Q&A: Sustainability in the Spice Business

[Hub Stories]: Q & A with The Curator of Spices
[Name]: Chris Pemberton
[Areas of Expertise]: Cooking, International Development, Sustainability Consulting, Green Technology

By Samantha Kanofsky

I wouldn’t have guessed that I would be discussing exotic flavors or mountain climbing in Kyrgyzstan on a Monday morning, but here I was. Drinking tea with Chris Pemberton in Hub Berkeley’s most spacious privacy booth, hearing about his experiences in the Peace Corps and learning about a complex spice blend called Baharat, which means “spices” in Arabic.

“I love discovering new cultures, new cuisines,” Chris explains, “Spices are a way to do that.” Though he’s a self-trained cook, Chris’ diverse career has taken him around the world and served as an exciting vehicle for experiencing different flavors in food. After several years of research and experimentation, Chris is launching Origin Spices, an online organic spice company that enables everyday cooks to experience discovery through spices.

Here’s what I learned about Chris’ trajectory, and where he seeks to go next.

Samantha Kanofsky: What role do you play with Origin Spices?
Chris Pemberton: I’m the founder and curator– someone who helps you get the right blends for the right spices for the right dishes. I want to help people experience discovery. My first product is a modern take on the age-old Indian concept of a spice box.

SK: What is a spice box?
It’s a handmade box about the size of a cigar box, with six smaller tins of spices inside. It addresses the three problems in spices: storage, using, and creating. In India, a traditional curry is made by frying spices in oil. You need to quickly access and use them, grab a pinch of this and that without having to rummage through your spice cabinet. The box essentially makes cultural knowledge more accessible– in an industry where awkward packaging is a structural barrier.

SK: Did you always love cooking? What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve had a diverse career. I was a psych major with a marketing minor in college– I always had an interest in organizational structure and theory. I also wanted to go into international development. When I finished college, I spent a few years at Bain & Co and decided to pursue a joint MBA/Peace Corps program through the Monterey Institute of International Studies. After a year and a half of formal business education in Monterey, I spent two years in Kyrgyzstan as a consultant for community-led projects for technology and business development.

SK: And how did you get into your current line of work?
I came back from the Peace Corps and did sustainability consulting, before sustainability was a buzzword. I worked for Natural Step— a nonprofit that uses a science-based consensus framework for sustainability. We advocated understanding basic natural laws to move business toward more sustainable practices – e.g. earth is a closed system for matter and matter doesn’t disappear, it just changes form so if you make a whole bunch of plastic or other similar “stuff”, it never quite goes away, it’s just someone else’s problem but it’s still here on the planet. That’s why the Origin Spice box is made by hand with tree-free materials – it’s light on the planet.

I worked with big businesses like McDonald’s, Bank of America, and Home Depot to address CSR and sustainability. I helped these companies see that these natural laws apply to big businesses too. If you want to run your business as if a certain principle isn’t true, you can kind of get away with it in the short run. But in the long run, it’s gonna get you in your supply chain.

SK: What challenges have you faced?
Reconciling an MBA with Peace Corps training and philosophy was really hard– they are two very different worlds and sets of knowledge, structurally at odds with each other. Sometimes your values and income earning career paths criss-cross and intersect very closely, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you have to really work to pull the two together, and sometimes you have to accept that they may part ways for a while. But the world doesn’t need just another business, it needs a business with some principles– so that’s something I strive for in my work.

SK: What lessons have you learned?
The real change-makers for sustainability in business are the operations folks (shippers, line managers, etc.)– They get it right away, you don’t need to explain sustainability to them. I learned that from working with Mac Donald’s, Bank of America, etc– it led me to want to be on the operations side, rather than just marketing.

Q: Why did you join the Hub?
I was looking for a place with structure and resources to energize my business. I did some research on co-working in the Bay Area and found the Hub. Since I joined, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the community. I keep getting value from the network. Every start-up needs an ecosystem.

Samantha Kanofsky is a Correspondent for the Hub Stories project at Hub Bay Area.

The Hub is the nexus point of entrepreneurship, funding, and mission. It is a place where non profit and for profit social change ideas build and scale into viable enterprises that address the complex problems we face, from poverty to climate change, for people and planet. Change agents find the support they need at the Hub to reach their goals faster, surrounded by a community that makes everyone smarter and more effective. From seed funding to professional services, from mentors to peers who understand what they are doing, the Hub is the platform that helps you make it happen. It’s where change goes to work.

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