He’s Making the Spice Trade Less Shady
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
With Burlap & Barrel, Ethan Frisch is adding a dash of salt and pepper to the farm-to-table movement.
One of the oldest forms of commerce and one often cloaked in secrecy, the spice trade dates back 4,000 years, and not much has changed in that time. Spice growers still get far less than the middlemen, but instead of losing out to medieval merchants, farmers today provide ingredients for fancy Michelin-starred restaurants stars only to be paid a fraction of what distributors make. And at the supermarket, consumers buy spices to brighten their home cooking … oblivious to the fact that the spices on shelves can be years old and blended from dozens of sources. Ethan Frisch, 32, co-founder of single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel, is working to change that.
“We’re setting farmers up to export their own crops for the first time in the history of the spice trade,” says Frisch. In an era in which consumers care more and more about the origins and supply chains of food, he figures their spices — which arrive “old, stale, often chemically treated,” Frisch says — are overdue for a reckoning.
Frisch began his career as a line cook at Tabla, and as a pastry chef at Allen & Delancey in his hometown of New York City. In 2010, he shifted into entrepreneurship and social activism, launching Guerrilla Ice Cream with his current business partner, Ori Zohar. The frozen dessert cart sold items designed to educate its consumers on international conflicts. All profits were donated to nonprofits servicing marginalized populations, and the menu featured items like the Libertação, a chocolate and port wine ice cream, based on Guinea-Bissau’s fight for independence.
Frisch builds trust with his farmer partners by showing them what he charges as well as his own costs.
He left the ice cream game for graduate school at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where he studied violence and conflict. In 2012, Frisch joined the Aga Khan Foundation in Kabul, Afghanistan, as the national infrastructure coordinator, helping with schools and other projects across the country’s rural, mountainous northeast. He was no longer considering a career as a chef, but he still admired quality ingredients. He found the wild cumin growing in the country to be aromatic beyond anything he knew. Meals included a daily smattering of saffron, coriander, cardamom, nigella and turmeric.
His meals with locals were atypical, as foreign aid workers usually are chauffeured around with little appetite for mingling, says Shahla Naimi, Frisch’s fiancée. The two met through mutual friends while Naimi worked for a different branch of the nonprofit. Naimi now works for Google and is on Burlap & Barrel’s advisory board. Frisch “struck me because he didn’t abide by those restrictions,” says Naimi. “I’m an Afghan citizen and didn’t have a lot of foreign friends. He put in a lot of effort to learn the language. He made it a priority to get to know the country and its people.”
It was during this time that Frisch began bringing spices back to New York in his suitcase and sharing them with restaurant-industry friends. Frisch estimates the ingredients found at local supermarkets are around three years old and could be a blend of spices from more than 30 different vendors. Burlap & Barrel, founded in 2017, is the antithesis — fresh and from a single location.
Chef Malika Ameen, author of Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice: Exotic Flavors to Wake Up Your Baking, was skeptical about Frisch’s business at first. But she’s been impressed with the results, including in her own cooking. “He’s taking the time to do ethical practices,” says Ameen. “He’s going all over the world and meeting the farmers to see where his product comes from, similar to what high-end chefs do.” Other chefs— such as Lamar Moore of the Swill Inn in Chicago, who uses the smoked pimentón paprika in his burger — are drawn to the high quality.
On the surface, it’s easy to categorize Frisch as just another “White savior” — but that would be lazy. A sharper critique comes from Frisch himself, who says his company’s small size and focus on high-quality ingredients limits the breadth of its impact on farmers.
He shies away from talking too much about himself, choosing instead to focus on his partners. Rather than splash Frisch’s face and story, the postcard-size flyers arriving with a bundle of Burlap & Barrel spices read “Meet Bwana Bakari.” The glossy paper features the Pemba farmer from Tanzania holding his son Saeed, relaying how they source their cloves by scaling trees as tall as 100 feet.
But if you probe deeper, you’d find in Frisch a music lover who while in Kabul learned the rubab, a small instrument resembling a guitar, and played violin in an Irish folk band.
On average, Burlap & Barrel pays five to 10 times more than the commodity market. Frisch builds trust with his farmer partners by showing them what he charges as well as his own costs. “It puts them in control of the conversation in a way that hasn’t happened before,” Frisch says. He says his prices are still “in the same range as other spice brands” because he bypasses layers of middlemen. (Yet, because of the sourcing, they’re not supermarket prices: A 16-ounce bottle of Burlap & Barrel Zanzibar black peppercorns costs $28.99; an 8-ounce bottle of Whole Foods 365 brand black peppercorns costs $8.99.) Bootstrapped by Frisch without investor funds, the company broke even in its first year, he says.
While companies like Diaspora Co. (turmeric) and Rumi (saffron) work in the same space, Frisch sees them more as friends tackling the same supply chain problems. “We’re all part of an informal association of spice companies focused on equitable sourcing who communicate, collaborate and support each other,” he says.
Frisch wouldn’t be able to do it without tools that did not exist 4,000 — or even 14 — years ago: Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and Skype allow him to communicate with his farmers on how the weather is affecting the harvest and do research to ensure he’s negotiating fair prices. He also hears updates on the families and financial wellbeing of 30 farmers from places like Cobán, Guatemala; Urfa, Turkey and Zanzibar, Tanzania.
“He engages with people on a personal level,” says Naimi. “This isn’t charity. It’s another entrepreneur working with another entrepreneur. There’s a lot of respect flowing both ways.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Ethan Frisch
- What’s the last book you read? A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, by Raj Patel and Jason Moore.
- What do you worry about? As the co-founder of a social enterprise, I worry about the coexistence of systemic capitalism and its (apparently) inherent problems: poverty and illness, violence and racism.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My collection of traditional chef’s knives from around the world.
- Who’s your hero? My grandmother. She’s 93 years old and runs her own business, speaks Spanish, comments on my Instagram pictures and complains that NPR is too right-wing for her.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Travel by camel to visit the ancient salt mines in the middle of the Sahara desert in Mali.
Read more: Madagascar’s vanilla farmers fight off thieves.