Looking back, Lisa Conner realized she didn’t mind the smell of chili powder lingering on her clothes. Actually, the San Antonio native kind of missed it.
The smell of chili powder, along with that of garlic and cumin and cinnamon defined Conner’s childhood thanks to her family’s spice business, Monterrey Products. And Conner spent so much time surrounded by the business, mired in spices, that as soon as she was old enough she vowed to do something different with her life.
“I was like thank God I’m not gonna wreak of spices anymore,” Conner said with a smile, sitting in her Greenville office.
But life plans have a funny way of changing.
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Today, Conner has come full circle with her 1-year-old spice company, Spice Society, and yet, she also is carving a different path. Spice Society specializes in all organic, gourmet spices that are free of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The company offers a line of 10 varieties of spices, from roasted cinnamon to a curry powder and a smoked paprika, all sourced from organic purveyors from around the globe. The company also recently launched a line of edible flowers and a line of spices in seed form as well.
“So one of the really beautiful things about Spice Society is this is a local person who is starting something special,” said Kim Rada, director for Charleston Cooks!, who chose to carry Spice Society products in both the Charleston and Greenville stores. “The products, because they’re organic and rich in quality – roasting really enhances and intensifies the flavors, are just very bold and unique and special.”
After just one year in business, Spice Society is gaining notice across the United States. The products are available in more than 200 small boutique markets and larger grocery stores throughout the country. The company’s online business also is growing, with customers hailing from everywhere from Oregon and Montana to Michigan and Connecticut. And last year, Spice Society was also featured in both Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines.
“I just want to revolutionize the way people see spices,” Conner said in her characteristic friendly, but firm way. “I guess that’s where I find a measure of success, is if people were to say they’re just different, Spice Society is a different way of looking at spices.”
There is a memory Conner has of Saturdays growing up. She, along with her three younger sisters, would rise early to work in her family’s spice business. While her peers spent their time watching cartoons, Conner and her sisters would spend hours carefully measuring, packing and sealing packets of spices for distribution.
“When the season got busy we would get up at 5 in the morning,” Conner said. “It was like no cartoons, we have orders. We have to get the orders out!”
Under Conner’s parents’ purvey, Monterrey Products grew considerably. The small mom and pop business expanded from a tiny warehouse to a large manufacturing facility, and moved from a customer base of solely the Hispanic community to one that spanned the state of Texas.
But as soon as Conner was old enough she left. She attended Southwest Texas State College to study marketing and public relations and to divest of the spice biz.
And after graduation, Conner did leave it behind for a while. She moved up the corporate ladder, including stints at Gap Inc., Crabtree & Evelyn, Estee Lauder and Coach.
But somewhere, in the back of her mind, Conner always wanted to work for herself, and she knew her ticket would be a food-related business.
“It’s just I think it’s always what I’ve been meant to do,” Conner said. “These ideas come to me and I’ve always just wanted to see what would happen if I really could fulfill that.”
The years away from the spice business were good, and it was when she truly started cooking for herself.
And doing more cooking made her realize a) how much she missed her mom’s cooking, and b) how much she really relied on certain spices to recreate the food she’d grown up with.
“I really first hand witnessed how spices lend ethnicity to foods and dishes,” Conner said.
That’s why at Spice Society, the motto is “Cook with Culture.”
Taking a chance
The space inside the Spice Society’s Greenville headquarters is thick with the smell of possibility. The rich tones of cinnamon and cumin and curry powder fill the air offering up possibilities of delicious dishes yet to be prepared.
These are Conner’s masterpieces, and she speaks of each as if they were individuals.
“I feel like they all sort of have their own personalities,” Conner said. “They all have their own strengths and are all used in different ways. So it is like a little society of spices.”
That society is global. Conner has spent months on sourcing her products. She has traveled around the world in search of organic and GMO-free farms, which is not always easy. Last year, Conner had to pull her granulated garlic from production because the producer in China failed to produce adequate documentation.
The move meant the loss of a considerable part of Conner’s investment, as labels and containers had already been produced.
“I just couldn’t feel good about it,” she said with a small shrug.
Creating a niche
Conner can anticipate a question before it’s even asked, and particularly the one about why organic spices.
“There are folks that will buy and spend money on an organic chicken, and then take that spice with pesticides and rub it all in there,” Conner said. “People think what does it matter? It does matter! There is a huge picture that it effects a lot.”
How much it mattered became all the clearer when Conner began cooking for her children – two daughters and a son. When the family moved from Texas to Greenville for her husband’s job in 2004, Conner also got involved with the PTA, eventually becoming the health and wellness chair for PTAs in South Carolina, and her passion grew.
“We really cracked down on unhealthy food fundraising, and we got a lot of local vendors to come and start selling their produce at schools,” Conner said of the position. “And that’s when organics really started to make a lot of sense to me.”
Preliminary market research showed that the public wasn’t actually that concerned about organic spices and that most people would likely continue to buy their tried and true brand. But what some might have seen as a roadblock, Conner saw as an opportunity to carve a niche in the market.
“As an entrepreneur, until you really do go ahead and go all in and take those risks, then you’re never going to know what the potential of that business will be,” Conner said.
Conner pulled together an initial investment through a small loan and savings and launched Spice Society in June 2014. The money allowed her to purchase the 30,000 required minimum of containers she needed to take her products to the market, and helped her invest in sourcing.
Rada noticed Conner’s passion right away.
“She worked with us at the tasting tent at Fall for Greenville. She’s local, she’s supportive, she’s doing something really beautiful and special and it ties to everything that we’re trying to do at Charleston Cooks. So it just really makes sense.
Today, Spice Society items can be found in 260 stores throughout the U.S., including Whole Foods stores in the Florida region and in some Bi-Lo stores in South Carolina. The items can be found locally at Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery, The Café at Williams Hardware, Charleston Cooks!, M. Judson Booksellers, Palmetto Olive Oil Co. and the Cook’s Station.
This past fall, Conner had to order more containers
The next level
On a rainy December day, Conner is diligently working on holiday orders. She launched online ordering just after Thanksgiving, and products have been selling quickly.
The warehouse space behind the office is full of palates of spices, all in various states of packaging. It’s a far cry from the garage space where Conner started.
Business has grown steadily. This past fall, Spice Society added several new product lines, edible flora, whole seeds and a line of various chili powders. The items are as delectable as they are beautiful. Each comes in its own carefully hewn tinted glass bottle.
“I think she’s done an amazing job of not just launching a series of products but really building the foundation to create an amazing brand,” Rada said.
And Conner isn’t done. She’s got plans to grow Spice Society into a complete brand that includes both cooking and entertaining essentials. She is already in discussions with a linen company, a candle company and a gourmet salt company.
“For me, success is creating and starting a brand from scratch and see it evolve to something that people admire and that people can use and love,” Conner said, lovingly arranging the colorful bottles of spice on the table in front of her. “And I just want to be proud about the products I put out there.”