Beautiful Flavors: Claire Cheney of Curio Spice

Interview by L. Valena; Photography by Canyon Twin

Claire Cheney is the kickass founder of Curio Spice Co. We had so much fun hanging out in her beautiful space and talking about spices, curiosities, and the wild fever dream moments that happen during business development.

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Would you tell me about your curiosities?

Part of the reason I named my business Curio Spice Company was because the concept of a curiosity cabinet really fascinates me. I like to think of the spice collection and the spice shop in general as a curiosity cabinet. Back in the day, curiosity cabinets were a literal small cabinet or shelf where people would put things that they'd collected from faraway places to show their friends and tell stories. It could be a rock from an interesting beach, or a bird feather, or a tiny little reptile skull. In my case, I have a lot of spices, but as far as true curiosities I have some of those as well. For example, I have one of my wisdom teeth.

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That's cool.

I demanded when I was having my wisdom teeth pulled that they give them to me, in my drugged out stupor. I said "I want my teeth back! They're my property!" So I got this little weird bag of my wisdom teeth.

That's an artifact from a journey.

Yeah. It's a pretty big tooth. I also have a little piece of hair that my mom saved in an envelope from when I was little. I have a bunch of weird little things from my travels. There's this little bottle that I got from Japan, which I thought was really intriguing, and I was trying to figure out what it was when I was there, and my friend translated for me- it's a little bottle of hair dye, from like 60 years ago. Isn't the weird? That's one of my favorites. There's a little crystal that one of the workmen gave me who was working on the renovations here. After it was all done he pulled this little rock out of his pocket and said "I want to give this to you for good luck." It was so meaningful, so it's on display. I don't know much about crystals, but apparently it's a good one. We've had some of the staff bring in their curiosities too. One of the women who's part of the team here brought in this little box of four leaf clovers that a guy in college gave her. It's a hundred four leaf clovers.

Wow- that's a serious woo move.

She said "I've had this for a long time, and thought I'd bring it to Curio — maybe it'll bring the business luck!" So now we have it.

Tell me about the inspiration for this store.

The actual storefront came from a bunch of places. It came out of a need for a new production space. I was using a shared kitchen, and I grew out of it. I needed more space, I needed to stop storing things in my garage, in my bedroom, and in the guest room. I started looking around and thought that I would continue just doing wholesale, but then I came across this storefront. This building is pretty old- it has a lot of character, it's brick, and it's probably from the 1850's. The storefront was available- it was a real estate office, so it was an easy kind of blank slate to picture something. It was just meant to be.

I called the family who owns the building, and met up with the woman who is charge of the leases. She's Greek, and I love Greece, I've spent a lot of time there, and we just connected instantly. I feel like there's always connections and meanings behind finding the right place to work.

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How did you get into this business to begin with?

I started blending spices after working for about ten years in specialty food. I started in coffee, and enjoyed sourcing coffee, and learning about direct sourcing. The story behind the ingredient, and also the mission aspect. Finding ways to not only source a premium product, but also to help the farmers get specialty products out of the commodity market, and celebrate them for their beautiful flavors. I also worked for a short time in chocolate, which has a similar model, and then started working in the restaurant industry. I worked for Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick- their restaurant group is very spice focused. When I was at Sofra, I actually kind of took over the spice blending, and did all the spice blending in house- partly because I loved it. I don't know if it was actually in my job description, so I may have been taking it away from other people, but I wanted to do it. Then I started inventing my own blends while I was there, and it was great to have the creative freedom to do that, because I wasn't a chef, I was a manager. I didn't necessarily want to be a chef, but I wanted to stay in the food industry in a way that was creative and satisfying, so I decided to leave Sofra and move to Southeast Asia where I could potentially learn more about spice farms, producers and cooking.

I spent four months there. The time I spent when I was in Thailand was both travel and planning- traveling to places like places like Vietnam and Sri Lanka, visiting farms, learning about spices. When I was back in Bangkok, staying with my brother's family, I also had the opportunity to have some down time. I did a lot of writing, and I did a lot of planning for my business. So I was doing things like registering URL's for really bad names for this spice business.

Isn't that the weirdest thing? You get into almost a fever dream.

Right, you get into this thing where you're like "This is it! Nobody has that one, so I've really hit on something!". This business, before it was Curio, was at one time called Natural History Spices, which just doesn't roll off the tongue. And it was also called Zesty Three, but it started with an X. I owned that domain for years! And it wasn't even the number 3, it was roman numeral III. It got real esoteric.

Living overseas seems like it was such an important part of your business’ development. You've maintained relationships with a lot of the farmers you work with since your travels, right?

Yes! When I was over there, I went to Cambodia because I knew of a pepper that is very famous- it’s called Kampot. It is a cool pepper because it has a protected designation of origin, which is rare in spices- it was one of the only ones at the time. So I traveled to Kampot and visited the co-op, which is managed by these two French brothers. They run a really cool operation. The pepper is just phenomenal, and it was really fun to see the way they put some of their French gastronomical know-how into the processing of the pepper. The end product is a supremely excellent product, and it's great for farmers in Cambodia. Cambodia has had a really rough history since the genocide, and it's really uplifting a lot of folks to have this specialty product that's world class. They do a good job, and they are also easy to communicate with.

Are there one or two moments that you'd like to share that have been shockingly difficult during this journey?

In the design process for my packaging, I had a really hard time finding people to work with. I have a lot of good people in my network, but it was a lot harder to communicate what I wanted and to understand how that works. And also, for a startup, finding money to spend on something like design is just impossible. So I was having to drive a lot of it just kind of with my instincts, and without any actual expertise. I was lucky enough to have some really great contacts, and the logo was designed by a friend of my brother's out in western Massachusetts. She did an awesome job. But then I had to design the actual packaging, and for manufacturing a product where you have all these components- the container, the sticker, a way to safety seal it. When you're starting out, there's all this stuff, and you're like "What, I can't just put some masking tape on it and seal it that way?" It gets really complicated.

It's so complicated- especially when your business comes from a deep, creative place and is an expression of your worldview. Finding the right person to telegraph that, in every way, can be hard.

And I think art is really hard, because people care about their art. It's hard when you care about different things, or like different things. I was lucky enough to find a really great photographer, because I'm also really picky about photos. I'm the daughter of a photography teacher, so I was raised to be super snobby about mediocre photography. If you have a mediocre presentation it's no good.

It's such a collaboration!

It is- finding ways to communicate your vision is tough. All that work that I did when I was in Thailand was about finding examples of things I liked, writing about it constantly. It really cemented the concepts.

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Details are such a crazy part of all this. How do you keep everything together?

I try to just stay positive, and keep in touch. Communication is so key. We recently started a pass-on log here because there are enough of us and enough comings and goings that a lot of times minor details or small product changes weren't getting communicated.

What's a pass-on log?

Like a journal that everyone has access to, and it's on google drive. It's like a little journal that everyone can read and/or write in. Things like a price change, or some new oregano came it- make sure you try it! Now we have that as part of a whole series of ways to check in with folks. I've definitely worked in places where communication was not good, where I didn't get feedback, or people were just in a bad mood.

Or everything just simmers under the surface.

Yes, that's the best! No- I think I've learned a lot about over-communicating, which I think is a good thing.

What else would you like to share about your day to day life in this business?

I think having a good space to work in is important. I'm always trying to improve our space. Certainly when I started renovations in this space, it was really fun because I had a vision, even though I wasn't quite sure how I was going to achieve it. But it was great because there was all this nasty carpet, and it was really great ripping that up! And before it was a real estate office it was probably something else, but a while ago it was actually a flag factory. We were finding straight pins and stuff- that's a great little piece of history. I liked knowing that this was a manufacturing facility at one time.

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Having a space that feels really good makes me want to come to work more. So I keep improving it. In our tiny bathroom I recently ripped out the old mirror, and got a cool one that I painted turquoise. It was like $10 at Goodwill, but it really made a difference! Especially when you're surrounded by a Cambro castle. I remember at a previous place I worked I was always trying to convince them to include fresh flowers in their budget, because I just thought it was so nice. Having fresh flowers at the point of sale just makes people feel good. I was always getting pushback on that.

Can you talk a bit more about your larger mission here?

I started the business not just as a creative pursuit. I was talking before about sourcing, and pulling things out of the commodity world- one of the big reasons I got into the spice business is because that didn't really exist. Having non-commodity spices wasn't really a concept anyone was doing. We follow the coffee and chocolate model- we source spices directly from origin, and tell the stories about where they come from. Talking about how they are produced, and why they're different, because they come from a specific place, is really important. It's a really challenging aspect to the business, because right now we probably source only 60% of our product directly, but because we have the spice shop, where people are constantly asking for garlic powder and things like that, we have to find distributors to fill in the holes. It's something that I want to continue to grow- to keep facing that challenge, that the supply chains are transparent and are helping improve the big gap between the global North and South.

It's knowing about farmers here in our own state as much as it is farmers in Madagascar, and finding positive ways of presenting that. It's not just a sad story about vanilla farmers making a dollar a day, but showing the opportunity to allow them to make more money, and send their kids to school. That's one of the things I struggle with- ways to communicate that. So we founded as a benefit corporation, and are in the process of becoming a certified B-corp, which is exciting but also challenging. There are a lot of aspects that are hard. You have to do an assessment- you have a third party back you up. It proves that you're a business setting out to do good, and not just make a profit. It's all point driven, and they score everything- from whether our employees ride bikes to work, to how many of our product packaging units are recyclable? And that takes labor and time.

And brain space.

To some extent it feels frustrating, because you say B-corp to someone and they say “What is that?”, and then you're like what am I doing this for? Just so I can sleep better at night? It will separate what we do from the green-washing that a lot of businesses do. We were just talking about this- we get some packaging from this company that calls their bags 'eco-friendly', and we're trying to replace them. They only call them ‘eco-friendly’ because they take up less space in the landfill!

And then you find out about things like compostable packaging, which is super popular. There's this material which is grown in Madagascar, and it's an ingredient in a lot of compostable packaging, and they're cutting down the rainforest to grow more of this product. No! Don't cut down the rainforest for my compostable takeout container! We're just all trying to do the right thing, but it's all messed up!

Curio Spice Co. is located 2265 Mass Ave, Cambridge MA.