven, loves to cook and has used her Singaporean heritage to develop signature flavours.

She said: “My family and friends all gave me their opinions when I was modernising recipes.

“I wanted to intrigue the customers’ taste buds so this was the fun side, spending hours and hours in the kitchen creating new recipes.

“Tastes change, our palates identify different tones and flavours so I had to keep ahead. It is important to remember consumers are more widely exposed to a variety of cuisines nowadays.”

Monica Chia with the highly-commended certificate for the Karimix Tamarind Chutney at the 2013 Taste of Kent Awards

But it was not all plain sailing. As the global recession began to bite, retail sales slowed to stagnant and then went into decline. Rather than run, Monica went all out with a complete rebranding exercise.

The results were “incredible”.

Monica said: “I wanted to create a new look and feel to the packaging so I hired a Kent graphics company Oak Creative [based in Newingreen, near Hythe].

“My brief was simple: No religion, no politics, no gender or race. They really understood what I wanted.

“I love the striking ‘K’ logo, it has a real kick and captures the vibrancy of the products. Rich burgundy and gold colours and elements of culture depict the brand and offer immediate identification on a shelf.

The new Karimix premises at Selling, near Faversham

“Rebranding was a serious investment but it worked and retail sales increased by 50% nationally and internationally 100%, within a year. We now supply companies in 10 countries.”

At the same time Monica attracted attention at key gourmet food festivals. Being a food ambassador certainly helped get Monica noticed but it was the ‘wonderful, innovative flavours’ of her fusion products that were the decisive factor in winning Kent Great Taste Awards – her Tamarind Chutney was highly commended this year.

Monica, who was born in Singapore, but was ‘tagged’ and ‘shipped out’ to be privately educated in the UK and went on to complete her PhD in Washington, USA.

She said: “It was unusual in the 60s to receive a good education but my parents wanted my sister and I to get the best possible schooling. England became my home.”

With links to several continents, Monica’s business brain and energy also extends to consultancy, including a minimum sustainable farming programme with Frigoken in Kenya and East Africa.

Opening the new Karimix premises was the culmination of many years’ hard graft and financial investment. When Monica’s partner Peter Holmes first saw the dilapidated apple store he was stunned. “You have great vision,” he said.

At the 100-guest grand opening ceremony in October, Monica was still working – this time cooking her favourite fusion foods to the delight of her customers and suppliers.

Her parents Fifi and Siew flew over from Singapore to cut the ribbon, proud of their daughter’s achievements and no doubt proud of their investment in the little girl they shipped out and went on to become Kent’s new Business Spice. Girl Power.

Karimix products are also available at farm shops, delis and health stores.The Karimix Shop at Stone Stile Farm in Selling is open Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm. Visit www.karimix.com or call 01227 733878.

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