Spice Company Burlap & Barrel Tries to Win Investors on Tonight’s Episode
Photo courtesy of Ori Zohar
When Ori Zohar ’07 and his co-founder Ethan Frisch strode down the signature “Shark Tank” hallway in September, they knew they’d have to pitch something mouthwatering to the ABC show’s hard-bitten regulars to entice them to invest in their single-origin spice company. What they didn’t know was that there’d be a guest “shark” angling for a taste: actress, wellness promoter, mega-successful owner of luxury lifestyle brand Goop and newly exonerated ski queen Gwyneth Paltrow.
Would the Oscar winner invest, taking Burlap & Barrel to the big time, or would she wish them well and dismiss them with a reserved yet cutting glance?
Viewers will find out tonight at 8 p.m. EST, when Zohar and Frisch appear on “Shark Tank” to tell the story and drive home the potential of Burlap & Barrel to billionaire Mark Cuban and the full panel of investors.
“You only have one shot,” said Zohar. “Whatever happens, happens. If you flub your lines, that could be what ends up airing on national TV.”
Frisch, a chef-turned aid worker and Zohar, a marketer and social entrepreneur founded the spice importer together in 2016. After Frisch got a taste of wild cumin growing in the mountains of northern Afghanistan during his tenure at the Aga Khan Foundation, he started bringing back the spice in his suitcase on trips home.
The pair, for whom this is their second food business together, realized what was happening with products like meat, coffee and chocolate: More and more, consumers wanted to know the provenance of these items before purchasing them. What did the cows eat? Were the coffee beans grown in shade or sun? How were the people picking the cacao beans treated?
Somehow, that heightened awareness hadn’t yet crossed over to the world of spices. “It just seemed like one part of our home kitchen that we have no transparency into,” said Zohar. “We don't really have access to really good, flavorful stuff without having those transparent supply chains and that traceability all the way back to the farming, the origin.”
So Zohar and Frisch, who met in New York City after Zohar graduated from UMD, decided to wade into the world of spices. Growing up in Baltimore after moving with his family from Israel, Zohar had long connected to his own culture through food, while Frisch had worked in restaurants in New York City. The two had previously worked together to launch Guerrilla Ice Cream in 2010, a nonprofit start-up that sold ice cream flavors inspired by political movements and donated all proceeds to street vendor advocacy. (Libertação, a flavor that combined dark chocolate and port wine, was inspired by the West African country Guinea-Bissau’s fight for independence from Portugal.)
Burlap & Barrel sources its spices directly from farmers in countries such as Afghanistan, Spain, Vietnam and Tanzania. Its distinctive offerings include smoked black cardamom, Euphrates mint leaves and wild Icelandic kelp.
The products have garnered significant media attention. “Turkish hyssop thyme has the herbal profile of thyme with a spicy anise cast; Vietnamese royal cinnamon is deeply aromatic; Afghan wild mountain cumin is finely textured, pungent and hardly needs grinding; smoked pimentón paprika has an abiding sweetness; Turkish silk chili delivers moderate heat and saltiness; and fine-textured purple garlic powder is sharply pungent, making it unlike the supermarket variety,” wrote food and wine critic Florence Fabricant in The New York Times. Burlap & Barrel has also teamed with food magazine Bon Appetit to create a series of three spice blends.
Now, with Burlap & Barrel in its seventh year and with a network of farmers in more than 20 countries, Zohar and Frisch finally felt ready to win the attention of “Shark Tank” producers. The pair sent in a video of themselves from the Guatemalan cloud forest (like a rainforest, but with moisture provided just by the clouds), where farmers harvest cardamom. The video intrigued producers, who then worked with Zohar and Frisch for three months to develop a “two-minute pitch that had a lot of entertainment and jokes and fun and drama,” said Zohar.
In September, the pair headed to Los Angeles to film the show. After 10 hours of hair and makeup, practice, and shuttling back and forth between buildings on the studio lot, Zohar and Frisch came face to face with the sharks for nearly an hour as they asked about their business model, profits, challenges and future needs.
Tonight, Zohar will be watching along with the rest of America to see what “story” producers chose to tell about Burlap & Barrel. “Are we good guys? Are we bad guys? Are we social entrepreneurs? Are we crazy?” asked Zohar, knowing that the “Shark Tank” editors love to turn those pitching their businesses into characters.
And though Gwyneth Paltrow may have been a surprise, Zohar and Frisch think they found an in with her through one of their spices: their the spices the sharks tasted, one of which was Zanzibar black peppercorns. “She played a character in ‘Iron Man’ with the name Pepper,” said Zohar. “So that’s a good connection.”
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