We meet Gouri Kubair, the Hatfield-based owner of Holy Lama Naturals, creators natural skincare and award winning Spice Drops
What does it mean to you to be selected as one of the nation’s most inspiring firms by the Small Business Saturday UK campaign?
The majority of our business happens online at www.holylama.co.uk, Ocado, Amazon and other small fair-trade shops, therefore, the support of Small Business Saturday UK has been invaluable in raising awareness of what we have to offer. To have been selected to be listed alongside other amazing British businesses makes me feel extremely proud and I am excited to be able to share our award-winning Body Care and Spice Drops with a wider audience. The advice and expertise that the team behind Small Business Saturday has to offer are incredible and the networking opportunities where we can meet the other SmallBiz 100 companies both from this year and past years’ alumni, have been a great way to learn from others’ experiences.
Your Spice Drops also have several Great Taste Awards to their name. How important is this recognition?
The Great Taste Awards are probably one of the most recognised food awards amongst the general public. They are trusted and respected, so we are very proud to have been awarded stars for 18 of our Spice Drops – it’s over half of them – and I do believe that it helps influence purchases if people haven’t tried Spice Drops before.
How did Holy Lama Naturals originally begin?
The Holy Lama Naturals story began in the 1940s and spans three generations of my family. In 1948 my grandfather migrated from near Goa to Kerala, South India, to become a pioneer in the essential oils industry. He was the first person to cultivate vetivert (a tall grass) to extract the oils on a commercial basis and it’s from here that the beginnings of my family business, distilling and using essential oils in perfumery, can be traced.
Following in his father’s footsteps, my father, Vijay became involved in the family business at a very young age. His fascination with the world of essential oils and perfumery took him to Bhutan on a government-backed project helping locals cultivate and extract lemongrass oil.
During the 1980s, he lived in the Himalayas for eight years and, whilst in Bhutan, made a 12-day walking pilgrimage to Aja Ney where the presiding Lama presented him with a ‘Thangkha of Lama Guru’ which symbolises good luck in life. This is the inspiration behind the Holy Lama Naturals brand name.
How has the business evolved over the years?
The original family business was in essential oils and perfumery and my parents expanded it in the late 1990s. The extracting and distillation knowledge is used in the production of Spice Drops and the essential oils are the key active ingredients in our skincare range. With lots of hard work and some luck, the business went from strength to strength and in 2014 we launched our Spice Drops. These are highly concentrated natural extracts of herbs and spices for flavouring food and drinks.
With every development in the business, we maintained the ethical ethos of my grandfather which meant that when more help was needed Vijaya, my mother, set up the manufacturing unit as a Government-recognised women’s enterprise, supporting and empowering marginalised women in the local community. Many of the women would otherwise be rejected by society, but they have found self-respect and financial independence by working for Holy Lama and are incredibly loyal to the business, helping to handmake all our products.
Were you always going to take over the running of the family business?
No, I originally worked in finance and spent 10 years working as a chartered accountant. I had trained in India and was a gold medalist Chartered Accountant there, but when I came to the UK in 2003, I had to requalify in the UK, whilst working with Deloitte. After having two children, and with a desire for a better work-life balance, in 2013 I decided to change course and took on the marketing and distributing of the Holy Lama range determined to educate the UK and European audience in creative cooking with spices and Ayurvedic body care products.
Obviously, this is still my core role today but over the last few years, some of the businesses in my network solicited my help with accountancy and tax queries. Whilst helping them, I realised there was a gap in the market for affordable accountancy service providers who understand the struggles of a small business, so I set up my accountancy practice – Kubed Solutions.
My aim is to reach more start-ups and SMEs and support them in achieving their creative ambitions without having to worry about accounting compliance. We are looking to expand our team and grow the business to double its strength in the next year.
Currently, word-of-mouth referrals, networking and social media marketing are used to promote the business. With this accounting role, I’ve truly come full circle!
Today, what does Holy Lama Naturals offer?
Today we have two core product ranges: our natural, concentrated liquid flavour extracts called Spice Drops. And an Ayurvedic body care range under the Holy Lama Naturals brand, which is vegan-friendly and hand-made and particularly kind to sensitive skin. Unique essential oils provide long-lasting and beautiful aromas, aimed to rebalance, immune boost and revive the body, soul and mind.
Spice Drops bring any recipe instantly to life with just a couple of drops and can be used in bakes, cocktails and cooking – allowing endless creativity in the kitchen. They are vegan, gluten and alcohol-free, and contain no added salt or sugar. The unique extraction process retains all the natural goodness of the fresh or raw ingredient and unlike dried spices which lose their intensity in a matter of weeks after opening, Spice Drops retain their intensity for three years! We call them little drops of magic that can transform any recipe.
How do you create your products?
All our products, irrespective of the ranges, are based on ancient Ayurvedic principles, ensuring immune support and balance of body, mind and spirit. This sense of well-being permeates the business, demonstrated in the way it is run and the products we make.
Only the finest quality ingredients are used to make Spice Drops and our body care products, sourced primarily from local farmers in Kerala or elsewhere in India and building on over seven decades of strongly established relationships with farmers. We’re proud that a genuine bond of trust exists between supplier and buyer, not least because we run the business on the ten principles of Fair Trade.
In many developing communities (and let’s face it in Western society too!), there is sometimes an inequality in wages for men and women, but this is not the case for Holy Lama Naturals where equal pay is ensured, irrespective of gender. In addition, annual wage increases are always made in line with inflation, so wages are assured, no matter how low the market falls.
As I have already mentioned Holy Lama Naturals is also a Kerala Government recognised women’s enterprise, where over 80% of the workforce are women, mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds. They may have been widowed, deserted by a partner, abused or left as a single parent, and under normal circumstances would have been rejected in a traditionally male-dominated society.
Work at the factory provides these women with much-needed self-confidence and financial independence. Holy Lama Naturals is like a family to its employees and women of all ages, castes and religions are welcome, working together in harmony. These ladies hand-make many of our products.
Is a sustainable approach really important to you?
Yes, wherever possible sustainable materials are used for packaging and the factory’s sustainable model ensures there is less than 1% wastage in production. Any waste produced is used as fuel or cattle feed, making the company’s carbon footprint exceptionally low.
Our Spice Drops are an innovative alternative to traditional spices and herbs with a 3-year shelf-life, leading to low wastage in kitchens. We also donate to Ecologi which helps plant more trees in the UK to move our business towards becoming carbon neutral.
What do your Spice Drops add to food?
Spice Drops are designed to help cooks be creative with flavour in the kitchen. They can experiment with instant authentic taste and aroma without the hassle of peeling, chopping, grating or grinding the raw ingredient. There’s no mess and best of all, no waste, just instant authentic flavour. We think they really are little drops of magic and can help any cook experiment with spices.
Growing up in India I learned to cook with spices from an early age. They can transform a dish, adding interest and excitement to the blandest of meals. Many have traditional uses and benefits that add colourful stories and bring them even more to life.
I can understand that for those who have not grown up using certain spices it might be a little frightening to start cooking with them. I believe that Spice Drops are a simple and convenient way for even the most amateur chef to introduce spices to their cooking and just have fun experimenting with them.
To make it even easier we have a recipe on every box to show how that Spice Drops variant can be used and exactly how many drops need to be added in comparison to the powdered spices. I’m determined to get everyone cooking with spices confidently! If you visit our website, you will find masses of recipes both savoury and sweet as well as cocktail and drink ideas.
What flavours have you launched recently?
Our most recent flavour is Pumpkin Spices. This was launched in time for Halloween and the autumn when Pumpkin Latte comes back into fashion! Our Pumpkin Spice Drops make it easy to create that barista flavour at home, but it’s also fantastic for pies, or why not celebrate Christmas with this fabulous Pumpkin Spice Martini?
Pumpkin Spice Martini
25g pumpkin purée
2 drops Pumpkin Spices Spice Drops
20ml simple syrup
Cinnamon sugar for garnish.
Shake all ingredients vigorously in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass rimmed with cinnamon sugar.
What are the plans for Holy Lama Naturals in 2023?
We have big and exciting plans for 2023 which will help propel our business into further growth. We aim to build on the success of this year and what we have learned from our membership of Small Business Saturday. We’re also always keeping an eye on trends and what the latest flavours and skin care routines are; the beauty of being a small family business is that we can be agile when we want to add to the range and can act quickly to respond to trends.
You are based in Hertfordshire – whereabouts and what do you love about it?
Hertfordshire is a beautiful and green county, close enough to and yet far enough away from busy London. Where I live in Hatfield, we have the most wonderful community of supportive neighbours. We have the lovely Hatfield House where I love to go for morning walks too. It is very conveniently located for all amenities and there is a wealth of supportive and innovative small businesses.
Does the area inspire your work in any way?
There are many amazing, inspiring businesses in Hertfordshire. I have learnt more about them and grown to admire them in the last year, via networking events at the Hertfordshire Chamber of commerce. It is wonderful to have a supportive community of SMEs and entrepreneurs around. Because of my love for green places, like my homeland Kerala, I love that there is so much natural beauty here. This never ceases to motivate me, helping me keep positive even in these bleak times.