March 18, 2014 > Putting spice into life
Putting spice into life
By Julie Grabowski
Once considered to be an expensive, luxury good in close company with gold and precious stones, spices nowadays are readily available to anyone. They may have shifted from ancient uses in the crowning of emperors, creation of medicines and perfumes, religious ceremonies and embalming the dead, but spices still play a huge role in the modern world, certainly for those looking for an outstanding meal.
Basil, oregano, thyme Ð these are all familiar staples of most household kitchens. But what about chervil, Ajwain seeds, mace, zaatar and fenugreek seeds? Shaking up your spice rack is an opportunity to rock your culinary world; a privately held, self-funded spice company right here in Fremont is making sure everyone has that option.
Founders and operators of Spicely Organics, husband and wife team John Chansari and Clara Bonner live by the old adage Òvariety is the spice of lifeÓ quite literally; a variety of spices, that is. Chansari comes from a multi-generation family business in the spice trade. Of Iranian decent, where spices are a prominent part of the culture, he grew up in Sweden and moved to Los Angeles in 1998, then to the Bay Area.
Bonner was born in New Orleans and grew up in a family of cooks. Her culinary background and that of her city inspired a deep love for food, especially Creole and Cajun cuisine. Bonner has also lived in California since 1998; she and Chansari met here and started Spicely Organics in Menlo Park in 2002.
Chansari and Bonner were a two-man operation working out of their apartment kitchen until they moved the company to Union City in 2004 where they hired their first employee. They used the smaller food grade production facility until 2009 when the need for more space prompted a move to their current Fremont location in 2010, just down the street from City Beach. Fremont is ideal because of its central location and proximity to the Port of Oakland. The spice factory, where SpicelyÕs products are packaged for sale, occupies just a bit less than 30,000 square feet. They have also expanded to 50 employees, half working in production and the other half in the office.
India is the worldÕs largest producer of spices and SpicelyÕs main provider, but the company works with countries all over the world including Turkey, South America, China, and Egypt. They are a direct importer, a fact that according to Bonner makes all the difference. She says there are many middle men in the spice industry, the product moving through several hands and locations before arriving at its final destination. Not so with Spicely. They work directly with farmers and small producers ensuring a direct line of delivery along with the assurance of quality products.
Spices must be processed before their arrival in the U.S., undergoing lab testing and sterilization in their country of origin. A process, called steam sterilization, is used assuring an efficient, safe, and natural method; it employs a combination of air pressure and superheated water to eliminate bacteria and germs while preserving high quality. Spices are then shipped to the Port of Oakland where the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspects the cargo to ensure it meets health codes. The product can be held for one to two months before it is released to Spicely. After clearance by authorities, the port ships the goods to Fremont; Spicely ships the product to yet another lab to make sure it is up to their personal company standards. Twenty-two to 55 pound bags are then repackaged into Spicely containers, both by hand and machine.
According to Bonner, their job is to offer diversity and variety. She says that typically about 40 spices are offered at your local grocery store. And, while that might sound like plenty of choices to some, Bonner disagrees. ÒYou should be able to find every spice in the spice index.Ó Spicely currently offers over 200 spices and blendsÉ and counting. When asked about popular spices, she says, ÒThatÕs for you to decide.Ó
Customer input plays a big role in the continuing evolution of Spicely. The company transitioned to organic in 2006, due not only to a change in Chansari and BonnerÕs eating habits, but also to customer feedback. Their spices are now USDA organic, gluten-free, kosher, 100 percent vegan, and Fair Trade certified.
Spicely opened a storefront in San Francisco in 2012 where listening to customers once again broadened their original path and moved them beyond the spice jar. ÒThe store was an incubator to encourage tea and chocolate,Ó says Bonner. She and Chansari collaborated with a local chocolatier who specializes in organic ingredients and developed recipes for chocolate infused with SpicelyÕs pre-existing spice blends and tea blends. The tea and chocolate line were launched in November 2013, offering 120 organic loose leaf teas and 30 to 40 chocolate varieties. The tea is also packaged at the Fremont factory, but chocolate is processed in another local plant to avoid cross contamination.
Spices are the passion, the foundation of the company, but they hope to branch out and continue to explore, says Online Marketing & Social Media representative Olivia Maki. ÒWeÕre constantly trying to expand. We spend a lot of time researching and developing recipes, offering new spices.Ó And as they love customer input and customers love variety, a world of possibility awaits.
Spicely products are available primarily through retail grocery stores in California including Whole Foods, RaleyÕs, and Andronicos, as well as online. A full description of spices can be found on their website along with recipes and a blog. Visit http://spicely.com/ to learn how to put some spice into your life.