Lunch With: Two Inglewood entrepreneurs share lunch, some conversation and a side of serendipity
Kelci Hind sits down with West Canadian Industries CEO George Brookman
When he was younger, Max Fawcett wanted to make a mint in the markets. Now as the managing editor of Alberta Venture he gets to write about them. Close enough, right? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
by Max Fawcett
YOUNG EXEC: Kelci Hind, Co-owner, The Silk Road Spice Merchant
HISTORY: It’s been a hectic three years for Kelci Hind. In addition to raising her young daughter (with her husband, Colin Leach), she left her old career behind to start a new business with him. It’s gone well, too. After starting in their garage with online-only sales, their spice business moved into a storefront in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood – and did well over $1 million in sales in 2013. Now, they’re trying to decide how to take the next step – and where they want it to take them.
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 18
Clam linguine with blistered cherry tomatoes, house made chorizo and romesco sauce. Glass of 2012 Pascal Jolivet Sauvignon Blanc
SENIOR EXEC: George Brookman, CEO, West Canadian Industries
HISTORY: George Brookman isn’t the richest man in Calgary, and he’s not the most powerful. But Brookman, who bought a blueprinting business nearly three decades ago and turned it into a thriving digital printing, design and document management company, is almost certainly one of the proudest – and the most generous. And as a racounteur? Well, he’s unmatched.
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 400
LUNCH: New York steak burger, no bun, with apple bacon chutney, grainy mustard and side garden salad. Glass of 2012 Pascal Jolivet Sauvignon Blanc
The spice trade is nearly as old as human civilization, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to improve it. At least, that was the idea at the core of The Silk Road Spice Merchant, a business created by a Calgary couple that’s now on the verge of big things. And last month, 35-year old Kelci Hind, one of its co-owners, sat down with fellow Inglewood business owner George Brookman at nearby restaurant Rouge to talk shop.
Hind, who was a public health nurse prior to launching Silk Road, says she started the business almost by accident. “I loved nursing – parts of it – but I was a little disillusioned with the bureaucracy and I wanted something where I could be in control and really go for it. My husband was cooking a lot at home – lots of Indian curries and things like that – and he was really fascinated with spices. We were going to shops all over the city trying to find ingredients, and I said, ‘There’s something here.’ Everyone is so into food, and everyone is buying local, organic, free-range everything at farmers’ markets, yet going to the grocery store and putting stale spices on their dishes. That didn’t make any sense.”
So the couple found a way to meet what they saw as an unfulfilled need, first through online sales and then a stand at a local farmers’ market before leasing a space on Inglewood’s main drag. “It was online-only for the first few months,” Hind says, “and we were filling orders one at a time in the garage.”
“Where do you buy it from? Do you go to India?”
“No, that’s next – travelling the world. I’ve travelled a bit, and we have some direct contacts – I do know someone in Sri Lanka that I buy cinnamon from, and a fifth-generation saffron farmer in Spain. I love that part. But we have more than 300 products, so we have brokers that we work with in New York and San Francisco. It’s a huge, complicated network, and that was the biggest learning curve for me – finding all these products, importing them, controlling the quality.”
The pair has never met – Brookman, a proud booster of the Inglewood neighbourhood they share, admits he’s never been in her store (she, on the other hand, has been in his) – but they bond quickly over a piece of shared history. “When I was a teenager – and there was electricity, in case you folks were going to make sarcastic comments – I worked at Woodward’s,” Brookman says, “and it had a huge food floor out where The Bay is now in the Chinook Centre. We had what we called the spice island, and it was – at that time – probably the best selection of spices in the city. People loved it.”
Hind, it turns out, has a connection to the same Woodward’s. “My grandmother worked at the checkout for 35 years,” she says.
“What was her name?”
“You know what? She knows me. She absolutely knows me. I was a grocery packer – that’s how I started. You have to tell her.”
Hind promises that she will.
“So, what do you think? Are you going to open more stores?”
“I’d like to,” Hind says. “We’ve been careful. From really early on, we’ve had people contacting us asking, ‘Have you thought about franchising?’ and things like that. I hate saying no – everything seems like an exciting idea – but I’ve been trying to hold back because we have a good thing going. Last year was steady – we grew slowly, but we were on top of things. Now, I feel ready. How much do you know about Edmonton?”
“I know quite a bit about Edmonton,” Brookman says.
“That’s what we’re thinking [for the next location]. People are coming down from Edmonton all the time.”
“Edmonton’s actually a much more ethnically diverse market than Calgary is,” Brookman says. You’ll get a lot more calls for spices that maybe you don’t sell in Calgary.”
“That could be. I think it’s a good food city. People know a ton about food and cook a lot, and there’s nowhere to get this.”
The real challenge, Hind admits, isn’t so much settling on a destination as it is getting there. Two roadblocks that stand in her way jump to mind, she says.
The first revolves around the labour-intensive nature of her business – everything is filled by hand, while the proprietary spice blends are ground and blended on site – and she knows they need to find ways to standardize that without diluting the quality of the product. “We do need to move some of the production to the next level – we need to find a warehouse space and streamline the process.”
The bigger hurdle involves labour. “Maybe it’s naïve of me,” Hind says, “but I never anticipated how much of my time would be spent managing people. I really want our staff to feel appreciated, I want them to take some ownership, but it’s so difficult to run a business when you can’t count on people showing up.”
“There are no words,” Brookman says. “We normally have six drivers on the road, and today three didn’t show up. And why didn’t they show up? Do you think they were sick? No, they just didn’t want to drive today. I think back to when I worked at Atco, and Ron Southern might call me at 4:30 and say, ‘George, I wonder if you can come by the office – I want to have a chat with you.’ I’d phone my wife and say ‘I just got a call from Ron, so I’m not sure when I’ll be home for supper.’ That was life.”
“That’s the problem,” Hind says. “I think it’s good that we have work-life balance, and I’m more than happy to be accommodating if someone has a sick child – I have a child. I understand. But there has to be a reciprocal arrangement and in return they’ll work a long day if we’re behind.”
They share staffing-related horror stories, which include Brookman discovering a longstanding employee trying to siphon gas from one of the company’s vehicles. “I fired him. I had to fire him. What else could I do? But I felt so bad. And I said, ‘If you’d come to me and said you needed $100 for gas, I would have given you $200 so you could buy groceries on the way home.’ It’s just so frustrating.”
“That’s the biggest thing,” Hind says. “I know that if we’re in another city, we’re going to need an entirely new staff, and we don’t even have a manager here.”
“You have to find someone who has your personality,” Brookman says.
“I know, and that’s the problem,” Hind says. “We’ve had trouble with management. I’m a perfectionist, and I’m sure it’s very common for people to have trouble giving up control. I’ve had to work really hard at that. My standards are very high – but it’s important, and there’s a reason for all of it.”
Brookman can relate. But he also has to run – he’s a busy guy, after all. Still, he promises to swing by Hind’s store in the near future. “I’ll come in for sure. I might come in today.”
“I’d love that.”