Photo-Illustration: Nishant Choksi
Last September, Chitra Agrawal started getting messages from excited friends and customers regarding what appeared to be her latest retail expansion. The founder, with her husband, Ben Garthus, of a line of Indian-inspired condiments and simmer sauces called Brooklyn Delhi had been growing the brand for seven years, from a stand at holiday markets to national shelf space at Whole Foods and a partnership with Blue Apron. And now her fans were wondering: Was Brooklyn Delhi private-labeling its garlic achaar — an intricately balanced, chile-spiked Indian condiment — for Trader Joe’s?
No, it wasn’t. Trader Joe’s garlic achaar was unrelated to Brooklyn Delhi’s garlic achaar. But there was more to the story, as Agrawal revealed on Instagram. “I wasn’t going to post about this but I’ve been tagged enough to realize that either people think we are making this watered down version of our Roasted Garlic Achaar or being led to believe that achaar is a simmer sauce,” she wrote. “Let’s just set the record straight, Trader Joe’s has launched a cheap knock off of our product (not to mention ripped off our simmer sauce label design) … Their version is cheap because the first ingredient is not even garlic which is a very expensive ingredient when using whole, fresh cloves like we do and the garlic purée they use is cut with water and citric acid. I am mentally spent thinking about all the time and effort that went into developing this product and educating people on what achaar is to then have a large corporation bastardize the recipe and capitalize on what we have built.”
As it turns out, beginning last January, Agrawal had been in talks with Trader Joe’s about producing a private-label item for the grocery store. The garlic achaar — Brooklyn Delhi’s most popular product, and its most expensive to make — wasn’t a contender, but “they were interested in our curry ketchup and our korma,” says Agrawal. “Then at one point, the buyer came back to me and said, ‘Sorry, we’re actually launching another Indian sauce,’ and that was the end of it.” That is, until the debut of Trader Joe’s achaar.
You can’t trademark a recipe, and Brooklyn Delhi doesn’t have trade dress protection on its packaging, distinctive as it may be, which could be why the Trader Joe’s design ended up looking so similar. According to Beatrice Martinet, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property litigation for the San Francisco based firm Sideman & Bancroft, “trade dress protects the look and feel of a product provided its owner can show that the consumer will immediately associate this look and feel with their brand.” Trader Joe’s declined to comment on its new product and its dealings with Brooklyn Delhi, but in an Instagram post touting the versatility of its garlic achaar, it recommends using the condiment in a number of ways that mimic the suggestions listed on Brooklyn Delhi’s jar and website. And there’s more.
Agrawal points out that Trader Joe’s spells achar the way Brooklyn Delhi does — with three a’s instead of the more common two. “When we launched, we were selling it to people who were unfamiliar with achar — which means ‘pickled’ in Hindi — and we intentionally spelled it that way because we thought it was phonetic,” says Agrawal. “We are the only garlic achar sold widely in mainstream American markets and the only one that spells achar this way.” It’s not exactly like spelling cheese with a z, as with Cheez-Its or Cheez Whiz, but Agrawal thinks it’s telling. Why didn’t she just call her product a pickle as many brands (like, say, Kalustyan’s) do? “We considered it,” she says. “But then we thought that since we’re selling it at markets where people possibly don’t know what Indian pickle is, let’s go with a traditional name, and let’s do a lot of education around it.”
Another Brooklyn Delhi quirk copied by Trader Joe’s, according to Agrawal: It roasts its garlic. Indian garlic pickle, or achar, is just that—raw garlic that gets pickled. It isn’t roasted, and the garlic is usually crunchy. “I love the flavor of roasted garlic, so I wanted to combine the flavors of traditional Indian garlic pickle with roasted garlic clove,” she says.
As you might imagine, Agrawal isn’t the only local producer surprised to discover a striking resemblance between one of her products and something residing on the shelves at Trader Joe’s. About a year ago, Maya Kaimal, a cookbook author and founder of Maya Kaimal Foods started hearing from friends and fans asking her why an item they’d seen at TJ’s looked a lot like her Everyday Dal. Kaimal, who has trade dress protection on her line of Indian food products, had her lawyers contact Trader Joe’s, and the two parties “came to an amicable resolution,” she says. “I didn’t want to be confused with Trader Joe’s products on any level because they aren’t mine. I’m particular about how we make our stuff, and I’m trying to do something premium, not for the lowest cost possible.”
Oddly enough, for Brooklyn Delhi’s Agrawal, the worst thing about the whole sordid affair are the reports she’s been receiving from the Indian-pickle cognoscenti that Trader Joe’s garlic achar is … lacking. After a TikToker named Vruti tasted it, she winced as if she had suddenly seen a rat dragging a slice of pizza down a subway staircase. To be fair, the comments on social media that take Trader Joe’s to task for churning out a dumbed-down product designed for a western audience and for misguidedly calling achar a “sauce” on the label are off the mark. Agrawal, too, created her product with a non-Indian target demographic in mind and stamped the words “garlic-chili sauce” on her label. Having tried both side by side, though, our sympathies are with Vruti and Brooklyn Delhi, whose garlic achar is hotter, better balanced, and far more complex and delicious than Trader Joe’s. Introducing achar to a wider audience is great, says Agrawal. “But if it’s the first time someone is trying it, and they’re like, ‘OMG, that is not good,’ then they might write off the whole category, and that scares me.”