SHELF LIFE #1
Spice journey reflects owner’s zest for life
Imagine you’re a food manufacturer who wants to get their products on the supermarket shelves. These are the stories of people who did just that. In the first chapter of Shelf Life, we meet Gillian Downes and her nicely spicy things.
The name of Gillian Downes’ company drew inspiration from a popular nursery rhyme and her business journey has had its share of sweet and sour moments. She has overcome the challenges that face entrepreneurs in South Africa with a combination of tenacity and humour and has high hopes for the brand.
Gillian Downes completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree, worked in finance and briefly did product development for a cosmetic company. At this point she found herself at a crossroads, being drawn towards nutrition but reluctant to spend six years studying again.
This dilemma was solved by going across the pond to do a short course in macrobiotics in England. The neighbourhood she was staying in had several Balti houses serving the aromatic cooking that originated in Pakistan.
“I tried the curry, then fell in love with the masalas. I went to Oxford and bought a couple of balti cookbooks and some of the spices from a spice merchant. It’s hard to explain the pull I felt to this ancient cuisine.”
On her return home, Gillian started experimenting in her mother’s kitchen, grinding the spices by hand to make pastes and curries. Encouraged by how much her family enjoyed these, the idea of a business that incorporated her passion for food and nutrition came into being.
For most small businesses a big goal is to partner with large retail stores for maximum exposure, and Spice and All Things Nice was no exception. After moving out of the family kitchen to small premises in Claremont it was time to pound the pavements in search of shelf space.
The first win was Giovanni’s Deli, a local institution in Green Point, Cape Town. The owner said yes in spite of the bottles that looked handmade. After that, it was an ongoing battle to get into the major stores.
“It was a struggle trying to convince other retailers, there were months when nothing happened. I had known it was going to be hard but I wasn’t prepared for how relentless all the rejections seemed.”
After being in business for three years and having expanded the product range, Gillian tried to get into Pick n Pay and the process was not easy. At the time Raymond Ackerman was still active in the company, working with an open door policy. She recalls phoning him out of sheer frustration, “I was very frank with him. I told him, ‘Your buyers are not communicating with me. I would rather hear a “no” than just keep being ignored indefinitely’. The next day I was listed at Pick n Pay.”
Using small handmade batches of fresh ingredients with no preservatives, the company gradually expanded its offering, moving from a larger variety of curries to complementary products like rice. Today the range also includes mueslis, smoothie mixes, poppadoms, couscous and pantry boxes. It can be found in Spar, Dischem, Pick n Pay and Wellness Warehouse.
Gillian is excited about the collaborations she does with more niche companies like U Cook, Yuppiechef and Faithful to Nature.
Currently, it is impossible to discuss any business without asking how Covid-19 has affected it. On the personal side Gillian, who is a single mom, says she missed her daily 5am runs and bi-weekly barre classes. Homeschooling is fine and she is pleased that problem solving is covered in school curricula as it is a useful life skill, especially for entrepreneurs. There was the minor glitch of having to hire a new PA as one could not return due to expired paperwork. Happily, the business is flourishing.
“We have had the busiest three months that we’ve experienced, lately. It’s coming from people eating in more, now that restaurants are not an option. Online sales are currently booming. Our collaborations with at-home meal boxes also picked up significantly. Retail is also doing well and even our export market is looking rather favourable.”
In the past two years, a few people have approached with offers of investing in Spice and All Things Nice. The potential deals are tempting as they would solve the constant headache of cash flow that most small companies battle with. Ultimately Gillian chose to retain creative control.
“Keeping it small and manageable is really where it’s at for me right now. Because our factory isn’t big, that naturally contains exponential growth. At the end of the day, our product is still very artisanal so there hasn’t really been the option of mechanising it. As far as expansion, I’m happy to get one or two more members of staff and just grow organically that way.”
Looking to the future, export sales are an area where growth would be welcomed. The product is making great inroads in the Middle East, Switzerland and Australia with the US hopefully to follow. A passion project in the pipeline is a cookbook which is also a lifestyle journal to share the spice journey. Most of the recipes are ready, a photographer is on standby so once lockdown is lifted production can start.
“I think sometimes you have to mindfully push yourself into certain directions, especially when you start getting overwhelmed by day to day life; that’s the signal for you to start doing more of what you love.” DM/TGIFood