The sign outside of the building beckons with one simple word, beer, but inside The Plant is so much more. The red brick industrial building in the “back of the yards” neighborhood in Chicago is social enterprise Bubbly Dynamics’ vision of taking a place once bereft of value and re-imagining it as a collaborative community where socially minded food businesses can grow in the most ecologically responsible way possible. The building plan is to transform what is conventionally considered waste into valuable outputs, including using bio-gas created on-site to run a turbine generator that supplies the building tenants with power. It was here that I met with the power sales and marketing team behind the socially minded food brand Rumi Spice.
Brand Experience magazine initially connected with Keith Alaniz, CEO and co-founder of Rumi Spice, through FedEx. “Global entrepreneurship is one of our five pillars of our corporate social responsibility at FedEx,” says Scott Harkins, senior vice president, customer channel marketing at FedEx. “So it’s important to us when we not only offer a financial award to the winners of our grant contest [Rumi Spice is the 2018 Grand Prize Winner of the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest], but that we partner with Rumi Spice by connecting them to writers like you through our awareness vehicles.”
Opining on Rumi Spice’s ability to bring people together through food, commitment to empower Afghan women and bolster the Afghan economy by reinvesting in the local community, and ultimately promote peace and stability in the war-torn country, Harkins adds, “Rumi Spice is an easy story to share because it is just so compelling!”
Takes a team
Alaniz insisted on bringing in Ryan Watt, sales manager at Rumi Spice, and Imelda Lopez, digital marketer at Rumi Spice, to the interview, because he believes that Rumi Spice’s success isn’t his own, or even Alaniz’ and his co-founders’, but of the entire team, noting that Watt and Lopez play critical roles in the brand’s success as a market disruptor and its ability to empower consumers to enact societal change with their purchasing power and also partner with brands to inform the business’ marketing and development strategies.
The CEO’s philosophy’s roots start with his military experience in Afghan Hands—a language and culture-focused program of the U.S. Army that works in collaboration with local businesses and government officials. “When I was serving as an advisor for the governor of a province in Afghanistan,” he explains, “I ran into these farmers who were growing this incredible saffron and that what’s sparked this question for me and my partner Kim [Jung] of what could happen if we connected these farmers to international markets.”
Alaniz and Jung saw an opportunity to use this valuable crop to lessen the allure of joining an insurgent group to be able to provide for their families. When Afghanistan farmers are given a sustainable and peaceful way to live, Alaniz explains, “they’re not as tempted when insurgents come around and say, ‘pick up a rifle and I’ll pay you a dollar a day.’”
Alaniz also echoes a sentiment put forth by the Persian poet Rumi that trade can be the connector that helps prevent military conflict. “Before we started with working with the Afghan farmers, many of them didn’t know anything about Americans except for what they hear from the rumor mills,” Alaniz remarks. “This made it easier for an insurgent to spread their messages. The Taliban would come around and say, ‘Hey look, these Americans are evil. They’re infidels who are out to get you.’ If these insurgents go to the farmers we partner with, they are resistant to the Taliban’s messaging and they share their experience that ‘Americans are helping provide for me and my family’”
Growing a market for Afghan saffron also helps eliminate the attractiveness of poppy as a crop and, instead, spreads the idea of food for social good around the world. Poppy is more than an Afghan problem; it becomes a problem right here in the U.S. Mike Stobbe from the Associated Press has reported that more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016.
Making a difference on both sides of the globe has helped Rumi Spice attract its highly effective and talented staff. Growing up in underdeveloped areas on Chicago’s south side, Lopez was attracted to Rumi Spice for the opportunity to “educate people on our mission as it’s the most heartfelt ever.” She further notes, “Social responsibility is extremely important for me, and I’ve made it my life’s mission to do something for the world at every job that I take.”
Watt left the sun and surf of southern California to be part of Rumi Spice’s mission. “Social responsibility is a big part of who I am as an individual,” Watt says. “I interviewed with Keith during a Chicago winter, in January, but I knew I had to come here because sometimes you’ve just got to follow your dreams.”
Creating opportunities where there is none
Selling Afghan saffron and products containing Afghan saffron isn’t an easy endeavor. “It’s funny because most people think the Afghanistan supply chain is the hardest part,” Alaniz says, “but I think the challenging part is the marketing and selling of Afghan saffron.”
Lopez notes that many younger consumers aren’t familiar with or know how to use saffron. “A typical customer comes from a highly educated, older demographic,” she says. “So we’re really trying to reach people my age and Ryan’s age, the millennial crowd, with our social media efforts and our new products, like our spice blends. We want to get saffron in everyone’s home, not just a specific limited demographic.”
Watt adds, “Our spice blends are also changing how saffron is used. Our product director, Laura [Willis] has done a great job of creating products that get people to explore with saffron in the kitchen.”
Alaniz agrees, “The spice blends are approachable for the mainstream consumer who wants to support our mission but doesn’t know that much about saffron. They might be interested in saffron as a spice, but before they take that step of using the single spice in recipes, they are going to buy a $10 spice blend.”
Rumi Spice is also using collaboration to create new markets for saffron. With the company’s partnership with Blue Apron, Rumi Spice is reaching a young busy professional who wants to learn more about cooking and ingredients. “Consumer education is so important when creating markets,” he adds. That education continues with the company’s social media marketing.
“Imelda has done a great job of stepping up our digital marketing,” Alaniz says. “We now get a lot of user-generated content. Customers are sending us recipes all the time and providing us reviews and other types of feedback and information. We put that back into the marketing funnel and that helps create a one-to-one relationship with our customers and get people excited about the mission and the spice.”
Shaking up the spice aisle
“When you think of spices, you think of it as a way to get creative in the kitchen,” Watt remarks, “but the typical spice aisle isn’t all that creative. So we’re looking to bring that creativity to the aisle. Instead of the typical heavy glass bottle with a plastic top, we’ve incorporated Afghan culture with beautiful packaging that’s topped with a cap made from a renewable resource—cork. This helps me when I’m working with retail buyers because our package design flows with our brand personality and that flows with our mission of introducing Americans to Afghan culture.”
The spice aisle isn’t the only place that Rumi Spice products can be found. “We have a pretty amazing saffron gummy gem,” Alaniz says. “It’s a non-GMO vegan gem, made with pectin, organic sugar and saffron. All the color and flavor for the candy comes from the saffron. It even has a little saffron thread suspended in the gummy.”
Gifting is another huge category for Rumi Spice. “Our biggest moving product by volume and revenue is our two-gram saffron gift package,” Alaniz shares. “They are a great fit for our specialty store customers such as Dean and Deluca’s.”
This is part of Rumi Spice’s goal to make saffron part of the everyday premium dining experience for modern consumers. “Traditionally, saffron has been an intimidating spice for many people,” Watt says, “but we believe that working with our brand fans and their user-generated content and changing the notion around what saffron is good for, we can change the game.”
Adding to Watt’s sentiment, Alaniz notes that there are many more products and partnerships in development and “we have some really exciting stuff coming down the pipeline so keep an eye on us this year.”
Editors' note: Multimedia interview to air in late June.