Shortly after meeting The Observer in the lobby of the Ace Hotel last Wednesday, Dhiraj Arora—who is the owner of the spice company Arora Creations Inc., but is perhaps better known for losing his temper and a good portion of his clothing one wild night at the Four Seasons Hotel—offered up a sly word of warning.
“The last woman who tried to profile me was an editor at Trace magazine,” Mr. Arora said. The editor had overseen a 2007 article in the magazine called “Delhi Rising,” which profiled several successful South Asian Americans. A cover story on Mr. Arora was considered, he said, “but she was eventually like, ‘Yo, D., I can’t keep up with you!’” The two ended up dating, a whirlwind romance that saw the duo jetting around the globe. That was the last time Mr. Arora truly felt he was in love.
We were a little unclear about just what this disclosure had to do with us, until the handsome 36-year-old asked if we were currently seeing anyone. We were. Did our significant other treat us right? Did he take us all over the world? Well, as a matter of a fact, he did.
“That’s really great,” Mr. Arora replied effusively.
Mr. Arora—who according to his company’s website owns the only USDA-certified organic Indian grocery-product line in existence and whose spice packets are carried by more than 4,000 outlets, including Whole Foods—distinguished himself from other, more wholesome members of the organic food world in November. That’s when Page Six ran an intriguing item about a New York “Spice King” and his “naked rampage.” The story, which quoted law enforcement sources, claimed that Mr. Arora had been running around the hotel in the nude, “sucking down tequila,” and screaming at the police to “suck his million-dollar cock.” This behavior resulted in an arrest and a two-hour stay in St. Luke Roosevelt’s hospital, where he underwent a psychological evaluation. No charges were ever brought.
For readers who may be unaware that New York had a Spice King to call our own, a little background: Mr. Arora is a big man with jet-black hair streaked with silver, a large smile and a somewhat crooked nose marked by a jagged scar, the product of a fight he got into “when somebody tried to front” a couple years back. He was born in New Jersey to a family of Punjabi descent, though his affect is way more Entourage-meets-The Godfather than Bollywood.
Mr. Arora went to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was part of the notorious “high times” fraternity, Fiji. In fact, Mr. Arora likened his first couple tries at the spice trade—mixing packets together in his mother’s kitchen to sell at street fairs—to dealing dime bags of marijuana. “At the end of the day, it’s a similar game,” said the Spice King, who over the course of a long, boozy lunch at the Breslin managed to compare himself not only to Tony Montana but to Steve Jobs and Martin Scorsese as well.
Mr. Arora’s grandiosity was on flamboyant display during our meeting—from his style of hailing waiters by physically grabbing them to his insistence, despite the early hour, on introducing us to the joys of Caffè corretto (two pulls of espresso with a splash of Sambuca) and “pickleback” shots. But even his offer to take us back to the Four Seasons Hotel—just to see if he could sneak back in—and his tendency to raise his eyebrows and refer to “good times” came off as charming (though not charming enough for us to take him up on the offer).
About that Four Seasons story: Mr. Arora, of course, has his own version of that night’s events. There was never any “public nudity” or drunkenness, he insisted. He had simply been working out at the gym when he accidentally crashed some weights. “So now people are looking and thinking, ‘Oh, shit, there’s this al-Qaeda operative.’” (A mark of Mr. Arora’s stories, almost all of them, is that somebody mistakes him for a terrorist.) Subsequently, he doffed his clothing for a few minutes in the steam room and in the cool-down shower area. Several of the hotel’s security guards, whom Mr. Arora tends to speak of as if they’re his posse, escorted him back to his room, where he began preparing leftovers and running himself a bath. By his account, the police were called when Mr. Arora was opening a bottle of wine and attempted to show the guards a flourishing maneuver with a corkscrew.
He claimed he wasn’t drunk at the time. “I never even got the shot of tequila that I ordered to my room,” he insisted. “Security canceled it. So I don’t know how they were saying that I was ‘drunk.’” In fact, the shot wasn’t even to drink, he insisted. His plan had been to douse his toes in it … to cure himself of athlete’s foot.
Mr. Arora pleads guilty to then telling the two female police officers to “suck my $57 million dollar dick.” To which, in his telling, they replied, “Suck our dicks.”
“And I’m like, ‘Yo … you ladies have dicks?’” he recalled.
While he acknowledged that some of his behavior that night might have aggravated the situation, he noted that soon after the Page Six item ran, the William Morris agency, which he dubbed “the fucking A-team,” called him to schedule a meeting.
Besides, he pointed out, such incidents come with the territory of being a high-profile North Indian trying to make it big in America.
“I always, always get stopped at airport security,” Mr. Arora said. “But it’s not just that. I’ve lost millions and millions of dollars to jealousy. There are crews of people in the organic food industry that came out of retirement to step on my relationships and shut them down.”
He took a sip of Jack and Coke. “That’s what jades me,” he went on, “when you have these great images of local, organic farmers. I’m dealing with devils who are sitting on billions of dollars.”
While this secret organic food cartel sounds a little like a Portlandia sketch, it’s no doubt true that Mr. Arora’s success has inspired jealousy. He admitted that he didn’t have a background in food before starting his company while a student in Ann Arbor. “Myself and a lot of my friends were vegetarian and some were vegan, and they wouldn’t know how to feed themselves,” he recalled. “And so much of North Indian food is vegan … I just remembered how my mom used to cook for me growing up.” So Mr. Arora called his mother and asked for her to send him some spice packets in the mail. He began giving these packets to his friends and fraternity brothers, and Arora Creations was born.
After graduating in 1997 with a double major in anthropology and international business, Mr. Arora returned to his mother’s house in New Jersey and kept churning out those spice packets. He’d combine cumin, turmeric, amchur powder, ajawayan seeds and minced onions, for example, and sell the mixture as “Gobi spice blend” (just add cauliflower and potatoes). By 2002, he was hawking his concoctions at flea markets and food stalls (four spice packets for $10) as a full-time venture. Just five years later, Arora Creations could be found in 4,000 outlets around the country, and revenue was in the low millions. Today, he said, it’s in the tens of millions. The company was up 43% in the first quarter of a year marked by recession.
Much of that success is attributable to Whole Foods. Mr. Arora first gained the attention of the organic food chain by sheer moxie. He’d walk into a store, ask to speak to the manager, and deliver his best pitch.
“I’d tell them to take a couple samples, put them on shelves, see if they sold,” Mr. Arora reminisced. He’d show up for in-store demonstrations, and use his large personality to draw a crowd. He also became a fixture at international trade shows, like the BioFach organic trade fair, where he built international connections to buyers and sellers.
Mr. Arora now works with a small group of “core” Arora Creations employees in his office on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. He has four factories scattered around the country, with a total of 80 employees. In 2009, he sold his “sick” Tribeca loft on West Broadway, temporarily relocating to San Marcos, Calif., before bouncing from San Diego up to Venice Beach. Last year he came home to New York, taking up residence in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
“I think I was coming off a little too strong with that New York flavor,” he said about his move back East. “There were a lot of eco-maniacs out West.” Still, the time out there calmed him down. “When I was living in Tribeca, I’d be out all the time partying. So I needed that life in Los Angeles, even though I hated it.” He is now done with the party scene, he insisted, preferring restaurants to bars and clubs.
Recently, Mr. Arora has begun diversifying. He’s involved with a music label, called Nossa Music, as well as a spin-off Nossa Designs, and he referred to an ill-fated clothing label that he refused to name. And he wouldn’t mind doing a show for the Food Network. Mr. Arora is no longer a vegetarian, he said, because “after a certain point working in the food industry, not eating meat is torture.” Plus, it must be noted, his chicken tikka spices are one of his best-selling items.
As to his tabloid notoriety? “Not to sound cocky, but I’d like to think that other things I’ve done with my life were more important than a New York Post item,” he told us. “But were they? You tell me.”
Follow Drew Grant via RSS.