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Local Nepalese grocer launches own product line

Suraj Chhetri owns Himalayan Grocers has launched 'DrukCan’ and is making Nepali and Bhutanese products more widely available
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Suraj Chhetri in his Macdonell Street grocery store. Maxine Betteridge Moes for GuelphToday

When Suraj Chhetri and his family moved to Guelph three years ago, they were excited to transform the former Vinh Phong Asian Foodmart on Macdonell Street into a more familiar business venture by selling high-quality products and foodstuffs from their native countries in the Himalayas.

With the help of a grant from the Digital Main Street program at the Business Centre Guelph-Wellington, Chhetri is taking the next stop in launching his brand ‘DrukCan’ and making Nepali and Bhutanese products more widely available in Guelph and across the country. 

“We are trying to get the best of Nepal to Canada,” said Chhetri, who was born in Bhutan and is married to Nisha Chhetrigyawali, who is from Nepal. “I’m targeting a niche market, especially people coming from Bhutan and Nepal, but also those who have visited and they come back and they can’t get (those products) here.” 

In addition to the many Asian and African products available at Himalayan Grocers, Chhetri is importing a number of Nepali products including rice, lentils, noodles, spices and specialty goods including achar, a condiment made from pickled fruits and vegetables, akabare khursani, a round, spicy chili, and khalpi, a type of pickled cucumber. 

“If you try to make a pickle out of the cucumber that you get here, like at Costco, it is like water. You cannot do that,” he said. 

The brand name comes from ‘Druk’, the ‘Thunder Dragon’ of Tibetan and Bhutanese mythology, and the country’s national symbol.

Chhetri and his wife became Canadian citizens after moving here with their infant son Aaryan in 2010. The family spent nearly two decades in a refugee camp in Nepal during the Bhutan refugee crisis of the early 1990s, when over 100,000 ethnic Nepalis were expelled or fled from the Himalayan kingdom as part of cultural reforms during the ‘One Nation, One People’ policy.

The family first moved to Quebec, where they opened one Himalayan Grocers location, but they wanted to open another store in Ontario to be closer to other community members and diaspora. Now, Chhetri is in contact with many friends and relatives in Nepal to source locally-produced items to ship to Canada – a process that has been especially difficult amidst the pandemic.

“By this time my container would have been in Canada, but now COVID is worse in that part of the world. All the labourers have gone back to the village, so there is no one to work. I really had problems from that perspective,” he said, adding that all shipments dispatch from India because Nepal doesn’t have its own port, which can create more logistical challenges. 

Still, Chhetri is expecting his first shipping container to arrive from Nepal in mid-September, just before the Dashain and Tihar festival, which are important Hindu celebrations in Nepal and India. He hopes to have many items for sale at the Guelph location and he is working to make other products available through his online store and in other supermarkets across Ontario soon.

Chhetri adds that he will be using the Digital Main Street grant, a funding and training program supported by the federal and provincial governments, to start a YouTube channel, expand his digital marketing and update his website and online store. 

“I’m excited. It is not easy, it is a lot of investments and hard work, but I’m happy in the position I am today.”

Himalayan Grocers is located on 32 Macdonell St. in Downtown Guelph.