Victoria Gourmet Inc.: Blending Quality Spices for 15 years

Victoria Gourmet Inc. (Victoria Gourmet) cares about how people season their meals. Operating from a 17,000-square foot plant in Woburn, Mass., Victoria Gourmet creates superior spice products under the brand name Victoria Taylor Gourmet, adding flavor to both the retail and foodservice markets. The company has found a very receptive market in its first 15 years of activity; a pinch here and a dash there add up to nearly $5 million in annual sales of all-natural seasoning blends, rubs, single spices, culinary sea salts and brining elements.

Victoria Taylor always dreamt of owning her own business, so in 1998 she founded Victoria Gourmet. “I was in corporate consumer packaged goods marketing for 12 years, but I wanted to do my own thing that I’m passionate about and, for me, it was spices and flavor,” Taylor affirms. “I like to go into the kitchen and have the maximum amount of flavor for each occasion.” Taylor remains CEO of Victoria Gourmet, and the company’s 20 employees share her vision and work to meet the demands of large retailers and foodservice operations, including national chains Olive Garden, Capital Grill, Bahama Breeze and Legal Seafood, which buy the blends in bulk.

Taylor, who has an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, worked for over a decade marketing major brands such as Clorox, KC Masterpiece and Welch’s. She daydreamed of escaping corporate culture, so when a small spice company came up for sale in her home state of Rhode Island she saw an opportunity. It wasn’t the most obvious opportunity, however. She realized she didn’t want to buy a company that already had its own recipes, supplies, market focus and operational philosophies; she wanted to start her own.

Taylor then spent nine months cooking nonstop, meticulously developing and testing what would become the initial 12 Victoria Gourmet spice blends. “I would do – oh, my poor husband – chile and stuffing every day for three weeks, because I’d be working on Texas Red or Holiday Blend, and I’d do those until I got them right,” Taylor reminisces. The persistence paid off, however. Victoria Gourmet now sells those initially perfected blends to major retail outlets, such as HomeGoods, Whole Foods and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

The Spice Trade

In the grocery game, spice variety is the spice of life: Spices and seasoning are a Top 15 grocery sales category, but with a twist. A few key name-brand players in a grocery category typically lock up 80 to 90 percent of market share. In the spice category, however, major brands command only 50 percent of the market, leaving half the playing field wide open. “So our category demands a huge amount of variety, and it supports a huge amount of variety,” explains Taylor. “There’s a lot of space for competitors, but that also means that there are a lot of competitors.”

Victoria Gourmet fills shelves with its quality seasoning blends, gourmet ingredients, sea salt, pepper and brining blends, which include traditional and contemporary mixes such as Cinnamon Chile Rub, Herbs de Provence, Pie Spices, Curry and Australian Flake Salt. Instead of a fine spice grind, Victoria Gourmet opts for a more artisanal, substantial spice presentation. Victoria Gourmet mixes are also low salt, very low salt or no salt. “It’s all about the flavor,” says Taylor. Victoria Gourmet wants its seasonings to give consumers a genuine spice experience that relies on balanced, undiluted spice aromas and essences. “In other mixes, salt is typically the No. 1 ingredient,” laments Taylor. “We have the philosophy that seasoning will provide the flavor character, and then you can add sea salt to suit your own palate.”

Victoria Gourmet products are distinctive for both taste and appearance. Victoria Gourmet did a major packaging relaunch for its custom tins based on a design by Taylor – a cube-shaped tin with a little window on the side – for which Victoria Gourmet earned a SOFI nomination in 2011. “There’s something very interesting in this category about packaging,” shares Taylor. “Consumers demand taste, freshness and the ability to see the product in the package, but those are in conflict. We came up with this so you get a peek into the product package through the window, but the product isn’t exposed to much light at all, so it lasts longer.”

To say Taylor is obsessed with flavor might be an understatement. Taylor insists that the company avoid flavors that are far superior in fresh form – like cilantro and basil – in its dried blends. “When I see them in dried form, I think why?” she reflects. “We live in a world where we can always get this fresh. If you can’t get fresh basil, walk away!”

Of course, insisting on a coarse blend posed Victoria Gourmet a bit of a challenge. There are only a couple of pieces of blending equipment that Victoria Gourmet can use effectively with its formulas. “It’s tricky to not grind finely, that’s why most people don’t do it,” relates Taylor. Large companies in the business of sourcing, trading and blending spices do the blending in two locations; they bring in all ingredients to Victoria Gourmet’s specs, at which point the components are consistently treated and blend to the company’s exacting standards. The blends are assembled in 3,000- to 5,000-pound lots, which are then packaged, labeled and shipped. “I’ve had very loyal and long-term vendor relationships,” says Taylor.

Tweaking the Recipe for Success

New products are always in the works at Victoria Gourmet, because the company’s reputation for innovation has set a precedent. “At every food show – Fancy Food, Natural Products Expo East/West, etc. – a good 50 percent of people come up and say ‘what’s new?’ so, we’re constantly under pressure to provide new skews, new looks, new trendy things that keep our line interesting and newsworthy,” says Taylor.

This expectation is OK, however, because it let’s Taylor spend time in her favorite place: Victoria Gourmet’s Test Kitchen, where she and her staff experiment. “The women in the front office are all very accomplished cooks, one is a professional chef,” says Taylor. “We develop recipes for the blog. And when the Bon Appetit magazine arrives we fight over it, read aloud from it. Being in the kitchen and playing with recipes is what makes me happy.” Good results from the test kitchen make it to the Victoria Gourmet blog, which features new recipes each week that showcase fabulous uses for Victoria Gourmet products (in addition, many recipes have been collected in the cookbook Because Flavor is Everything – Recipes with Victoria Taylor’s Seasonings).

All of this activity has resulted in Victoria Gourmet having a huge year in 2012; company sales are up 34 percent, perhaps invigorated by the post-recession trend toward cooking more at home. While sales are a bright spot, the proverbial heat in the kitchen comes mainly from keeping abreast of FDA changes, staying innovative and relevant, and navigating outside circumstances, such as labor issues. The rumor of an East Coast port strike had Taylor wide awake in bed every night for a week because she had two containers of glass coming from China. “You learn from that,” she says. “We’ve taken aggressive steps with inventory, which is going to really protect us.”

Taylor definitely sweats the details. Compared to other companies Victoria Gourmet’s size, she monitors sales and financial data extremely closely. “We have a massive cash flow that we fool with daily,” reveals Taylor. “We’re constantly looking at sales by channel and by customer. In terms of customer-profitability analysis, I’m always aware of how much each customer is making or not making. We live by that margin percent, and if it starts to slip, we fix it.”

Victoria Gourmet is savoring its success and expects another prosperous year. Organic growth is expected, and Victoria Gourmet will also target new strategic distribution channels. But the most important plan is the one Taylor doesn’t have: “I have no exit strategy at this point! We’re doing well and I’m happy where I am,” she shares. Victoria Gourmet celebrates its 15th anniversary in summer 2013, and Taylor plans for her company to be around for many more. With its dedication to detail, quality and flavor, Victoria Gourmet Inc. is sure to keep enjoying the sweet taste of success.