In 2013, what began as an experiment born out of a love affair with spices, cooking, and traveling became the beginning of a culinary business that is making mouth watering homemade sauces. Meet Essilfua “Essie” Bartels, a Global Contracts Manager by day and spice goddess by night. Essie is the founder of the spice and sauces brand, Essiespice. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke to Essie about what it takes to build a global food brand.
What motivated you to start Essiespice?
It‘s a couple of things that I didn’t know would all come together. Part one – science. Growing up, I wanted to be a neurologist; I always wanted to help people but also know what was going on in their heads. I studied science in high school, did a bunch of experiments and was pretty good at it. But for some reason, I couldn’t deal with other people’s pain so, I asked myself, “what am I good at” and decided to study international business in college because I love to travel.
Part two – my love for cooking. I would always cook for my friends who would encourage me to keep cooking for them because they enjoyed it. I thought they were trying to humour me so I didn’t take them seriously until one of them gave me US$500 to cook him three dishes. He later called excited because he thoroughly enjoyed the food and thought I needed to start a business. He even committed to supporting me with start up costs. That’s when I started learning about websites, certification for sauces, regulations, federal and state taxes, insurance requirements, worker’s compensation requirements, and different state laws.
Part three – homemade sauces. I would make and store sauces for myself because making them ahead of time makes cooking easier. My aunt and sister would always ask for these sauces because they enjoyed them.
But I still didn’t connect all the dots until I took a trip to Mexico with my friend. That is why Mexico has such a special place in my heart, because that’s what sparked the whole collection.
Part four – tamarind. My friend bought some tamarind candy and coconut treats when we were leaving Mexico and I found the tamarind taste very familiar. Ergo, my primary school days, when I would pluck and eat tamarind on my way to school.
I ended up buying a lot of sweets to take back with me. But the tamarind candy was way too sweet, even for my sweet tooth so I had to find a way to use it. I decided to melt the sweets and turn it into a sauce. I added some water and poured it on top of some leftover chicken wings. They turned out great and I invited a few girlfriends over to try it. They loved it just as much. It was then that I realized that I was on to something but I still wasn’t sure because candy was too sweet and not available in the US. Enter guava and experimentation. Guava is naturally sweet and balanced the naturally slightly sour taste of the tamarind.
Much later when I had started making Essiespice sauces, someone asked me the tough question, “how did you really decide to come up with this sauce because it’s not the regular sauce that you would find in the store?” It’s so different that it literally does not make sense on paper, but it makes sense when you taste it. So, how did I come up with this stuff? From experiments in my high school chemistry and biology lab classes, from my curiosity, and my travels. All three bottled in one jar.
When did you start?
The business and sauces were launched on November 11, 2013 but the crafting of sauces started in 2011. It took two years of experiments, free dinners, and making lots of mistakes until we finally got it right.
Have you had to learn food photography?
For the longest time, I would pay photographers to come over and shoot my sauces and recipes. Photography is very expensive. I was spending a lot of the money that I earned from selling the spices and the sauces on photography. You want great photography because when people look at pictures of food, it definitely has to look good. Right? You want to keep them coming back because they know they’re going to see good food.
There may be people who make exceptional food but with poor quality pictures, no one will really pay attention. And there are others with not so great food with impeccable photography. Guess who people love? I needed that balance. Great photography will definitely push you way ahead of the pack so I bought a camera and started taking lessons. For the past couple of months, I’ve been taking my own pictures. I really wasn’t comfortable with my pictures. I thought they were mediocre and amateurish. I saw the work that the photographers I paid did. I didn’t think people would like my stuff, or that anyone would care about them. I started putting them up, and my pictures received just as much and in some cases, even more attention than the professional ones.
You said that you got your sauces certified, what was the process? Which board certified it? How difficult or easy was that?
Products for consumption need to be certified either as products that need to be refrigerated or shelf stable. I did a lot of research on getting my sauces off the ground. I get my certification done at Cornell.
The process with Cornell, as with most other agencies, is that you send a sample size of the batch that you want to sell and you tell them exactly what you put in it, and your process. Cornell will then take that sample, study it, and then give you solutions to making it shelf-stable. I also had to register as a business owner in the state of New Jersey, and obtain a food managers license.
My mum kept asking me why I needed to do all this. Like most of our people, she thinks it’s intuitive and I don’t need to take that extra step to get the sauces certified. But I wanted to do things right and get into the right stores.
I’ve definitely been supported by my fellow Ghanaians and Africans, and friends who have recommended the sauces to people who absolutely love it. Twenty to twenty five percent are return buyers. That’s huge. Most businesses receive ten percent, maybe fifteen percent repeat business.
How many bottles do you make a week?
In the beginning, we would produce about fifty jars every other month, then it went up to a 100, then 200, and up. We started increasing our production per batch because you don’t pay the incubators for the batch but the number of hours spent during production.
Legally, depending on the classification of your food, you need to produce the food in a commercial kitchen. If you want to make it at home, then someone from the FDA or the Health Department has to come and see if your house can be classified as a commercial kitchen. We rent the incubator for ten or twelve hours and make 500 to 600 jars. That lasts for about two to three months.
What business advice do you have for anyone hoping to start a small business, especially not in their own country, and wants do it the right way?
The best advice I can give anyone for any business, whether it’s in their own country or not, is find your own passion and write it down. It will never be perfect and it will never make sense in the beginning but write it down. Then make a plan and find people who you can network with to support the idea and keep the fire burning especially in the beginning. You also have to find out what the legal implications of making your product in that country are. For food, you have to get the scheduled process. You have to register your business with your state (different states have different laws). Ask, and then get it certified with the right insurance.
Another thing that will help anyone’s business is your network. Whether you’re a people person or not, you have to be willing to open up and ASK! This is really tough for introverts especially. You have to talk to people and learn to ask questions and to ask for help. You will not be able to do it all by yourself.
You need people around you that are positive, people who will not only support you emotionally, but mentally and perhaps financially. For me, that support has been my family, but most especially my sister. She has been phenomenal for my brand, there’s no way I’d be here without her.
You need mentors and people who already have great businesses. You need lawyers that will teach you the legalities of getting a trademark or copyrights for your products.
If it’s not something that you are going to stick with, don’t even start, because with any small business, there’ll be so many challenges that could make you want to give up.
It looks glamorous on the outside but the sad thing is nobody really comes to tell you all these things. I try as much as possible to be transparent and clear about how hard it is, so that as much as people look at you in awe, they know that the truth is I’m barely making ends meet for the business. Everything I get from Essiespice goes right back into the business. We are awaiting the day we will be supplying 20,000 jars to all Whole Foods in the tri-state area or across the country, but we’re not there yet. We’re making a 100 here, 300 here, 400 here and that goes towards paying insurance bills, buying ingredients, renting an incubator. [Laughs.] It’s not at the point that I can reap from it, and that’s why I’m still working. When the brand is making more than it’s spending, then I can quit! [Laughs.]
You are a big traveller. What do you always take away from the city and the country you visit?
You already know the answer: food! I try as much as possible to have indigenous food, not just the foods in the restaurant. I’ll probably go to a fancy restaurant because that’s what everybody does when they travel. But I also want to go to the mom-and-pops by the roadside. It’s food and the adventure. You always have to go back with a story. I collect memories. I also collect plates from around the world and spices, of course.
Let’s play a game of favourites:
Favorite African city? Cape Town. Hands down! [Laughs.]
Favorite food? Are you ready? Abom. I love how my mum makes it with ginger, garlic, onions, hot peppers, freshly-roasted crunchy peanuts, koobi, not momone, fried in red palm oil with the kontomire and apem plantain not apemtu. Oh dear Lord!
Favourite book? It’s between The Kite Runner and Americanah.
Finish this: Don’t go to bed without …praying.
What dish would you recommend for anyone being introduced to Ghanaian food for the first time? Jollof. [Laughs.]