From Singapore to the USA and all around Europe, Edible Innovations profiles food makers that engage in improving the global food system at every stage, from production to distribution to eating and shopping. Join us as we explore the main trends in the industry from a maker perspective. Chiara Cecchini of Food Innovation Program — an ecosystem with a strong educational core that promotes food innovation as a key tool to tackle the great challenges of the future — introduces you to the faces, stories, and experiences of food makers around the globe. Check back on Tuesdays and Thursdays for new installments.
Ethan Frisch is a former line cook and pastry chef of some of NYC’s top restaurants, and a former international aid worker that visited a variety of places, including Afghanistan and the Syrian/Jordanian border. “As a professional cook, I learned about the importance of high quality ingredients, and as an aid worker, I worked with communities looking for international markets for the food they grew,” he says.
Frisch considers himself an activist entrepreneur, working on issues related to intercultural understanding. “In the United States, most of our food is grown and harvested by international networks of farmers who consumers choose to ignore unless they fit a specific profile.” Not content to sit around, he started building solutions and searching for a way to make a change.
His creation is called Burlap & Barrel. It is rethinking international spice supply chains to make them more direct, transparent, and traceable. “We work to end inequality and exploitation in food systems that disenfranchise skilled, serious artisans along the entire chain,” Frisch says. “We connect smallholder spice farmers to high value markets, we educate consumers about the impact of product traceability on human rights, and we emphasize unique products with terroir that are grown biodynamically using traditional techniques.”
Hacking the System, Building a Network
Through their extensive networks around the world, Burlap & Barrel sources spices directly from cooperatives and small farms, bypassing brokers and middlemen who drive up prices and obstruct the free flow of information. “We make purchase commitments to give farmers the financial security to expand their businesses without worrying about unexpected shifts in commodity pricing reducing the value of their products,” Frisch says.
Frisch is enabling other makers by catalyzing small, local farmers, a role that is as important as directly farming itself. Smallholder farmers in developing countries live with a significant amount of risk; when they plant at the beginning of the season, they don’t know what value their crops will have by harvest time. Burlap & Barrel helps mitigate that risk by guaranteeing a buyer for the spices that farmers grow. This allows the farmers to plan further into the future and establish longer-term financial stability for both their families and communities.
“We believe that impact can be best achieved with scale. Spices represent a huge market in the United States, and we are working to change the industry in ways similar to the changes in coffee, cacao, and other products. Consumers appreciate high quality products with compelling stories, but have never had access to those types of spices before. Our plan was always to reach the individual consumer, but in its early stages our business has been focused mostly on providing wholesale ingredients to chefs and artisanal food producers around the United States.”
In the next few months, Frisch and his team will be broadening the customer base to reach home cooks who appreciate excellent ingredients. They believe in the power of catalyzing local farmers around the globe and all their efforts will be focused on creating and strengthening the supporting network.