A new wave of spice brands is connecting consumers to flavors and freshness while offering more information on their origins.
In 2020, online grocery businesses ate up more than 10% of the $1 trillion grocery market in the U.S. overall, up from just over 3% of spend in 2019. But consumers preparing more meals at home weren’t just focused on fridge essentials and pantry staples. They also set their sights on their spice shelves to elevate their meals – adding zest into a category that’s forecast to grow to $22.5 billion in the next six years.
If families across the country were going to stay in for their meals during the pandemic, at least they could make them an adventure.
These at-home cooks have increasingly turned to a new wave of seasoning brands like Loisa’s Abodo and Essie’s Mekko Dry Rub, along with sauces like Fly By Jing’s Sichuan Chili Crisp and Omsom’s Spicy Bulgogi Starter.
Consumers today have shown growing interest in spices, per the report, due to an increased willingness to discover and explore new flavors, the renewed appeal of ready-to-use blends and mixes, and appreciation for their various health benefits. And while shoppers have plenty of longstanding options in their local grocery store’s spice aisle, many have turned to online spice brands. Spice is a category particularly well-suited for direct-to-consumer brands, says Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co., a brand that sources its spices from family farms across India, and which experienced 5x sales growth last year.
“We realized that the grocery store was actually letting customers down in terms of their education,” Javeri Kadri says. “The very design of the spice aisle is cramming all of these things into this tiny shelf with no information.” By contrast, with online shopping, “each spice gets a page, and you can keep scrolling on that page to connect to recipes and other flavors that will pair well with it,” she says.
“[In terms of category innovation], it's quality, sourcing, freshness, and packaging format on the product side of things,” says Scott Hattis, cofounder of Loisa, a Latin spice brand launched in 2018 that saw a big sales bump in 2020 (especially around the Goya boycott last summer). While spices have a longer shelf life than items in the refrigerated area, Hattis says, consumers might not ask about how recently those spices were stocked. For many ground spices, the average shelf life is about one to two years. And while spices don’t “go bad” in the same way perishable foods do, their potency fades over time.
“The potential benefit of buying directly [from a brand] is the freshness,” he says. “Nothing matters more with flavor.” Another plus: online spice brands that source single-origin spices or work more closely with a spice’s supply chain have much more control over the full lifecycle of their products, as well as a closer relationship with the people cultivating them.
Diaspora takes its approach to freshness a step further by adding a harvest date, mill date, and best-by date to each of its jars. “We do it because we want to be known as the highest standard and we want to set a new standard,” says Javeri Kadri. “As much as the big old spice companies can try to compete, I don't think they build supply chains that are nimble enough to do that.”
Consumers want to know more about what they’re buying today, Javeri Kadri argues, especially as they spend more time browsing online. “There was something about the pandemic that changed people's behavior around shopping and accelerated a lot of the online world, where they thought, ‘I can learn so much about these spices if I buy them on the internet,’” she says. On Diaspora’s website, visitors can find the brand’s full line of products, but also read up on the ingredients they’re buying, through articles like “The Histories & Context Behind Our Kashmiri Saffron” and “Japanese Curry: A Curious Journey of Colonization and Globalization.”
It’s also a category that is especially well-suited to diving deeper into the history of the communities producing it. “Spices go back hundreds of years, they have moved all over the world via immigration, and a website page is a very good medium to start to share some of that history and context,” Javeri Kadri says.
Michelle Tew, cofounder of Homiah, agrees. “We can give them the answers to the questions they want to know, like who's growing it and how it was certified. That kind of knowledge and understanding is just as important to the consumer as physical products that they get and are using.”
Tew started working full-time on the idea for a Southeast Asian spice company last summer. With Homiah, she and cofounder May Hnin are developing spice kits for dishes like Singaporean Curry Laksa and Indonesian Rendang. After running pre-orders on Kickstarter, Homiah is set to launch next month, with ecommerce orders kicking off early next year.
“Consumers now have become so nuanced, so diverse, so educated, and discerning,” says Tew. “[And add to that] the reality of more travel, more reading, more understanding how systems work globally and trade systems work.”
As consumers continually grow more knowledgeable, she says, new brands can give them access to difficult-to-buy spices from specific regions. This growth, in turn, will empower smaller players focused on specialty, culturally-rooted, and single-origin spices to take a larger piece of the pie from big-name labels.
“Previously, we were limited to what you saw at the grocery store," says Tew. "If somebody developed a taste for Kampot peppers in Cambodia, they can search it [online] and get it from producers. I think you're gonna see more and more of that.”
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