A Symphony of Spices: The Story of Essiespice
Even when it’s described to you in advance, nothing quite prepares you for your first taste of Essiespice’s Coco-for-Garlic sauce. It’s an explosion of flavour. A melange of tastes borrowed from West Africa and East Asia, and made into something wholly new.
Coco-for-Garlic is the creation of Essie Bartels, owner and spice mixologist of Essiespice, a food company that promises to bring Ghana’s unique flavours to the world.
We sat down with Essie to learn more about how she’s winning over global audiences with her innovative spice sauces.
Thanks for joining us today, Essie. Kindly introduce yourself!
Thanks for having me! My name is Essie Bartels. I was born in Accra, and left to study International Business and Management in the U.S. at Marywood College.
By day, I’m a Global Contracts Manager at a multinational. I’m also owner and spice mixologist at Essiespice, a New Jersey-based food company that makes spicy sauces influenced by West African cooking.
Where did your interest in food come from?
My interest in food was nurtured by my parents and my grandmother, the Queen of Kadjebi. I started helping my mother out in the kitchen at 8, and I remember that my dad would sample my early experiments and provide feedback.
My parents also made it a priority to expose my siblings and I to new flavours. Each Sunday after church, we’d visit a different restaurant where we could try new things. Those experiences in my formative years helped shape my interest in food.
One of the defining characteristics of your sauces is that while they feature Ghanaian spices, you also use ingredients from all over the world. Where did that approach come from?
I love travelling. I’ve lived on 3 continents, visited 24 countries, and I’m fluent or decent in 5 languages. Everywhere I go, I’m always looking out for new and interesting flavours to use in my cooking. In fact, that’s where my early experiments with my tamarind sauce came from.
While visiting my friend in Mexico, she encouraged me to try a tamarind candy they have there. I liked it a lot and brought some back home with me. I have a chemistry background (my friends sometimes complain that I have a bit of a mad scientist streak in me) and I enjoy playing with new ingredients. It wasn’t too long before I melted the tamarind candy and used it as a sauce on chicken wings.
When a few friends came over and couldn’t get enough of the wings, I knew there was something there. Many iterations later, that early experiment resulted in my TamarindOH! sauce.
When did you decide you wanted to turn your passion about food into a business?
I’ve been cooking and giving gifts of sauces to friends and family for a very long time, and many people have encouraged me to turn it into a business.
I’m very measured, though, and like to do a proper risk assessment, so I thought about it for while before finally pulling the trigger. I decided that these were flavours I wanted to see out in the world, and there was an opportunity to raise the profile of West African cooking to the level of Chinese and Indian food, which are well known in mainstream culture in many parts of the world. I got the business license in 2011, but my sauces were publicly available in 2013.
Kindly walk us through the process of turning ingredients into sauce.
First, I get many of my ingredients locally in New Jersey and the surrounding area. For the Ghanaian ingredients, I’m lucky that my sister imports Ghanaian products into the U.S., so this helps me acquire certain ingredients that are a lot harder to get in the U.S.
Once all the ingredients are assembled, I rent out a commercial kitchen in New York for many hours, and a small army of friends and cousins helps me slice, chop, blend, and package everything. Each batch is about 500 bottles per sauce.
I’m obsessive about cleanliness and doing things by the book. Some food entrepreneurs flout regulation and cook out of their own kitchen, but I take on the large cost of renting a world class commercial kitchen because I care deeply about making my sauces to global standards.
My name is literally on the product, so it’s important to me that every bottle of Essiespice is made with the highest quality possible tools and ingredients.
It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the Essiespice branding and packaging. What’re some subtle ways in which the packaging references your Ghanaian roots?
When working with the designers, I knew that I wanted Essiespice bottles to have a clear link to Ghana. There’re a number of clues.
On every jar of Essiespice you’ll see an African map with the star of Ghana at the top left of the front face of the bottle, which signifies where I source a lot of my culinary inspiration.
To the bottom right, there’re Adinkra symbols. These are visual symbols created by the Akan people of Ghana representing various concepts. Each sauce has a different symbol.
On Coco-for-Garlic is the Adinkra symbol Denkyem, which represents adaptability; the need to be able to adjust to an ever changing business environment.
On Meko Dry Rub, you’ll find Dwannimmen, the Adinkra symbol of the Ram’s Horn, which symbolizes humility and strength; attributes you need to weather the storm of starting a business.
On TamarindOH! is the Adinkra symbol Aya, which symbolizes endurance and resourcefulness. As a business, there’s a constant need to utilize all resources and to persevere.
And finally, on the Mango Chili Medley jar is the Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame, which embodies the supremacy of God.
How do you stay connected to Ghana while you continue to build your company abroad?
I’m in constant conversation with my family via WhatsApp and Skype. This helps me stay in the loop on what’s going on back home. I also try to visit at least once a year, during Christmas.
While New York has a large Ghanaian community, New Jersey — where I live — doesn’t have a ton of Ghanaians in the area. When my sister and I are hankering for our fix of home, we’ll go a few towns over to a Ghanaian store to get kenkey, which we eat with Essiespice sauces, of course. When we’re in the mood for waakye, we’ll go into New York and hit up one of the Ghanaian restaurants.
What are some milestones you’re particularly proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that you can find Essiespice on the shelves of popular food stores in New York, including Forager’s Market and Westerly Natural Market! It feels good to see my sauces right next to other trusted brands.
Another thing I’m especially proud of is how my sauces have such a broad appeal, beyond just the African diaspora. I collect new flavours everywhere I travel, and I especially like the flavours from out of Asia. I love that if a Ghanaian tastes one of my sauces, it’ll evoke foods from their childhood, and if a Japanese person took a bite, they’d also pick up flavour reminders of home. Achieving that balance in Essiespice— providing a little something for everyone — is something I’m particularly proud of.
How do you deal with the inevitable setbacks and challenges that come with running your own company?
I draw a lot of strength from my mother’s example.
When the going gets tough, I remember that when she was starting out, she had it a lot harder. She would have to spend the night in warehouses to ensure that her goods wouldn’t get stolen, and she’d have to cash checks every time she needed to get paid! Today, I can receive payments with a few clicks of a button. Her example helps me put everything in perspective.
My sister also keeps me grounded. She’s been my constant cheerleader and most sincere critic. I can trust her to have my back and also help me get back on track.
In what ways does the Ghanaian diaspora community support Essiespice?
Members of the community have been supportive in so different ways.
My friend’s cousin Kwame who believed in me from the very beginning provided starting capital that got the ball rolling. I’m grateful for the mentorship of Rahama Wright, founder of Shea Yeleen, whose beginnings were very similar to mine. The massive success of Shea Yeleen continues to be an inspiration.
I’m thankful as well for the many friends and family who rally to support me when I need extra hands in the factory, or who come provide motivational support when I’m doing demos in stores (shout out to Patrick and Charles!).
Finally, I’m indebted to everyone who has purchased Essiespice and introduced it to their friends and colleagues! About 20 to 30% of my recurring orders are by members of the Ghanaian diaspora.
Pretend it’s 10 years from now. Where is Essiespice?
10 years from now, Essiespice has multiple factories across Africa producing food for local consumption. We have expanded our product line to include utensils, aprons, and cutlery, and we have a show on the Food Network! Thanks to Essiespice, West African foods like acheke , waakye, and keleweleare known and enjoyed by millions all over the world.
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