Anyone who has sampled the aromatic sauces at modern Indian restaurant Verandah, in Houston’s Upper Kirby neighborhood, has likely dreamt of bottling up the spicy goodness to take home. Luckily, Sunil and Anupama Srivastava, the couple who operate the restaurant, jar their own line of sauces, from a brand called W’kana Gourmet. This fall, the couple announced that their sauce line, more than a decade in the making, had landed in Costco stores across the state, introducing their unique approach to Indian cooking to a larger audience.
Sunil and Anupama, both graduates of India’s esteemed Institute of Hotel Management, moved to the United States in the early aughts. Sunil honed his chops as executive chef at Tamarind in New York City and Amber India in San Francisco before the couple settled in Sugar Land in 2009. The pair swiftly got the attention of locals and food critics when they opened Great W’kana Cafe in a Meadows Place strip mall the following year, where they were able to showcase Sunil’s avant-garde approach to Indian cooking. The cafe also served as a place where Anupama could focus on jarring and selling condiments.
“The idea for selling sauces was at the back of our minds since we moved to the United States,” Sunil says, admitting it was tough to implement at first. “Once you start working in your restaurant, things get so crazy that you can hardly think of doing anything else.”
They began with chutneys and preserves, sold in small batches at Great W’Kana Cafe and in select South Asian markets around Houston. Anupama sourced ingredients like chiles and cilantro from her own garden and ground her own spices. It was not a big operation, but it was a start.
At some point along the way, a buyer for Costco sampled their cooking and reached out to the couple to gauge their interest in providing frozen packaged foods for the retail giant. “I actually thought the message was spam when he emailed us,” Sunil says, laughing about the surprising turn of events. “Unfortunately, we were not prepared at that time.”
Sunil and Anupama shuttered Great W’kana Cafe in 2017 with plans of opening a glitzy new concept within Houston’s inner loop. When Verandah opened in February 2019, its dishes fused the fundamentals of Indian cooking with presentation that had pizzazz, like roast duck finished with a hot citrus-spice sauce poured over it tableside.
The sauce line was put on the back burner as the restaurant ramped up, but in 2020, when businesses were forced to shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it made sense to revisit it. “Everyone was cooking at home, and many people were requesting our sauces,” Sunil recalls. During the wildly uncertain time, he and Anupama were happy to deliver. “We started bottling thirty-two-ounce containers of tikka sauce, vindaloo sauce, makhani sauce, coconut curry—whatever people asked for.”
Anupama wanted to take this opportunity to develop a proper line. The couple managed to get their first products into Phoenicia, a popular Houston specialty market known for its bounty of international goods, that very year. They coined the name W’kana Gourmet, a nod to their original restaurant.
“We had already heard of them when they approached us,” says Haig Tcholakian, the manager and buyer at Phoenicia. “While Houston has a lot of people in hospitality and a lot of restaurants, it is a pretty tight-knit community.” He was happy to give the Srivastavas a chance to grow their budding business and was won over after sampling the products. “Phoenicia was established by my parents, who were immigrants, so it’s always been important for us to give other like-minded people a chance if their product is quality—which Sunil and Anupama’s is.”
The couple charged full speed ahead with production, landing in even more stores, including Spec’s. They felt confident revisiting the idea of selling to Costco. “Costco appealed to us for one reason: we could never find many South Asian products in the store,” Sunil says.
In 2021, they contacted the same buyer who had reached out years earlier. “Anupama had a lot of persistence. She kept calling and calling and calling,” Sunil recalls. Her tenacity paid off. Costco requested samples of three sauces, and the Srivastavas provided their best-sellers: chettinad masala (cracked pepper coconut curry), chili garlic sauce, and tikka sauce. “We chose three flavors that we felt like people would know, or be able to recognize,” Anupama explains.
Costco approved the three products, and on October 19, the brand officially launched sixteen-ounce jars of the three W’kana Gourmet sauces at fifteen Costco stores across the state.
More Texas stores followed suit, and meetings with buyers for stores in Canada and Europe are already on the books. The magnitude of this type of achievement is not lost on Sunil and Anupama. Beyond celebrating landing in a mainstream store like Costco, they take pride in the product they developed. “Indian cuisine is far more difficult than others,” Sunil says. “With these sauces, we’ve cut down cooking time from six or seven hours to less than thirty minutes.”
While continuing to play major roles in operations at Verandah, the couple is actively involved with preparing and bottling their W’kana Gourmet sauces. “It is our passion, and we don’t want to leave it aside,” Sunil says. A team of twelve, including the couple, dedicates three days a week to production, working in the Verandah kitchen before dinner prep begins.
Laser-focused on the future, the Srivastavas hope to grow their product line in the coming years. They have made flavored plantain chips that will soon be available in Fiesta stores, and they have thoughts of a line of frozen foods.
Years ago, it might have been difficult for Sunil to imagine juggling an ambitious product line for a retail giant with managing the couple’s restaurant, but his tune has since changed. “If you really want something, you can make it happen,” he says.
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