Centuries ago, peppercorn could pay the rent, cloves were worth their weight in gold, and nutmeg was used to purchase Manhattan. Spices were an important commodity.
Today, British Columbia-based Epicure Selections is out to prove just how important spices can be in a modern business world.
Family-owned and women-run, the company was launched in 1991 from the kitchen of founder Sylvie Rochette, a working mother with a flair for blending spices. “Not a lot of products were available that didn’t have MSG or other unnatural additives,” says Amelia Warren, Epicure Selection’s CEO and Rochette’s daughter. “My mother would preblend spices to make her own cooking faster and more efficient.”
Rochette’s friends encouraged her to share her products, and she started selling her spices out of the back of her station wagon at farmers’ markets and craft shows. Her first sale netted her $375.
Six years and thousands of dollars in sales later, Rochette got to a place where she needed to scale her business. Wholesale markets were an option, but what was really needed was someone showing the customer how to use the spices; what was really needed was a lot more Sylvies.
And so Epicure Selections adopted the direct-sales model in 1997. In its first year, sales tripled, and the company has grown every year since. “We’ve grown organically and funded our growth internally,” Warren says. “We went from having one consultant—Sylvie—to having 14,500. Our home team has grown from one to 175.”
Adding cookware and a wide array of food products, from chocolate to beverages to salsas, Epicure Selections has also grown into Canada’s largest direct-sales company, with 2012 sales projected to be more than $50 million. Warren credits the amount of care and attention—the kind you’d use to make a favourite dish—as the reason for the company’s phenomenal success.
“Our products are also one of a kind,” Warren says. “They taste better, and we ensure our consumers learn how to use our products through our independent consultants, online recipes, and how-to cooking videos.”
Ultimately, Warren says, Epicure Selections’ mission is to support people eating healthy meals, now more than ever.
“Food plays an important role in health,” she says. “We are experiencing pandemic levels of heart disease, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. More attention is being paid to what we eat, and more people want to cook from scratch.”
In addition to good health, Warren is proud that her company offers women a chance to become entrepreneurs. While income varies, she says some earns six figures each year, and others earn a couple hundred dollars a month, “which can pay for hockey lessons for the kids,” she says.
“There is a misconception about people who are in direct sales—that they’re just party ladies,” she says. “That couldn’t be further than the truth. Theirs are stories of entrepreneurship, of sacrifice and passion. I’ve learned so much from our consultants. They’ve taught me a lot about what’s required to be successful.”
Warren, for her part, says she was never brought up to run the business.
“I wanted to go into the nonprofit sector,” she recalls. “I took a summer job here, in 2007, creating the Epicure Foundation, our charitable organization. I have always wanted to play a role in making the planet and our community a better place, and after a summer at Epicure I saw how powerful it could be to give women a chance to contribute to their families and their communities. I fell in love with the business and with what’s possible when business is orientated towards delivering both profit and social good.”
Warren took the CEO role in 2009, with advice from her mother. “She told me, ‘Always be prepared to work really hard. Endeavour to lead by example. And know that you will make a lot of mistakes and be okay with that.”
Warren lives by her mother’s belief that to whom much is given, much is expected. She says her role is to position the company to grow and prepare for the future growth, with plans to double in size within the next seven years. Since assuming her role, she’s made changes to sales force, the product mix, and the training program. Warren has also concentrated on engaging their sales force and home office employees.
“I spent 2011 really listening to key stakeholders in the field,” she says. “I asked about what’s working and about how we can continue to improve the business opportunity. As we grow, so has the need to increase investment in our consultants. We upped the training, recognition, and online tools we offer, and enhanced our compensation package.”
Epicure Selections has heavily focused on IT, building its e-commerce and creating an effective digital strategy that communicates the spirit of the business. Constantly improving, the company is also going through a rebranding process to reassess its packaging, materials, and processes, to ensure it is in line with its goals and objectives. Last year, it started initiatives timed with the company’s 15-year anniversary, which it has dubbed its Quincinera celebration. Warren considers it a celebration of the company reaching “young adulthood” as a business, having outgrown some of its systems and processes, and reevaluating its organization.
“We strive to have a business that is contributing to the planet and community,” she says. “Underlying everything we do is an ongoing desire to positively affect the world.”
In 2007, the company launched the Epicure Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of Canadians through nutrition education and poverty relief. The foundation has awarded more than $750,000 in funding and in-kind donations to more than 50 Canadian charities, such as the YWCA Crisis Shelter and Residence in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Martha’s Table Community Program in Kingston, Ontario, and Anna’s House in Steinbach, Manitoba.
Although Epicure Selections continues its phenomenal growth, Warren says the company remains closely tied to its roots. “At our core are high-quality spice blends that are delicious and good for you,” she says.
Spices that are changing the world, making them more valuable than ever before.