“It’s really remarkable how little the supply chain has changed in thousands of years,” says Ethan Frisch of the 4,000-year-old global spice trade. Frisch and Ori Zohar are the co-founders of Burlap & Barrel, a New York City based single origin spice company. They buy spices from farmers around the globe, who they call partners, and sell directly to consumers through their website. They’ve dispensed with the intermediaries who have traditionally bought and sold spices multiple times before any jar of spice lands in a U.S. customer’s kitchen cabinet.
Since launching in 2016, Frisch and Zohar have been rattling the cage, or pulsing the grinder, of the antiquated distribution channels of “Big Spice,” the mammoth, multinational spice companies including McCormick and Durkee, part of an industry valued at $13.7 billion globally in 2019, according to Grand View research. America’s seasoning and spice market is valued at just under $6 billion and projected to rise to $7.3 billion by 2027, according to data from Statista.
By cutting out the middlemen, Burlap & Barrel can offer fresher spices, so potent that they suggest new customers use just half a serving at first. “We initially got complaints that it was too strong,” says Zohar, who countered with a laugh, “You are just cooking with old spices! This is how it should be.” Supermarket spices sometimes have been in transit for three years.
Eliminating brokers also means Burlap & Barrel can pay the farmers more for their crops and offer customers reasonable prices, most cost just under $10 per jar. Using India as an example, Frisch cites the commodity price for turmeric is somewhere around 60, 65 cents a kilo, while the fair trade price is around 90 or 95 cents a kilo. “We pay almost $6 a kilo,” Frisch says. “We’re paying six times the fair trade price.”
“Traditionally, this is not the way that it's done,” Zohar adds. He recalls people advising them when they first launched as a direct-to-consumer spice company, which Zohar describes as Frisch going “door-to-door to restaurants and opening up a backpack full of spices.” At one point, Frisch had more than 2,000 pounds of spices in his one-bedroom apartment in Queens.
Burlap & Barrel created their own supply chain, bypassing scores of intermediaries, because of advances in technology—broadband, WiFi, the proliferation of mobile phones, WhatsApp, social media and Google Translate, among other innovations. Frisch says even seven years ago their business model wouldn’t be possible.
Selling spices — from Guatemalan cardamom to Turkish black Urfa chili — directly from farmers to consumers through a website might seem like a standard procedure today, given the artisanal food industry’s obsession with small farm coffee beans, cacao, and other crops, but Burlap & Barrel was revolutionary. There are still only a handful of single origin spice companies that have cut out the middlemen, but numbers are growing. Diaspora Co. specializes spices from India and Sri Lanka, Heray Spice sells saffron from Afghanistan, and Cinnamon Tree Organics focuses on Sri Lankan spices.
Frisch, a native New Yorker, and Zohar, originally from Israel, have traveled the globe to find the right farmers to have as partners. These farmers are passionate and entrepreneurial, those who might be labeled as idealistic dreamers by their fellow farmers. They grow labor-intensive crops without chemicals that tend to have lower yields, but the quality is superior and they charge accordingly.
Frisch and Zohar laugh recalling the time one of their turmeric farmers, Dr. Salunhke, practically paraded them down the street after having been teased by fellow farmers about his labor intensive farming practices. “It was this like it was a great moment for him,” Frisch recalls. Not only had Dr. Salunhke found a spice company of like mind, willing to pay top dollar, but Frisch and Zohar also cared enough to visit and chose him precisely because of his farming techniques.
Burlap & Barrel prefers to pay farmers directly, rather than buy Fair Trade certified products, often too expensive for farmers and paperwork intensive. Frisch thinks paying fair prices that go into the pockets of farmers, does have a positive impact on the community. When neighboring farmers see a farmer charging higher prices to grow premium goods, that farmer might try and do the same.
Meeting potential and actual partner farmers abroad came to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit last year. According to Zohar, 50% of Burlap & Barrel’s revenue came from restaurants in 2019. “And starting in March,” says Zohar of last year, “zero percent.” But as they reviewed possible worst-case scenarios for their business, to their astonishment, sales poured in.
“Home cooks started coming out of the woodwork,” Zohar says. Within months, purchases by those trying to liven up their lockdown menus had more than replaced lost restaurant revenue. 2020 was a year of massive growth for Burlap & Barrel, thanks to their solid e-commerce infrastructure; it was even difficult to keep up with demand. By December of 2020, sales had more than doubled from the beginning of the pandemic in March.
While “Big Spice” keeps their entire farming, sourcing, and supply chain under wraps, Burlap & Barrel features their partner farmers throughout the website and social media, explaining who they are, how spices are grown, which today’s consumers typically find interesting. Their Facebook Spice Forum is one of the only spaces where farmers, professional chefs, home cooks and authors can talk shop about spices; farmers can see how their spices are being used in someone’s New Jersey kitchen.
Burlap & Barrel collaborates often. Tunde Wey, a Nigerian artist-cook-writer, who lives in Lagos and New Orleans, LA, collaborated with Burlap & Barrel to bring Iru, a fermented locust bean, through his brand FK.N.STL. Iru, according to Wey, is a disappearing condiment in Nigeria due to neo-colonialism. He chose to collaborate with Burlap & Barrel not only because of their infrastructure and supply chain, but also, “they are aligned with my politics of reparations and community resource transfer,“ Wey wrote in an email. Burlap & Barrel has also partnered with Reem Assil, a Bay Area restaurateur on several Middle East blends including za’atar, a cumin-y baharat and khalta hara with strong a chili-lime flavor, which will be available soon.
The celebrated chef Floyd Cardoz, originally from Mumbai, India, was in the process of creating several masalas with Burlap & Barrel when he tragically died from COVID last March 25th. His widow and business partner, Barkha Cardoz, continued the collaboration in honor of her late husband, which resulted in three masala blends made available in October 2020: Goan Masala, Kashmiri Masala and Garam Masala. More than 1,000 orders were placed of the masala trio on the first day of sales.
Ms. Cardoz favors the Kashmiri blend, with chili and coriander, as it’s easy to use with roasted vegetables or chicken marinated in yogurt. The Goan blend, her late husband’s ancestral home, is close to her heart. “I get very emotional when I use it. It reminds me a lot of Floyd,” Ms. Cardoz says. “When I'm emotionally stable, I’ll cook with that. I always say, I wish you were here to see this, Floyd. To see what these boys have done, they’ve taken your stuff and they’ve run with it. With so much pride and love and care.”
Burlap & Barrel's roots trace back to an activist ice cream cart. Frisch and Zohar first met in 2008 through friends. “I was running an illegal supper club out of my apartment in Chinatown,” explains Frisch. In 2010, they began to wheel an ice cream cart around town, they called their enterprise Guerrilla Ice Cream. Proceeds went to the Street Vendor Project, which supports New York City’s street venders.
Zohar eventually made a westward detour to Silicon Valley to launch the mortgage startup Sindeo, which no longer exists. Even before the company’s demise, Frisch, in the early stages of launching Burlap & Barrel, was lobbying Zohar, who had been acting as an advisor of sorts, to move back to New York City to join him. “I knew it would be more fun than a venture-backed mortgage startup,” says Frisch.
Zohar’s experience in Silicon Valley, taking venture capital money and scaling at all costs to eventually sell, became a blueprint of how not to launch and run Burlap & Barrel. Zohar calls his Silicon Valley experience the equivalent to an “unaccredited MBA.” Along with his previous advertising and marketing career, paired with Frisch’s two careers in international development and restaurant kitchen cooking, they had the ideal skill sets to launch Burlap & Barrel.
“We had investment offers early on that we turned down,” says Frisch. Zohar adds, “It was very important to us to not do this crazy, aggressive growth path and instead be able to grow organically, to grow sustainably.” They didn’t even mess around with B Corp certification and went straight for the Public Benefit Corporation, which is a similar structure, but legally binding.
The business has worked, despite a deluge of bad advice during Burlap & Barrel’s nascent beginning stages: focus on one country, focus on fewer spices, don’t sell to restaurants and home cooks, use venture capital, rebuild your website from scratch, hire engineers. Zohar summarizes this advice as, “Limit yourself.”
“Our entire goal is to create long-lasting relationships with our partner farmers,” Zohar says. Instead of listening to the advice that went against collective experience, they let Burlap & Barrel evolve organically into what it is today.