After tragedy struck Rajus Korde’s family in 2018, he had two revelations. The first was to find more meaning and purpose in his career. The second was that his family’s food was both an expression of love in times of joy and grief.
“Food played this role, particularly around joy and celebration, for the majority of our life to that point,” Korde explains. “And then it played a role of comfort and sitting around the table, holding grief.”
Korde’s parents were still living in Michigan and unable to have meals with their children and grandchildren to provide this comfort. So they began sending care packages of the Maharashtrian delicacies of their native India that conjured such a sense of home and love.
Despite having a growing family — Korde and his wife, Poorva, had a second child at the beginning of the pandemic — the impact of his parents’ meals motivated him to quit his job at the end of 2020 and launch Aaji’s, an Indian food brand inspired by the power of family.
“Aaji” is the Marathi word for grandmother, so it was fitting that Korde’s mother and father joined the business, as did his wife, after his parents moved to Philly. They started off slowly, offering a variety of recipes as a “neighborhood taste test” to their Fairmount neighbors, delivering food three times a week with three different dishes in each package of food. Having a background in data, Rajus would ask each neighbor to fill out a survey. Since this was the height of the pandemic and everyone was home, it was, as Korde describes, “a little bit of this perfect storm to actually get that feedback.”
“We said, ‘Okay, don’t sugarcoat your feedback,’” Korde says with a laugh.
What they realized over the course of six weeks was that people liked their food. But they also knew that they didn’t want to start a restaurant. So they decided to start selling packaged food at farmers markets organized by The Food Trust and Farm to City. Korde praises the Philadelphia region and these organizations for cultivating such a rich and welcoming farmers market sector, which really allowed their business to grow.
Watching how their food was received at these markets was also a great joy. The tomato lonsa is the brand’s signature dish and is described on their website as “flavorful tomato-based topping or base ingredient that celebrates sweet, tart, spicy, and umami tastes all in one.” Although there are traditional ways lonsa is eaten in Mumbai, Korde gets a kick out of seeing his Western customers pair it with eggs and toast, and he thinks that if such nonstandard pairings expose people to food from his region of India, that’s positive.
“I think a macro trend that’s helping is this regionalization of cuisine and the appreciation for it in the U.S.,” he says. “So it’s not like Mexican food, it’s Oaxacan food. And it’s not Chinese food, but it’s Sichuan food.”
To prepare and package these meals, the Aaji’s team worked out of the Enterprise Center’s Center for Culinary Enterprises in West Philly. It was there that they met Candy Bermea-Hasan from Weavers Way, who sampled their food and knew she had to bring Aaji’s to Weavers Way in Ambler and Chestnut Hill.
“Getting in Weavers Way really paved the way for other retailers and boutique shops because I think Weavers Way has such a reputation and it validated our potential in retail,” Korde explains.
Now, Aaji’s brand foods can be found in markets such as Riverwards in Kensington and will soon be coming to the Weavers Way in Mount Airy too. It’s not lost on Korde that a brand born out of grief in a city like Philadelphia, where there is so much trauma, can add a bit of healing at least for one meal. And for that Korde has gratitude.
“I’ve worked in different industries, and the camaraderie and support of the food community in Philly is something that’s very special to us.”