“Coffee, vegetables, meat, like you want to buy local apples, you want to get meat that was raised and killed humanely. [People] don’t extend those values to spices.”
Alicia talks to Ethan Frisch and Ori Zohar of Burlap & Barrel: Single-Origin Spices, who apply models used in coffee and chocolate importation—with fair wages and a transparent supply chain—to spices. Topics covered include roast duck-flavored ice cream, using food to teach people about radical politics, and why it’s so important that we all learn to experiment more in the kitchen.
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating from How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more, about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show asks the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
In this episode, I talk to Ethan Frisch and Ori Zohar of Burlap & Barrel: Single-Origin Spices. They’re applying models used in chocolate and coffee importation to spices, by paying fair wages and having a transparent supply chain. Through partnerships with both high-end chefs and donations to food justice groups, they’ve changed the story of what it means to be a social-driven enterprise, by also providing an incredibly good product. We talk about how the company started, their first business together that merged revolution and ice cream, and human and animal labor in spice farming.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, so, hi Ethan and Ori, thank you so much for being here.
ETHAN FRISCH: Thanks for having us.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So, you cooked last night?
ETHAN FRISCH: I did. Well, OK, so here’s the story. I was theoretically going to cook last night, it was for an event at Huerta’s in the East Village and they do these monthly takeovers with other chefs. So, I had showed up with a box of spices last week and we had a brainstorming session, what we were going to make, what was sort of in keeping with their Basque or Spanish cuisine in general. Then I showed up for the event yesterday and everything was already done.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Really?
ETHAN FRISCH: So, I got credit for cooking without actually having to cook. I don’t know, it was funny, they let me slice some scallops I think, but it was more of like a pity, like, “Fine, slice some scallops.”
ORI ZOHAR: See, you are part of this.
ETHAN FRISCH: Right, exactly, but it’s always cool to see what very accomplished chefs do with ingredients that they’ve never worked with before. So, to give them a box of spices, some of which they’ve seen, some of which are different versions than what they’ve seen before and some of which they had never seen before, and then let them play around, that’s always fun.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What were the spices?
ETHAN FRISCH: Oh, what did I, what did we do? Some of the rarer ones were things like what’s called a terebinth pistachio, it’s a wild pistachio variety that only grows around the city of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey. It looks like a pistachio, but, but if it were shrunk to like a tenth of the size and it’s got the fruit still on. Pistachio grows on a tree, almost like little peaches or something, so they have this fuzzy fruit coating around the shell, and on the terebinth pistachio, on regular pistachios they take the fruit off and so you eat the pit, the nut of the pistachio fruit, but on the terebinth, these little wild pistachios, they leave the fruit on and the fruit is pretty astringent, kind of acidic, kind of tannic. And so you crunch through it and you get this like acidic, tannic thing from the fruit and this sweet, nutty flavor from the pistachio nut in the middle. So, it’s a cool ingredient, I don’t remember what that made it into on any of the dishes. Anyway, whatever, they did something fun with that. There are a couple of different chilli varieties that are very rare, Guatemalan chilli pepper called a Cobánero chilli, which only grows around this city called Cobán, so that made it into a couple, like a house-made hot sauce with a Serrano pepper and a couple of other things. What else did they make?
ORI ZOHAR: Some blue poppy seeds.
ETHAN FRISCH: Yeah, they made a blue poppy seed cake, savory cake with like an anchovy butter. Sumac and black lime made it onto the scallop crudo, expertly sliced, if I do say so myself. Yeah, it was a great meal, and the cocktails, they do some really spectacular cocktails.
ORI ZOHAR: Oh, the saffron cocktail.
ETHAN FRISCH: They had a saffron margarita, they did a cumin old fashioned which was really good with a fig bourbon, fig-infused bourbon.
ORI ZOHAR: Fennel side-car.
ETHAN FRISCH: Yeah, some cool stuff.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That sounds really good.
ETHAN FRISCH: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So, can each of you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
ORI ZOHAR: So, this is Ori. I was born in Tel Aviv in Israel, when I was five the family moved to Baltimore, and so that was definitely a change, where we moved to Baltimore and didn’t really speak English that well and tried to figure stuff out and there were a lot of funny mistakes and things like that, that a bunch of non-native, like non-Americans were coming in and trying to figure things out without really having the skillset to do so. But, I grew up in Israel and kind of got introduced to Mediterranean, Middle Eastern cuisine, when I came to Baltimore my parents just kept cooking what they knew and so our meals were funny, where we’d have the salad at the end of the meal instead of a dessert, which was a light way to end a meal. We ate primarily vegetables, we ate fish every once in a while and, and even more rarely we would eat meat. My dad is a marine biologist and so whatever was going on there with the marine biology, he was working on sustainable marine agriculture, and whatever kind of came out of all those experiments of growing fish to market size would then come home to the plate. So, often Mediterranean fish, often crabs, oysters, things like that. So, that’s how I kind of grew up in Baltimore, in kind of an American environment, but in an Israeli home.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And was not eating meat a conscious choice there, or…?
ORI ZOHAR: I think that for the way that my parents grew up and also they were both born in Israel, and I think the way that they grew up, meat was kind of an accent, not necessarily the primary focus. And so, for us it was much more so as a veggie-forward and kind of I like to think about the way Al’s Place in San Francisco thinks about meat, where they’re like, “All of our main dishes are all vegetarian and you can add meat to them if you want, the meats are the sides, you know, that you can then throw in there if you need, but it’s not really the main focus of the meal.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally.
ETHAN FRISCH: I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My father did all of the cooking growing up, my mother doesn’t cook at all, by choice, proudly, and yeah, so I don’t know, he has a repertoire, a fair amount of meat, a fair amount of other things, generally pretty health-conscious and, I don’t know, some like Jewish standards. Tzimmes, which is, I don’t like, like a stewed fruit and root vegetable mushy thing that comes out of the oven.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What kind of fruit?
ETHAN FRISCH: Often like dried apricots or prunes, raisins, sort of a sweet, savory stew I think probably, with like Shabbat roots or something, something you could let sit for hours. And yeah, I mean also just growing up in New York City and going to public school, you have access to so much interesting food and the cultures behind it, and so, I don’t know, I’m sure eating whatever I could get my hands on and, and trying all of the diversity of food that Manhattan has to offer.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. So what was the road that lead to both of you working together? Both initially and again now with the spice company?
ETHAN FRISCH: We, we just can’t get enough of each other. Mostly we just bicker like an old married couple I think is the dynamic.
ORI ZOHAR: It’s great.
ETHAN FRISCH: We, yeah, we’ve been friends for about ten years, I was working in kitchens I think when we first became friends and, I like cooking and Ori likes eating, is that fair to say?
ORI ZOHAR: Yeah, he was putting together these amazingly complex meals out of his like small Chinatown apartment, with ingredients that were all kind of gathered from around there, some of which I was aware of what they were and some of which they were brand new to me. So, every time he cooked I was like, “I need a seat at this table whenever these dinners happen.”
ETHAN FRISCH: The restaurant I was working at, at the time, I was the pastry chef and so I was always there later than anybody else and often there would be a lull between the, you know, savory food was done but a couple of tables were lingering and we were waiting for them to order dessert, and so I’d hang out at the bar waiting for the tables to order and friends would come join me and so I think there was one night in particular, Ori came to hang out, we were waiting for a couple of tables to order dessert and then they did and so we went back down into the kitchen, but we’d been drinking for a little while at that point, and so we threw a steak on a grill for ourselves, I shouldn’t talk about this on a vegetarian podcast…
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s OK.
ETHAN FRISCH: But it was a beautiful, I think it was a rib-eye, it was T-bone, anyway, whatever, it was a beautiful, beautiful steak, and we had this great meal in the kitchen with one of the other cooks. Yeah, I don’t know, I feel like that, for me, looking back, was like a turning point in the friendship. We were like, alright, we’re both up for eating steak at midnight in a restaurant kitchen. And then our first, that restaurant closed and I’d been making a lot of ice cream as the pastry chef there and wanted to keep doing it. I had found ice cream to be a really interesting canvas for all kinds of other flavors, it’s basically anything you can infuse either into water or into fat, because ice cream base is both, you can turn into an ice cream flavor. So, while I was there I was doing kind of tamer things, that we still had to be able to sell them, but as soon as…
ORI ZOHAR: Oh, that was the limit? That you had to be able to sell them?
ETHAN FRISCH: The chef was like, “No one’s going to buy,” I don’t know, I was doing things like Earl Grey ice cream and I made an avocado ice cream.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s so tame now.
ETHAN FRISCH: I know, right? So, then the restaurant closed and I was like, “I’ve got to keep making ice cream, let’s start an ice cream company.” So, I had also done some work with the Street Vendors Project, which is a street vendor advocacy organization, like a union for street vendors, and they had a cart, an ice cream cart in a closet in their office. And so we borrowed the cart and, initially in my Chinatown apartment but then later in a rented restaurant kitchen, we started making ice cream of various crazy flavors, and all inspired by, the company was called Guerrilla Ice Cream, all the flavors were inspired by revolutions and political movements, and we donated all the profits to the Street Vendors Project. So there was a sort of an activist and a social mission to it, which worked in some respects and didn’t work in others, which we can get into, but it was definitely fun and gave us a chance to work together on a project that, just because of the weather in New York had a, you can’t sell ice cream from a cart after September, so we knew this was either going to, we were going to do this for a while and then it was going to end and so, people weren’t talking about pop-ups in 2010 but in retrospect I think that’s probably the most accurate way to describe it.
ORI ZOHAR: Yeah, and it was at the Hester Street Fair where we were every Saturday or every Sunday sometimes, and I think for us that was really a great way to kind of test out like, “How do we work together, how can we tell a story, how can we take something that’s as ubiquitous as ice cream in New York City in the summer and kind of have our own angle to it,” and also figure out what things don’t work and what things were completely unsustainable and what things were like, “Oh my God if we did this for another four months and another would it just kind of totally burnt us out?” And so we got that really interesting and crazy four month experience that really, I think, laid the foundation for this business in terms of how we work together and how we communicate and what we actually wanted to build.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, so what were some of the flavors?
ETHAN FRISCH: Oh, do you want the vegan flavors or the non-vegan flavors?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Everything is fine.
ETHAN FRISCH: The most non-vegan flavor was a roast duck ice cream.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wow.
ETHAN FRISCH: Where there was a Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown that did really good roast duck, so I went and bought a couple of roast ducks and took them apart, so put the bones into an ice cream base, milk and cream with Chinese five spice, the five spices that make up Chinese five spice, which are fairly sweet. It’s star anise, and cinnamon, and fennel, and ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns which can be really citrusy and light. So I essentially made a sweet stew with milk and cream and duck bones.
ORI ZOHAR: He’s using the word stew, sweet stew, way too often for this conversation.
ETHAN FRISCH: Then I also, next to that took all of the meat and the skin and pureed it and then mixed it all back together. So we had this duck, very ducky, duck ice cream base. That was maybe the craziest flavor. We had four standard flavors that we did every week. The most popular one was probably a 72 percent dark chocolate and port wine ice cream, and I’d been a pastry chef so these were all, sort of composed desserts where it was a couple of scoops of ice cream and then we had designated toppings. So that one was brûléed frozen bananas and we had a blow torch on, you know this is 2010, blow torches were a thing, we had a blow torch on the car, we were brûléeing bananas to order and that had, yeah, brûléed frozen bananas and roasted cashews. That was sort of an homage to Amílcar Cabral, who was a liberation movement leader from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa and kind of led the, Cape Verde, led the Portuguese West African anti-colonial movement in the 60s. We had a masala chai ice cream, sort of a nod to the Naxalites, the Indian Maoists. We had, what else?
ORI ZOHAR: Mango, lemongrass, and palm sugar sorbet topped with lime zest and, was that spice, no that one was lime zest and shredded coconut.
ETHAN FRISCH: Shredded coconut, yeah. That was the 8888 Uprising, we called it. A Burmese, the monk-led pro-democracy movement in Burma.
ORI ZOHAR: We just want to make the listeners hungry.
ETHAN FRISCH: Exactly.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Hungry for revolution and ice cream.
ETHAN FRISCH: Exactly. What we found, and maybe not surprisingly, certainly not in retrospect, but people don’t, ice cream and politics don’t go that well together and in trying to advance a political agenda or even to get somebody to have a more thoughtful conversation about global political movements or ideas, ice cream is not an effective way to do that, people want to eat ice cream and they want you to shut up and leave them alone while they’re doing it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Did you have, like, propaganda?
ETHAN FRISCH: We had aspirations of writing all kinds of things, pamphlets, and we just couldn’t get people to engage on the political side of it, they just thought the names were weird and that was the extent. We got a fair amount of press which was nice and the journalists who covered us seemed to be interested in the political side of it, but for the most part our customers, it was a hot Saturday in July, they didn’t want to talk about, you know, the Portuguese anti-colonial movement, the anti-Portuguese anti-colonial movement in West Africa, they just wanted to eat their chocolate ice cream. Fair enough, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Where did your interest in these sorts of movements come from?
ETHAN FRISCH: I had majored in Conflict Studies in college. Political Science and History and Sociology, all sort of focused on conflict, and then I’d worked for a foundation for a couple of years after college and got laid off in 2008, and I like blurring professional lines and I thought it might be funny, I don’t know, this was a stupid idea that we cooked up.
ORI ZOHAR: The initial idea, Ethan was like, “Let’s just get a cart, let’s just show up in the street and just start selling people ice cream and start political movements.” And we’re like, “There are parts of that could work.” And luckily the ice cream was exceptional and luckily the flavors were based off of kind of flavors that people were familiar with, maybe not necessarily in the form of ice cream, and also like, luckily, part of the form of impact was donating any scraps and dollars that we had left over to this Street Vendor Project, this non-profit which was, aside from having a conversation about revolutions and ideology and all that, like, at the end of the day, I think we did what $20,000 in sales or something like that over the summer? Which is nothing crazy, but we were able to donate $5,000 to the Street Vendor Project, which was really cool, and we got to use their street cart and so that was, some of those pieces are definitely things we took and said, “Huh, this landed and this did work, let’s definitely keep that when we in the future us get back together and do a future business.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Did you know you were going to get back together?
ETHAN FRISCH: I think we did, actually. I remember having conversations at the end of the summer when we were sort of, we were faced with a decision, “Do we change this company, we can’t be a cart any more, do we try to find a contract manufacturer who’s going to make these crazy flavors and then do we try to get them into freezers at Whole Foods and try to raise some investment?” Because we didn’t have the cash to do it ourselves and we talked about that and we decided not to do that but I remember having a pretty clear agreement that we would look for ways to work together in the future, and we did. We went our separate ways then, I went to grad school for International Conflict and Development, and Ori went to the dentist and got several cavities.
ORI ZOHAR: I had three cavities. I went for some routine cleaning, the dentist was like, “What have you done? Why are you like this?” And I decided to lay off the ice cream for a little bit and after all of that, I was like “Oh my God, this startup was so interesting and intense in a way that, for me, work had never been,” but that was really nice and exciting to further yourself wholly into something like this in a way that working in advertising did not bring out of me. So, I started looking for what the next thing for me would be, and while Ethan went to grad school and eventually started doing international aid work, which he can talk more about, I met these two guys who were starting a mortgage business in Switzerland, which is totally, you know, like in our balance, even in the ice cream business, Ethan was making all the flavors, I was helping slash trying not to get in the way in the kitchen but mostly my background and expertise was around a bit of a generalist, around business operations, around pricing, you know, just the things that can kind of help, the product has to be exceptional but beyond that we also had to figure out how we were turning this into a business and what the margins looked like and all of that.
ETHAN FRISCH: Ori has always been the brains of the operation, in case that wasn’t, in case that wasn’t clear.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What, what were you doing before?
ORI ZOHAR: So as an undergrad I studied at the University of Maryland and then afterwards I had moved to New York and I wanted to do something entrepreneurial, I had a bunch of little projects as an undergrad but none of them really like turned into a meaningful business opportunity, but again, a good experience and I think in general an entrepreneurship, having more sets, more exercises is generally a good thing because you’ll learn a lot along the way and by the time you get to the thing that takes off, you know it takes, it takes a fair amount of learning and trial and error to get there.
I was like, “I want to get a set of expertise around this,” and what I did is I went into the advertising world, I’d studied marketing as an undergrad and I did about six years working in advertising, in communication strategy and business development and in account management, all kinds of different sides of it where I’d work for between a year and two years in each of these roles and say, “I think I get it enough, there’s more to learn for sure but I think I get it enough,” and then I would jump to the next thing and just learn a different part of the kind of advertising, marketing, and communications world. Part of that was also, we were doing Guerilla Ice Cream together while I was still working in the advertising world. Ethan was doing it full-time, I was doing nights and weekends and any other moment that I had to spare, and kind of with that, for me, was a verification of saying, “Cool, I’ve learned enough, now time to start focusing on the entrepreneurial path versus the big corporate, professional path in that direction.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally and it’s actually, obviously people can’t see you but it is funny that you’re the more creative side and the business side because you look very much, you embody that.
ETHAN FRISCH: I look creative, Ori looks business-like.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s like one’s in a t-shirt and one’s in a sweater and it’s just like…
ETHAN FRISCH: Ori is, however, I have to point out, wearing on today, after Hanukkah has ended, wearing Hanukkah-themed socks.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I love the festive socks.
ORI ZOHAR: I don’t get to rock them that often, so, we’re now Hanukkah adjacent and I feel like that’s still OK.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, so after all of the ice cream and you guys go your separate ways a little bit, how does Burlap & Barrel begin?
ETHAN FRISCH: I started smuggling spices back from Afghanistan in a duffel bag, is the short answer.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So how did you end up in Afghanistan?
ETHAN FRISCH: So after, I went to grad school in London for International Development and then moved to Afghanistan, moved to Khalo to work for a big non-profit called the Aga Khan Foundation, and I was working on a rural infrastructure on local governance support project, so we were working with governing councils in very remote areas of the northeast of the country and then helping those councils go through a training process and prioritizing certain infrastructure projects that we would then construct in their community. They would choose, “We want to build a school here and a bridge here,” they had a budget to work with and then we would manage the construction process of those. I spent a lot of time traveling through the northeast of the country, the Hindu Kush mountain range, and particularly spent a bunch of time in a province called Badakhshan, driving for hours up a dry riverbed to visit this little village where we were building a school or building a road of some kind. So, I wound up eating a lot on the road, either in people’s homes or little roadside restaurants, and that province in Afghanistan in particular is famous for this wild cumin variety that grows there. As far as we’ve been able to tell it’s a hybrid, a natural hybrid of a Persian cumin and caraway seeds that somehow made it into those mountains.
And I, you know, having been a former chef, I’m always looking for interesting new ingredients that I haven’t worked with before and that really stood out, and so I would bring home suitcases full of cumin and saffron, which grows really well in the west of Afghanistan, and then honey and dried fruit and nuts and really any ingredients that I could find there that, that I had just not found here or had not found anything like them here. And through that process, and especially sharing it with foodie friends or restaurant industry friends in New York on my trips home, it became clear that there were groups of people growing really interesting ingredients around the world who had no means to export them, didn’t have access to the international trade routes or to the way that exports work, and there were people in New York and presumably other cities who were really excited about those new ingredients that they had never worked with before. And it took a long time to go from that realization, which probably happened some time in 2012 or 2013, to starting the company which we launched in early 2017, but that was kind of the genesis of it. I went from Afghanistan, I lived in Afghanistan for about two and a half years and then moved to the Middle East and worked on the Jordanian-Syrian border, again bringing home zaatar and pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts and, yeah, incredible almonds and olive oil.
And, yeah, this idea that, if, I think what I realized in Jordan related to this idea, was that if there was a system that worked in Afghanistan that was likely going to be a similar system that was going to work in other places, finding small producers growing interesting things, buying their products and bringing them to the U.S. You know, this is not a particularly original business model, this is pretty much the oldest business model in existence, right? Getting something in a place where it grows well, taking it to a place where it doesn’t grow well, but to do it in a way that was consistent with my values and consistent with, I think, the direction that food was moving in general, in terms of knowing where things come from, appreciating complexity in, in varietals, whether it’s coffee, or chocolate, or vegetables, or whatever it is, wine obviously, and extending that to a new category of ingredients, one that those values had not been applied to before.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and then when did Ori come into the fold?
ETHAN FRISCH: I was begging Ori to do this from the beginning. He was like, “This is never going to work.” No, I’m just kidding.
ORI ZOHAR: No, I was supportive. I was like, we talked about what our next kind of collaboration or next project would be. I had, after the ice cream business, had said, “I need another hit of this entrepreneurial thing, I don’t know what to do next,” and being a bit of a generalist I was a bit like, “I just want to find whoever that other subject matter expert is to partner with and build a business around that.” Through Ethan’s connection of a connection of a connection, I met these two guys in Switzerland that had just started a mortgage company, they said, “Join us here,” that didn’t end up happening and then they said, “Here’s another person who is also going to start a company, the two of you guys can find a way to apply this idea of this company that we’re building in Switzerland to the U.S., we’ll finance your company,” and so I got together with a guy named Nick. We came up with a business plan, we flew out to Switzerland and said, “Here’s what we’ve got,” they said, “Sounds good,” and gave us financing to get going. The next startup I did was a company called Sindeo which was a mortgage company around the thesis that people are making mortgage decisions, it’s a really big and impactful decision, yet it’s so complicated that people have trouble navigating it and end up sub-optimizing, they end up getting some that is probably not the best thing that they could have gotten because they don’t have the resources or the knowledge or the support for it.
So, we created a company with 45 different lenders, you came to us and we would shop you in an unbiased way because most people in the mortgage industry get paid by the size of your loan, which pushes them to get you the largest loan so we kind of took that out of it and decided to do a high-tech, unbiased company that worked across a bunch of different lenders. So, you’d come to us and we’d guide you through the whole process, all the way through to you having your home loan. We did that for four years, we raised a bunch of money, we hired a bunch of employees, we did this whole, like, San Francisco, like, “Grow quickly, spend more to make more,” and over four years we did half a billion dollars’ worth of mortgages in 12 states, we grew to over 100 employees and we were always like, “We’ll be profitable later, the profit is going to come in a future phase of this business.”
Towards the end of it we just didn’t have the ability to raise any more money, through a bunch of shenanigans with investors that were supposed to send money but ended up not, we ended up cutting the company back while we looked to sell the company or for a bridge around or anything, and we got some offers, we ended up selling the company and that was that after four years. In those four years, I learned more than I think I’ve ever learned, at a higher intensity, than at any point in my life around how to raise money, how to hire, how to fire, how to set strategy, how to manage people, all of these different things that, although no longer applicable to me in the mortgage world, are very transferable in terms of how do you make decisions about getting a business of the ground, and kind of running it in a thoughtful and intentional way.
After that time, Ethan had come to San Francisco, we talked in more details about the spice business, even, even as Sindeo was in its last throws.
ETHAN FRISCH: We actually went for a walk through the mission on that trip to San Francisco and went into Bi-Rite, which is an iconic San Francisco grocery store, and had a conversation in Bi-Rite about how, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get a product that could be on the shelf here?” And as of, what, a month and a half ago?
ORI ZOHAR: Yeah.
ETHAN FRISCH: Our spices are in Bi-Rite. So it’s, we spent a day doing demos in the two Bi-Rite locations, so it was this nice full circle, where, where….
ORI ZOHAR: Now we’re done.
ETHAN FRISCH: Yeah, now we’re done, we can pack it up and go home. It really does feel in a lot of ways, plans that we made, knowing essentially nothing about anything about how the business was going to run, about what kinds of products, about what the packaging was going to look like, nothing, that there’s been enough vision, shared vision, that we’ve been able to move pretty consistently in the same direction.
ORI ZOHAR: Yeah. Honestly, after the last company, I needed to take a little bit of time to just get my head back on my shoulders and Ethan kind of did all of the initial phases and even the first year I think was just you, with me maybe chiming in every now and again, to get it off the ground. The fact that Ethan was able to find spices that professional chefs, which is like your professional ingredient buyers, right, if you can win these, win this crowd over, then the casual home cook should also be totally floored by this. And Ethan was just sell, sell, selling, and these chefs were really excited about the product and that was really strong validation really early on that there’s something here.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And what are the challenges of applying the skills that you’ve learned in past businesses to something more concrete and more global? Are there different challenges there?
ORI ZOHAR: I don’t know, I think a lot about, like, the things to me that are transferable is kind of an approach to prioritization, approach to communication, an approach to kind of how we approach decision-making and working together. It’s a lot of this soft stuff, about how Ethan and I maintain our relationships, have clear expectations over each other’s expertise, have clear expectations over when one person says, “This is really important to me,” and the other could be like, “Well, I disagree,” and you’re like, “How we resolve conflict,” and things like that and that’s been really important. How you price mortgage debt, obviously, has not be very transferable but so much of this has, has been really helpful, and I think if we had continued to do Guerilla Ice Cream, or two years later gotten back together, I think it was very valuable for us to take the time apart, to kind of explore on our own paths, and to grow in that way and then to come together as more mature, more experienced adults to be able to work with this. Not just that but I, I still live in San Francisco, and I’m working on moving back to New York, but to not just do that but to also do it largely remotely and be able to figure all of this stuff out, there’s so much uncertainty, you feel like the stakes are so high, especially early stage at a company, where something not going out or missing certain deadlines can really have a meaningful impact on the business. It’s, it’s, it’s really challenging to keep your head on your shoulders, to keep having a clear vision and to just, to just keep building that thing that you see as coming out of the fog, out of the clouds in the distance as it becomes more and more real.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, totally. So what were the first steps when you decided to import spices under this, this company?
ETHAN FRISCH: Import spices legally you mean?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Legally, yes, yes. What were your like, what were your first moves? What do you do when you decide to do that?
ETHAN FRISCH: So the first step, there are like twelve first steps, and they all have to happen at the same approximately time. I don’t know, the first thing was making sure that I had supply chains, so I had a friend, a former colleague in Afghanistan who was helping, who was shipping me the cumin, who was getting it from shepherds who harvest it on the mountains, and shipping it to me. He sent me a couple of small shipments, one through some friends who were traveling back from Kabul in a suitcase and then another one we did by DHL to make sure that that would work. We did a little experiment with a cooperative in Zanzibar in Tanzania that I had met through a friend and they were looking for a way to do their own direct exporting and hadn’t found an import partner, and I, yeah, we arranged a little shipment from them. So making sure that I could get more of the spices before I started convincing people to buy them. I got my apartment registered with the FDA as an approved spice warehouse.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Is it still your warehouse or do you have a new one?
ETHAN FRISCH: You know, I just changed the registration recently, no, it’s not our warehouse any more thankfully but it might still be an approved spice warehouse.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Amazing.
ETHAN FRISCH: I can rent out my living room to anybody else who’s looking for a place to store spices. No, but I, so that was being able to have some legal structure that if I was selling somebody spices that there was a little bit of a paper trail to show that I was doing it responsibly. And then, then just selling. I had had no sales experience before, I’d worked in kitchens which is the least salesy job you can possibly imagine, and for non-profits, which is also pretty non-salesy. So, you know, taking a backpack full of samples and picking a neighborhood and going door to door, restaurant to restaurant. I had not worked in restaurants in New York for probably close to five years at that point, so I had some friends who were sort of in the industry but I wasn’t particularly well-connected.
So, knocking on doors, talking to the chef, trying to make the sales. Most of which I did not do, it was, I mean, selling is pretty brutal at its best, and I had no idea what I was going. And restaurant sales in particular, running a restaurant in New York is so hard, the margins are so slim, rent and labor and food costs and all the other costs that you have to account for, so asking somebody to spend more money on a spice that was better quality but they weren’t sure that that was going to be recognizable to most of their customers, and asking them to do it with a company with basically no track record, with no assurance of next day delivery and all the other things the restaurants are used to, so, it was a hard process, but, but it moved. It started, the spices started to get picked up, I started to feel like there was some traction. We launched in February 2017, we had, there was an article written by a journalist in March of 2017. We’re laughing because it was Alicia’s article and it was in Edible, was it Edible Manhattan?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Manhattan or Brooklyn, I don’t know which they put it in.
ETHAN FRISCH: So Alicia wrote this profile of me, and this stupid idea that I was pursuing, and it just sort of went from there. We got written up in The New York Times by Florence Fabricant in July of the same year. The conventional wisdom, I think, around packaged food start-ups is that you have a direct-to-consumer website but you don’t make any meaningful sales on it because you don’t get the exposure if you haven’t raised money, you don’t have the funds to put into a major marketing or online advertising campaign, so you have the site because why not? But what we found was there is a community of people who buy spices on the internet and who are, on their own, looking for new spices on the internet, so especially around the press that we got, there was a, there was a real core of early adopters, people who either didn’t realize how new we were, or didn’t care, or thought it was cool to support a company, and at that point there were so few orders that I was able to correspond with every single person who placed an order.
So anytime somebody ordered, I was emailing them back, “Who are you? How did you find us? This is awesome, send me pictures, tell me what you cook.” And it went from there. We found ourselves with a surprisingly balanced business with a decent amount of wholesale to restaurants, but also to small manufacturers of all kinds of things, cured meats, ice cream, chocolate, coffee, snacks, craft breweries, natural cosmetics, that’s been a funny angle that we weren’t expecting, and on top of that a solid direct consumer business where people come back and people want to know what’s new and we can do limited run products and, and there’s a real excitement around spices as a speciality ingredient, versions of varieties that people have not cooked with before.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Are there trends in spices?
ETHAN FRISCH: Oh, yes, for sure. Well, actually I should say I think there are trends in food in general that are reflected in spices, because they’re often the most iconic ingredient in a cuisine. So like, the new passion for Middle Eastern flavors, out of, “The Yotam Ottolenghi Effect,” is what I call it. Right. Things like sumac, and Aleppo or silk chilli, pomegranate, yeah, those kinds of flavors. Urfa chilli, which is a fermented chilli from southeastern Turkey.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, that’s been big.
ETHAN FRISCH: Has been big, right. Sort of accidentally we wound up having those spices resourced from a group of farms in Turkey, resourced from a group of farms in Egypt, so we get Middle Eastern spices from the Middle East, and having made pretty intentional choices about what spices we’re sourcing and where we’re sourcing them from, we were able, we continued to be able to tap into that trend. I also want to push people into other directions. I want them to taste things that may not fit perfectly into a recipe book, or, we’ve had a lot of conversations, Ori and I, about how to get people to cook more creatively. Using spices shouldn’t be, you know, “One teaspoon of this and one teaspoon of that and following an exact recipe.” It should be, “You like making pasta, put cardamom in your pasta sauce and see what happens.” There’s just so much flexibility using spices and the stakes are so low, if the food doesn’t turn out great, it’s not the worst thing in the world, you order pizza. People have this fear of screwing up in the kitchen which we’re trying to find ways to get people to lighten up a little bit about.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So what are the challenges of getting people, like you know, people think they know their spices, you know they go to the aisle and they buy McCormick or whatever, what are the challenges and what do you tell people who don’t want to maybe spend a little more or don’t want to try anything new? Like, what do you tell them?
ETHAN FRISCH: So, first of all our spices are not actually more expensive.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, cool.
ETHAN FRISCH: There’s this perception, and something that we wrestle with a lot in thinking about how we run, how we position the business. People expect our spices to be more expensive, is that a blessing? Should we just lean into that and jack our prices up to $15 a jar, I don’t think so?
ALICIA KENNEDY: No.
ETHAN FRISCH: We’ve decided not to do that because we don’t need to. We’re paying farmers fair prices for their crops, we’re paying what we need to pay to ship it here, and, I don’t know, because we’re cutting out many steps in the middle, many people on the middle who historically would have taken a little percentage here and a little percentage there, we’re able to sell a much higher quality product with an equitable and traceable supply chain at a comparable price to what you’d pay for crappier stuff at the supermarket. The commodity supply chain tends to take several years, so when you buy spices at the supermarket they’re two to ten years old, they’ve been sterilized, possibly several times, possibly irradiated, there are several ways to sterilize spices which we can get into if that’s of interest to anybody, it might be too wonky, but they’ve been sitting in warehouses, you don’t know where, you don’t know the condition of the warehouses, they’re often in glass jars where they’re not protected from light and heat. They’re just old. They’re just old.
Supermarket spices, I don’t know, people will ask us a lot, “How long should I store my spices,” or, “How do I know when I’m buying spices at the supermarket, what are good spices?” There are no good spices at the supermarket, they are all stale. It’s too late. My grandmother, I think everybody’s grandmother has this, a jar of cloves that she’s had since 1982 and they smell OK because everything that was going to evaporate is already gone, so now you’re left with, there’s still something there but it’s not good. So we, we, as home cooks we often, I find, make excuses for our spices that we wouldn’t make for other things.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Very true.
ETHAN FRISCH: Coffee, vegetables, meat, like you want to buy local apples, you want to get meat that was raised and killed humanely. I mean, there are these values that, just because people have not associated spices with farms or farmers or agricultural supply chains in the same way, they don’t extend those values to spices. They’re those mysterious weird powders that exist in jars in our cabinets but they’re not fruit, they’re not plants, which obviously is what they once were, what they actually are. I don’t even remember what your question was any more, sorry.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You know, I think you answered it. I was reading the recent article in Saveur about your Guatemalan cardamom farmer, and it begins, not as graphically as you had described it before the show, but you can get graphic if you like, with the castration of some bulls. And so I wanted to ask you about, kind of, animal labor in the spice industry. Like, where have you seen it? What does it look like? How prevalent is it, because obviously vegetarians and vegans, you know, they’re going to buy spices, they’re going to cook with them, this is kind of a big argument, is like, “Oh there’s animal labor in literally everything so you can never get away from it.” So where does it exist in spice farming?
ETHAN FRISCH: Yeah. For the most part spices are grown on small farms, smallholder farmers. Often, as is the case on almost every small farm, they have lots of different things going on. They’ll be growing some cardamom, in the case of this farm in Guatemala, but they’re also raising chickens, and geese, and cattle. They’re growing limes, they’re growing chilli peppers, they’re growing beans, they’re growing corn, so it’s sort of a mixed-use farm as most small farms are.
The Saveur story started, I guess the story itself opens on a scene of our partner farmer in Guatemala, his name is Amilcar Pereira. He had just gotten a bunch of bulls the day before and they needed to be castrated, I guess? I don’t know a whole lot about livestock or, or cattle in general but Max Falkowitz, who wrote the story, and I went to Guatemala, I’ve been there several times in the last few years but this was his first trip. We rented a pickup truck, sort of accidentally, we rented whatever car was there and it was a pickup truck at the airport in Guatemala City and drove up into the mountains to a city called Cobán and then from Cobán it’s another three hours or so to the farm itself. The first two-thirds is on paved roads, and then the last third is on pretty small dirt paths, and we, we wound up driving in with this truckload of cows that Amilcar had acquired or purchased, I don’t know, the origin of the cows were unclear but they were on their way to the farm and they needed to be castrated.
So we woke up the next morning to a bunch of the guys who work on the farm, castrating the bulls one by one, which, not to get too graphic, involved, I’ve never seen this before but involved a bunch of guys basically lassoing and tackling a young bull, but these are big animals, they weigh anything from 300–500kg, so it’s over 1000lbs, the larger bulls, and then taking out a little Swiss army knife, slitting open the, the sac, and removing the testicles, and then sterilising it with rubbing alcohol and sour orange. There was an orange tree next to the little pen where the bulls were and they were cutting oranges off the tree, slicing them in half and squeezing the orange into the wound. The bulls didn’t like being knocked down, but other than that they seemed pretty chill about the whole thing. They weren’t making noise, it wasn’t particularly dramatic in that sense, and as soon as it was done they sort of hopped back up and shook themselves off and walked away.
I mean, I’m not a, I’ve no, like, way to gauge animal pain, but for me watching it, it wasn’t a traumatic experience, there wasn’t a lot of blood, there wasn’t a lot of noises and whatever. I, back to your question, I have not seen a whole lot of animal labor in the cultivation or the harvesting of spices. I’m sure there, in that context and in other places they use oxen or donkeys to transport spices, although in Guatemala they have, Amilcar in particular has a couple of pickup trucks that he uses.
Spices are mostly grown and harvested by people, by hand, for all kinds of reasons, partially just the geography, they’re not grown in rows in the way that you would imagine a farm to look like. Most of the spice farms that I’ve been to have been pretty sort of biodynamic, spice plants growing in a jungle, that’s the case in Guatemala. It’s definitely the case in Zanzibar, where Ori and I went together in February, where it’s a, it’s a, they call it a spice jungle. There are clove trees and cinnamon trees, vanilla vines and pepper vines and they’re all just sort of growing together in the jungle and each farmer in the co-op has an area that he cultivates. But, but again, it’s not, there is not a lot of animal labor in that part of it, just human labor, which is also obviously important and often overlooked.
You eat black pepper, black pepper is a berry, the wrinkly black skin of the pepper is the fruit, the dried fruit like a raisin, and the inner white pit is what’s spicy, so you get that kind of sweet spicy balance in a black peppercorn, but every black pepper that you’ve eaten, any high quality I should say, any high quality back pepper that you’ve eaten, was picked by hand. Somebody’s hand touched that peppercorn. They ripen at different rates on the same vine, almost always picked by hand, almost always separated from the stem by hand, laid out in the sun by, somebody spreads the pepper out in the sun by hand. It’s a very manual, tactile process, and, maybe even more than other crops, the farmers themselves have a very physical connection to the crops that they’re growing.
I mean, in cinnamon cultivation, especially cassia cinnamon, the tree has to be chopped down to harvest the cinnamon and so you have this intergenerational planning cycle where parents are planting trees that their kids are going to harvest. You know, we watched this tree grow for 20–30 years before you’re ready to harvest it, and then it has to be chopped down, and because of the size of the tree and the amount of work, the whole community will jump in and farmers will help each other out in the harvesting process. So it’s this, it’s not mechanized, it’s really very closely tied to a farmer’s expertise, to their experience of growing that specific crop, often spice crops are pretty technical and hard to grow, and often it’s something that has been done there by those families for generations, for thousands of years.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. What’s been the most surprising thing for you about getting into the spice trade?
ORI ZOHAR: I think that, on the eating side of the table, oftentimes like, or, you know, even in cooking as a home cook, cinnamon is just brown powder, right? That’s what you kind of think about it, maybe a cinnamon stick is some cured old thing and you’re like, “Cool,” but you don’t think beyond that. Going out there you see the skin, it’s the inner bark of a tree or a branch of a tree that then gets brought off and dried and then this and then that. Thinking about how saffron are the threads of a flower, thinking about how black peppercorns are berries on a vine. Making that connection all the way back, and I think as Ethan was saying, making excuses for, “I know where my fish comes from, I know where the vegetables were grown and what’s in season and all that stuff,” but the spices were things that were just aging in my cabinet, of no origin, of no, and I think about how things changed for coffee and tea and chocolate, where coffee was just coffee. But now you’re like, “Well actually I would like a Guatemalan shade-grown duh duh duh,” and how that’s changed, and the spice cabinet kind of feels like the last vestige of that, “We don’t know where these are coming from or why, we just know that we put them on.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right.
ORI ZOHAR: I think the other thing that was a little surprising to me is as somebody who tries to be thoughtful about cooking mostly vegetarian, thinking about health, I was still using seasonings that were primarily salt, using spices that were primarily devoid of flavor, of, you know, all of these things that I again kept making excuses for all of this stuff and saying, “Yes, it’s the other ingredients that are going to bring the flavor and the quality,” and then I throw salt and pepper on it. Just the thought of, of, you know, being a little more thoughtful about cooking and spices as being a secret ingredient imparting amazing flavor without fat or salt necessarily being added to the food is a really cool tool that I now have in my belt that a few years ago wasn’t really on the map for me.
I think the last one, as Ethan was saying, it’s so manual labor-intensive to grow and harvest and process these spices, and so often seeing farmers tending to things that truly are wild jungles and didn’t feel like, like you didn’t walk in and there’s a row of crops and you go from one to one, like the same way if you go to see how wine is grown and cultivated, it’s super organized, it’s super clean, you know, there’s a real process there. This was black peppercorn vines growing off of cinnamon trees and it was really cool to see that and it just felt so much more real, so much more personal and the ability to tell that story about the ingredients as, as the buyer, like, “Oh I know where this came from, I know who did this, I know how it was harvested, I know why it was this way, I know the context in which it grew and the recipes in which it was kind of deployed,” that makes the item itself much more valuable and much more meaningful.
And the fact that it’s also of a significantly higher quality is just, is just, the proof is in the quality of the product, where maybe we’ve all had an apple that you’re like, “This vaguely tastes of apple,” and then you go somewhere else to somewhere that was recently harvested and local and grown the way it should have been grown and all that and you’re like, “Now this is an,” so the same way where we’re offering people what they’re familiar with is, they’re familiar with what cloves should taste like and they’re familiar with many of these spices but in a vague sense, and I think when they have these it’s, the story gets people to pay attention and say, “I had never thought about where cinnamon comes from,” and then you open that jar and you smell it and you taste it and you’re like “Oh, OK that all makes sense now.”
That’s been a really cool experience to go through. That’s from someone where spices weren’t a big component of my cooking, and now everything has three or four spices that are sprinkled on and involved in some way.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, amazing. So you also kind of stay true to those initial values that you had with the ice cream company? I think I recently saw on Instagram, The Queer Kitchen Brigade kind of unboxing more of your spices, so how do you stay involved in that sort of thing and why is that important to you?
ETHAN FRISCH: Yeah. So we donate a lot of spices to The Queer Kitchen Brigade, to a non-profit restaurant called Emma’s Torch, a culinary training program for refugees, to all kinds of dinners, there was an ACLU fundraiser dinner at the Standard Hotel last week we donated a bunch of spices for, and then personally I’m involved in the Dream Cafe at the Allied Media Conference, people can look it up but a big experiment in food and activism and various other socially-oriented groups, work with social justice-oriented groups working through food. Part of it is an attempt to prove my earlier conclusion wrong, this idea that food and activism don’t go together because people just want to eat and not be talked at, but looking for ways to embody those activists or social justice values in the food itself.
So, how are things being sourced? Who are the people along the supply chain who are involved in that sourcing? How are they being treated, how are they being involved in it? We, on this trip to Zanzibar, I mean I do this on all of the trips but on the trip to Zanzibar in particular, I bring back the packaged spices that we’ve harvested, that we’ve gotten from, that were harvested there to show the farmers that, “This is what the jar looks like, this is how it’s being sold in the U.S., this is how people are cooking with it, here are some pictures from restaurants in New York or San Francisco or other places, this is a dessert that was made with your nutmeg or this is a dish made with your spices.” Just as we as consumers, as home cooks, generally don’t know anything about where our spices come from, spice farmers don’t know anything about where their spices are going, there’s this opacity.
That doesn’t work for anybody. It means that they can’t be cognizant of the ways that spices are being used in how they grow and harvest, so they can’t target their crop to meet a particular use, and it means that there’s no feedback for them when a consumer, a chef, a home cook doesn’t like something about it. There’s just no communication at all in that supply chain and then there’s no communication between farmers in different countries. So, you know, taking a picture of the knife that the farmers in Indonesia were using to harvest cinnamon, and sending that picture to the co-op in Zanzibar to say “Have you seen this? This is a tool that somebody else is using, here’s how it works,” and then they were able to make a version of that tool. We’re working on a project now to get a grinder that’s manufactured in Turkey, a spice grinder that’s manufactured in Turkey, through the guys that we work with in Turkey, to get them to help us ship one of those to the co-op in Zanzibar, so that they can start to do more value-added processing at origin. The grinding, maybe blending some, making some different spice blends. The more that we can do at origin, the more ownership the farmers have over the process, and, and the better their spices are going to be. I mean, we’re not a charity, right?
It’s not about giving grants to farmers, it’s about setting up a system where the people who know the most about the crop get to make decisions about how it’s grown and how it’s used, rather than the pretty arbitrary way it’s done now where cinnamon sticks, for example, are 7cm long. They’re always 7cm, why are they 7cm? Because 7cm is what fits in the jar that fits on the supermarket shelf, but that doesn’t make any sense, it’s not to our benefits as cooks. We don’t care that a cinnamon stick is 7cm, and it’s certainly not to a farmer’s benefit. It’s really just the processing, the packing company, the brand, they get, they win because it’s a 7cm cinnamon stick, so, so changing that value system.
But then also thinking about how are spices used? What are the cultural and historical shoulders that we’re standing on? You know, we’re two white guys in a business that for a long time was dominated in very negative ways by white guys, and so recognizing our cultural and historical role in this, doing some of the labor to fix that, right? Like, we as white guys have responsibilities to make up for the shitty things that our ancestors did, and, and so making sure that not only are our sourcing practices perfect, you know, like, like, up to a standard that I don’t think any other spice company is holding themselves to, but then also the ways that we’re selling, the ways that we’re distributing. Who are we talking to? Are there people who can’t afford our spices but would like to, and how do we engage with them?
We, Ori and I had a whole conversation yesterday about, “Is there a way to offer a discount to people who are from the countries that we’re sourcing those spices from?” So, if somebody from Afghanistan wants our Afghan cumin, I want, and can’t afford the price that we’re selling it for, I want to find a way to make that work for them. Likewise, the Cobanero chillies from Guatemala, we’re the only company importing that chilli variety to the U.S., but it’s an iconic Guatemalan ingredient, so are there ways to make it accessible to a Guatemalan population in the U.S., if it isn’t already? And, and aligning ourselves with groups whose missions I care deeply about, Queer Kitchen Brigade and many others, to just complete that story, right? Like, equitable practices from the farm to the plate, to the diner to the chef, and making sure that, that the right people are involved in that process along the whole, the whole stretch.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, and so, like, what’s the connection between what a high-end chef in a fine dining kitchen might do, like, how does that connect back to all of this?
ORI ZOHAR: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny. I said earlier that we’re not a charity and that’s important I think to highlight because there’s this idea, especially in a social enterprise and a mission-driven, or a mission-driven company like ours, that either you’re doing good or the quality is really high. That there’s this, for some reason there’s this idea that you can’t be both, which is kind of ridiculous. I don’t really know where that came from but we get better spices because we have good relationships with the farmers who grow them, I mean, this is not crazy, this is not rocket science. Like, treat somebody as a partner, engage with them, find out what they want to be growing, what they love about what they do, pay them more for that product.
It’s a win, win, win, like, that’s the way that it should work, so we supply a lot of good restaurants because chefs who don’t really care that much about sourcing practices, don’t really care that much about the social mission of our company, recognize that the quality is above and beyond anything they’ve tasted. So, we supply Eleven Madison Park with coriander from our partner farms in Egypt. That’s, we get coriander from them because that’s where coriander is from, it’s native to Egypt and the Middle East. There are records in Egyptian tombs of coriander being used as an ingredient in embalming processes. In this attempt to get to, sort of, the source of this flavor, we connected with this group of farms around a city called Faiyum in Central Egypt and it’s great. I mean, it’s excellent coriander and to have that be validated by seeing it on the menu at a place like Eleven Maddison Park is, is pretty exciting.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. And, so what do you think are, I mean, you’ve talked about this but what kind of misconceptions have you, do you think you’re clearing up around spices for people? If any?
ORI ZOHAR: I think a lot of people view, view spices as primarily through the eyes of seasonings, saying, like, you know, what is the best sellers at McCormick, are chicken adobo and Montreal steak, which is, you know? So, I think that those are really simple and really straightforward ways to, kind of, impart flavor to food, but, but you end up using ingredients that are subpar. I think that a lot of times people are, have goals to cook more or to cook in a certain way, or to, kind of, take care of themselves, or cooking is a, is a form of caring for others and showing love or, you know, it could be an agreement with yourself and around health, and there are all these different reasons that kind of bring people into the kitchen and over to cooking. It’s really interesting to, kind of, talk about spices as potentially a kind of secret weapon, in that path, and to be the thing that when you’re cooking for others and they say, “Oh my God, how did you get this flavor?”
So, I think that’s one of the misconceptions, like, “Oh, spices are just, kind of, either a thing that you just pour on stuff and hopefully it tastes better,” and it’s just as a general use thing, or they say, “Oh, I only use a very specific spice for this one thing when I buy it once a year and I make this one dish and then it sits in the back of the cabinet for the rest of the time.” I think the other misconception is just around, like, what are spices, and they’re not just these powders, you know, that have arrived here in some way and to tell that story and I think that that gives people more value and gives them hopefully some more context into how to use it, and how to be playful with it and all that.
ETHAN FRISCH: I think there’s also, I mean, back to your earlier question also, there’s this default orientalist narrative around spices, this exoticization, that they come from, you know, a dusky place, you know? This crazy sense that the people who, the cuisines that spices are indigenous to, if there are cuisines that spices are indigenous to, that’s another conversation, that somehow they’re inaccessible, that they’re hard to understand, that you can’t cook flexibly with them, you can’t cook creatively with them, and trying to break that notion up a little bit for cooks who have not had a whole lot of experience cooking with spices.
ORI ZOHAR: I think a notion that we’re kind of playing with for ourselves is to say, “Can we build a business where, kind of, impact is intrinsically linked with product quality?” And what that means is that, if we’re successful in growing the business, then we’ll be successful in growing our impact, and as we’re able to grow we’ll have more opportunities that are accessible to us to be able to, kind of, work with the farmers, longer-term guarantees, potentially if, as we were talking about, the grinder, like, how do we get a grinder to Zanzibar so that they don’t have to send it to a third party or they don’t have to, you know, how do we keep more of that as value added at source? That’s kind of our little experiment with this business is can we, kind of, build the business that has these two parts of it intrinsically linked together and then what does that look like as we grow and have the ability to have more and more influence? So far we’re wrapping up our second year, so much of this is around, like, year one was like, “How do we get spices into the country that doesn’t involve Ethan’s living room?”
ETHAN FRISCH: Or Ethan’s duffle bag.
ORI ZOHAR: Or Ethan’s duffle bag, and, kind of, building that supply chain and then year two has been a lot about, like, saying, “Well, now that we’re doing this how do we build, kind of, the business systems around this both, like, accounting, pricing, finance?” Just how do we think about all of this stuff that turns us into a business that we can then, kind of, repeat and scale, and grow? Now in going into year three we have some bigger players that are coming and talking to us, you know, Williams-Sonoma is saying, “Hey, what are you guys up to?” Which is really cool, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
ORI ZOHAR: And so now we have the ability to, kind of, have this conversation on a larger scale and the first two years have been a lot of me and Ethan having these conversations saying, “Let’s assume that someday we’ll get the stage, let’s say we’ll get a chance to have an impact, what do we want that to be and what does that look like, and also how do we do it in a way that we don’t sell out and then we’re like, ‘Hey, sorry guys.’” So, the commodity supply chain, which is the vast, vast majority of how spices, kind of, come into this country and what’s accessible, which is why chefs are so excited about what we’re bringing because we’re going outside of that, but the vast majority of it is optimizing for consistency and for availability, and by what we’re doing we know that…
ORI ZOHAR: And price.
ETHAN FRISCH: Right, and price. For us, like, there are harvest dates to all these spices, they’re not constantly grown, they’re not constantly available, and so how do we play that when somebody is keeping space on a shelf for us, or when we have people that are cooking with it and ran out of it? We can’t be like, “Sorry, come back in six months when we have more,” and so we’re trying to figure out how do we play that, that game and make sure that we live up to the quality, the freshness, the clarity in sourcing, but now we’re not doing it for, you know, thousands of jars anymore, we’re doing it for tens of thousands or, you know, beyond that. How does that grow into that? That’s what we’re gearing up for in year three of our business.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. Usually I kind of finish with asking people whether, like, cooking or eating is political, but I think we’ve gone over that. So, like, how hopeful do you feel about Burlap and Barrel’s ability to do what you thought, like, the ice cream project couldn’t do?
ORI ZOHAR: Yeah, so I have a quick thought on this. I think it’s about, kind of, evolution and how somebody goes through this decision. I’m talking about home cooks right now, I know chefs, everyone has their own process. My thought is that a home cook will generally be like, “This is interesting, let me understand why, the story behind this, to make a decision of whether or not I should buy it.” If they decide to buy it then they take it home and they have their, kind of, second experience with it, like, “How does this smell and taste? How does it integrate into my cooking?” And all of that. I think then the third moment is saying, “OK, I know the story, I understand the quality, now let me understand more of, like, where these things come together and what’s the larger context and why does this work and how can I integrate this into my life?”
And so I think to us it’s about playing this out and setting up basically our communication to say, “We’re a single-origin direct trade spice company, here’s what that means to you,” and then they get to try the spice and then we say, “If you like that, come back, we’ll tell you a little more about it, let’s experience this, let’s go through here to be able to understand all the spices that are going to Zanzibar, why they’re grown that why, who are the people growing them and where else we can go from here now that you’ve already had this initial experience?”
And to me that’s a platform, it’s not a, like, “Come up to the shelf and we start yelling at you about political movements that are happening and why the spice trade evolved in this way.” I think it’s much more so about, kind of, taking one step closer every single time and with every interaction and us, kind of, letting, convincing you to give us your permission to kind of take you through that story and to, kind of, go deeper and deeper in it. That’s what we really love about it and that’s what we’re able to see but it doesn’t happen over a three-month trajectory, that happens over time, and customers coming back and spending more time with our product. We get the chance to do more and more of those things, and so, to me, I think that’s the evolution of that kind of messaging and that ideology, and that impact is just, kind of, grows with the business and what that means for us is that we need to think about this business almost, like, in a ten-year arc or, you know, in a longer trajectory because that’s a trajectory over which we can build a business that’s large enough and capable enough, and has enough customers and has enough people that are, kind of, listening to and watching what we’re doing to being able to really get a message across a meaningful way. Not just to us but also with our farmers.
I would love to be able to do multi-year agreements, I would love to, kind of, help figure out how do we support the farmers in building out their capabilities and cutting out the middlemen in the process to ensure that, then we can have a longer sustained relationship with them that supports their livelihood and supports our business, and it’s a kind of mutually-beneficial relationship.
ETHAN FRISCH: I think there’s a pretty risky narrative around food and politics, and it’s potentially around eating food, and having that be political, where there’s this idea that if you eat the food of another culture, another country you’re gonna automatically sympathize with the people behind it, which is flawed in a lot of ways. Primarily because, like, what if you don’t like the food from that country, does that mean you don’t like the people? I mean like, but also, it’s obviously, as our president and many other people have demonstrated, it’s possible to like the food from a country and be really pretty racist about the people who originated that food, whose culture and cuisine have developed into whatever you’re eating today.
So, trying to step away from this, like, “Eat people’s food and understand them narrative,” and more towards, look at the supply chain, look at where this comes from. There are pictures on our website of the farms, the farmers that we work with. When we travel to visit our partner farmers we do, on Instagram, a portrait series of the farmers themselves with little bios. It’s, it’s really about finding a way to make that connection more personal. Maybe you’ve never eaten Tanzanian food but here’s a picture of a Tanzanian farmer who grows amazing cinnamon, and you’re gonna eat the cinnamon that he and his family have been growing for, for generations.
Literally, no pun intended, baking those ideas into, into a product so that it’s not so much about eating something unfamiliar and trying to empathize with the culture of the cuisine behind it, but it’s about eating familiar things with a deeper sense of, of how they got to your table, that’s what we try to spend a lot of time, that’s what we do spend a lot of time thinking about, whether we actually, whether we actually make any impact on it, whether we actually move the needle at all is yet to be seen.
ORI ZOHAR: Well but a part of our philosophy is that we didn’t wanna just do this for one spice, we wanted to say, per Ethan’s early, early kind of revelation when he was traveling between and working in these countries, is to say, “Can we do this as kind of a platform? Can we do this across multiple spices and multiple farmers, multiple countries and kind of, kind of turn your pantry into this kind of international stage of these different flavors and of these different products?”
And that means that one story in and of itself, we’re not focusing all of our energy on this one spice from this one farmer, but what that hopefully means is that you can come to us whenever you’re ready to restock your pantry, whenever you’re ready to start cooking, or whatever, you have some friend that has a housewarming, whatever, and we can kind of get them started down that path and it could be with one product or it could be with eight products, or whatever it may be, and that’s kind of the first step into our world, and we welcome you into that and then, you know, hopefully we can build a relationship as your spices deplete.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you guys so much.
ETHAN FRISCH: Thanks for having us, this is great.
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