Southwest Florida cooking ingredients company balances managing rapid growth while eyeing a simmering, second revenue stream.
When Ed Brakus had trouble finding ingredients for the Southeast Asian dishes he liked to cook, he started growing things himself. Then what began as a hobby in Austin, Texas, morphed into a garage-based, part-time spice-making endeavor after his job took him to the San Francisco Bay area. But to turn those on-the-side spice sales into a full-time company, it was necessary to look outside of expensive California.
‘We’re looking forward in 2021 to expanding on working directly with restaurants rather than just on Amazon.’ Ed Brakus, Burma Spice
Brakus and his husband and business partner, Sam Majumder, looked at real estate in places like Texas and Georgia. A 4,000-square-foot live/work facility in Moore Haven, east of Fort Myers in Glades County, caught their eye and became the perfect spot for their growing business called Burma Spice. At a cost of about $60,000, they could buy the facility outright with no rent to worry about. And because they could live there too, they could put all their money back into the business.
Since moving to Florida in 2016, they’ve grown their spice company to an eight-employee business selling 250 different spices and seasonings. The business has also won several accolades, including SCORE Business of the Year from SCORE Southwest Florida in Fort Myers and SBA Florida Rural Small Business of the Year. “Over the last four years, we’ve averaged about 75% year-over-year growth in revenues,” says Brakus, who declines to disclose specific revenue data.
Burma Spice first gained traction on Amazon, where the bulk of its sales still come from today. Its client base started out as individual consumers. “It was people who watch the Cooking Channel or maybe subscribe to Bon Appetit who were experimenting with new cuisines and were looking for the best quality ingredients,” says Brakus, 57.
But then the couple started noticing microbreweries and restaurants were buying several units of their spices for use at their businesses. “Once we saw demand coming from microbreweries, we started expanding our SKUs in terms of packaging,” says Brakus. “We now have restaurant-sized containers, and we even have a salad dressing manufacturing company using our products.”
Burma Spice hopes to forge more relationships with restaurants in 2021. The company got connected with the Florida Culinary Accelerator in Immokalee — a commercial kitchen open to a membership base — through one of its SCORE Southwest Florida mentors, Len Hendrickson. Personnel at the accelerator in turn introduced Brakus to several Collier County restauranteurs.
“That is helping us to grow in that space,” Brakus says. “Things were waylaid a little bit with the coronavirus; 2020 was supposed to be our year of really pushing into the restaurant space. But we’re looking forward in 2021 to expanding on working directly with restaurants rather than just on Amazon.”
Hendrickson thinks the company definitely has the potential to keep growing. “Ed is just 100% on the game,” he says. “He has such ambition and is a dynamo of energy.”
Another SCORE mentor, David Hamblett, helped Burma Spice secure an SBA loan that allowed the company to pay down some debt and invest in additional inventory and manufacturing capacity. That came in handy, as 2020 proved to be a whirlwind year.
“It was like riding a tornado,” Brakus says. To keep up with demand, the company went from one shift to three to run its plant 24 hours a day. “Business did rocket up substantially,” Brakus says. “It’s sad that it came on the back of other people hurt from [the pandemic] in the restaurant industry. But we were glad to be able to help people at home who were not able to get out have something more special in terms of a dining experience.”
The company knows it can’t compete with a behemoth like McCormick on price and economies of scale. So it focuses on providing customers with a quality level not typically found on supermarket shelves. It sources ingredients from about six Florida farms, with goals to grow that number. For ingredients that can’t be grown or obtained locally — “some spices can only be grown well in other parts of the world,” Brakus says — Burma Spice airfreights ingredients in and grinds them in small batches for maximum freshness and flavor.
The company has outgrown its Moore Haven space several times over. The upstairs living area has now been converted into warehouse space, and the couple built two outbuildings to increase workspace. In the next 18 months, Burma Spice plans to start building a new manufacturing facility in a nearby industrial park. “Working in Moore Haven and Glades County is a really cost-effective place to do business,” Brakus says.
The spouses also have a place in Fort Myers from which they can focus their Southwest Florida expansion efforts, and they’ve been able to turn a lot of the day-to-day manufacturing operations over to a trusted employee. “That puts us in a position to spend time away from the factory to focus on marketing and the business side of things more,” Brakus says. “Networking is vitally important when you’re a small business.”