A handful of spices and condiments can whet a person’s appetite for business and keep the cash registers ringing, as Ghanaian food entrepreneur Essie Bartels has proven.
For as long as the New Jersey-based Bartels can remember, she has lived a life around food. From an early age, she was the only one of her five siblings tasked with cooking for the entire family.
“I started cooking around the age of seven. I am the first daughter so my mother wouldn’t let me out of her sight when she was cooking. At the time I hated it because when you are that young you don’t want to be in the kitchen, you want to be playing with your friends but that was what she wanted me to do at the time so that is what I did,” says Bartels.
Those early culinary lessons would eventually prepare her to launch Essie Spice, a flavorful journey that has led to a whole foods brand featured in TIME magazine and now stocked in over 13 stores across the United States and Africa. Her love affair with spices was ignited in Ghana.
“My mum used to travel to London and buy spice racks which were very pretty but she would only use like five or six spices out of a rack of 15, so all the other spices would be left unused because they were not traditional spices and as a result they would go bad and be thrown away. So I would take them and figure out what to use all those spices for and I would come up with ideas.”
Her childhood dream was to become the CEO of a large corporate organization; but her first passion was science. That helped as, in a way, food is science.
Bartels went on to graduate cum laude from Marywood University in Pennsylvania where she studied international business and management with a minor in French.
“So for a semester I lived in the south of France and that also spurred my whole travel bug, which has played a huge part in my products. It is easy to travel in Europe so we would go away to all these different places for the weekend.”
Bartels graduated in 2008 at the height of the global financial meltdown and spent six months unemployed surviving only on odd jobs before landing her first job in procurement at Hitachi. The economic downturn got worse and soon Bartels was out of a job again.
“I spent another five months at home and then got another job at Panasonic. I went from a procurement assistant to a procurement specialist. I was there for two years and then got a job at Unilever, which was eight minutes from my home. I negotiated deals between Unilever and our research partners,” says Bartels.
While at Unilever, the idea for Essie Spice was still simmering in her head, with Bartels spending half her pay-cheque on funding her dream. It was not until she quit Unilever for a job she hated that she decided to take her spice dream more seriously.
“This was a very pivotal time for Essie Spice and I decided to give it six months of my undivided attention. I told God if nothing happens with the brand in six months I am going back to the corporate world. At the time I was getting offers from L’Oreal and other big brands. It is during that time that I got into Shoprite, Whole Foods and I got features in TIME magazine and Cooking Light magazine. It is crazy because it was at the very end of that six-month period and I said God is really funny.”
Essie Spice’s unique selling point lies in the brand’s ability to marry the flavors of West Africa where Bartels got her culinary start, with her experiences and travels all bottled in a jar. In just over three years the brand has expanded into the competitive whole foods market with a steady flow of about 1,000 repeat customers on their website each year.
That journey has not been without its challenges though.
“I had my formulas but they needed to go through FDA testing to make sure people would not fall sick when they ate them. So I had to send it to the lab for them to test and make recommendations of things I needed to change to be able to make it safe to consume by other people. That was very challenging because it takes a lot of money.
“The other challenge was regulatory, paying taxes and licenses and there was so many of them that you need to comply with. The other challenge was finding a place to make the sauce. By law in the United States if you are making a liquid product you have to make it in a commercial kitchen and I didn’t have a commercial kitchen so I needed to find one, which was an issue. I had to pay them by the hour and get people to work with you as well as pay for insurance which is all a huge capital expense,” says Bartels.
In three years, the company has sold over 5,500 jars; her best-seller is the Mango Chili Medley, a mouth-watering profusion of flavors.
Playing with unique exotic spices has helped Bartels’ bottom line. Through experimentation and an inquisitive mind, she has created an amalgamation of flavors bottled in a jar taking customers with an insatiable appetite for exotic flavors on an aromatic journey that keeps them coming back for more, and more.