That spicy, sweet, savory world

Sometimes a crazy idea to step out of your comfort zone and take a major leap can produce interesting results. Yekaterina Ozhal, an entrepreneur from Yekaterinburg, owner of the Online Bazar store, tells the story of how she changed direction and began making spices.

Pack up your life to move to Turkey

Yekaterina Ozhal had worked in the office for years – making good money, for that matter – when she read the book Istanbul: A City of Memories and suddenly wanted to live in that city more than anything else. She took an online course of teaching Russian to Turks and went to Istanbul where she got a job as a teacher. Once in Turkey, she plunged into exploring the local life and customs. She was especially interested in Turkish cuisine, and specifically the seasonings they used.

She spent six years in Turkey; all these years, she enjoyed buying various spices at the Istanbul bazaar. She added them to the meals she cooked and sent them home to her relatives and friends as gifts on various occasions. When she got home, she already knew she wanted to start her own business. She also really missed Turkey. Feeling nostalgic, Yekaterina decided to visit Istanbul once again and bring back authentic Turkish spices.

“My friends joked they could no longer do without my gifts. Their interest gave me the idea that other people might like such gifts, too,” she recalls.

So she started a community on VKontakte, where she wrote she was taking orders for Turkish spices and posted her photos from the market and from the internet. As a result, she took as many as 20 orders. The initial idea was to partially compensate her travelling costs, but then she thought about selling spices as a regular business.

First steps

Arriving in Turkey, she went to the bazaar to fulfill the orders. She began talking with the sellers and eventually met a family that has been making spices since the end of the century before last. Yekaterina decided to buy their ready-made mixes as well as ingredients to make mixes of her own.

So she completed her orders and began working on starting a business.

She started by studying composition of various spice mixes, preparing them and creating original seasonings based on the ingredients bought both in Turkey and in Russia. At the same time, Yekaterina was studying the market and found that the supply of simple spices in our country is very small and major companies are responsible for most sales. The niche was almost free to take. Yekaterina created several spice mixes and successfully sold them at a local fair.

“When everything I made was sold out I realized that people are interested and there is a demand.”

Creating a spicy world

In order to create her own spices and herbs, Yekaterina sold her apartment in Yekaterinburg and bought a plot of land in the village of Tokaryovo. On paper it was her personal subsidiary husbandry. There were some fruit trees (apple, cherry and plum trees) already that Yekaterina started to restore. She also bought nurslings of raspberry and black currant and began looking for herb suppliers. She came across an ad on Avito (a popular Russian classified ads website) by a woman who was growing many types of herbs and selling them, even to landscaping firms. Yekaterina made a deal to buy her mint and lemon balm that were correctly harvested and dried.

The newly-made entrepreneur planted other herbs as well and started making spices and fruit and berry teas. For the latter, she used both pieces of fruit and berries and leaves of apple, plum, raspberry, black currant and cherry trees. She did not have any fermentation equipment and was making everything manually, based on recipes from books and online sources. Yekaterina also used fruit to make pastila (traditional Russian fruit candy) and other sweets. She participated in almost every food market there was to sell her products and this brought about some loyal customers. Once there were many regular orders, the young woman opened an online store, Online Bazar, and a collection point.

At first, selling spices was not easy. When Yekaterina tried to sell mixes under their original names (“Cajun seasoning,” etc.) hardly anyone was interested.

Then she began to make up more practical names for her spice mixes, such as ‘For Breakfast,’ ‘For Salads,’ etc, and sales went up. Upon the launch of the online store, Yekaterina expanded the assortment: in addition to spices and teas, she began making cooking salts, cocoa and mulled wine mixes, postcards with spices, spiced sweets, scented bath salts and many other zippy, spicy and sweet goods, and order pretty wraps for gift sets. The store currently offers 40-50 types of goods, and more new ones are constantly added. All spices cost the same: RUR 125 ($2) per package, while 30 g of tea costs RUR 150 ($2.2).

In early 2018, Yekaterina Ozhal purchased a land plot in the village of Veselovka near Anapa, and moved there, while her mother took over the land in the Sverdlovsk Region. Yekaterina wanted to expand the assortment even more by making teas and seasonings using the southern herbs. A year later, she rented a land plot in Sochi, but the Anapa site remained her main production facility.

“In Sochi, we grow heat-loving exotic herbs such as lemongrass,” Yekaterina added.

The entrepreneur currently sells 150-170 kg of spices per year.

Today and tomorrow

Yekaterina devotes most of her time to her business: she works in the garden, mixes spices, makes teas and other products, promotes her store and manages sales. Her husband helps her out in the garden, while her mother sends her the harvest from the Ural site. Yekaterina also uses herbs from Altai, Turkey and Abkhazia. She purchases cardamom, cloves and other spices from a wholesale supplier. It was not easy to find good suppliers, especially in Altai.

“The herbs were low quality, and they even added sand to increase the weight,” Yekaterina recalls.

But finally she managed to find a family farm in Altai that both grows and purchases herbs. Since then, she has had a great choice of ingredients.

Half of her products are sold online: in addition to the online store, Yekaterina created an Instagram profile. Eventually, contracts were made with such partners as the Clearbarn detox bar, Yekaterinburg-based healthy grocery store Greens, the Vkus Zhizni (Appetite For Life) cafe in Gelendzhik, and St. Petersburg-based shop opened by Anastasia Blizkaya in St. Petersburg. Yekaterina is constantly seeking new sales outlets. Along with Yekaterinburg, she now sells her products in nine other cities. Half of products are sold online and the other half are purchased via partner chain stores, with regular customers (who amount to about 1,000 for now) making purchases mostly in the online shop and via Instagram, and new ones buying her products in shops and cafes.

“Regular customers have been forwarded to partners’ shops as we are currently focusing more on wholesale trade and less on retail sales. Our goal is to maximize activity, but spices are not a very common product for our culture and we are currently taking efforts to promote them by printing booklets on how to use them in cooking, making recipe posts on Instagram, and providing more information on uniqueness of our products. We also attend webinars on healthy diets and Ayurveda, and then provide this information to our salespoints and then to customers,” Yekaterina says.

Yekaterina’s sales revenues are almost the same as a good pay for working in an office, yet she spends all of them for production and purchases seeds, raw materials, equipment for working in her garden, and fertilizers. She would eventually like to buy chopping and wrapping machines, and also to open a cafe to sell her products to tourists and offer spices she makes.

“I would like to open a food service in the farm-to-table or slow food formats, which are increasingly popular globally. It will serve food to visitors who will stay there for a couple of days close to a sandy beach or a coastal salt lake, eat locally grown foods or manufactured products such as meat or cheese, and enjoy locally made wine by a fireside and eat tasty seasonal foods. Such seemingly simple things can develop taste culture, increase the quality of customers’ requests for services, and ultimately, improve local economy. I would say this is sort of nanotherapy for society,” Yekaterina says.  

Yet, the main thing for her is having joy in her business, she emphasizes.

“Money is important, but I make my products for people – and this brings me joy,” she says.

By Christina Firsova

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