Staying true to their niche…..
“When you work in the spice industry in Australia you feel very much on the outer because it is such a niche sector of food manufacturing. But in India you are taken in as part of a brotherhood of spice merchants. That’s when I became hooked on spices.”
They say variety is the spice of life and, with hundreds of herbs and spices on offer and more than a hundred unique spice blends, that saying certainly rings true in terms of consumer choice for Ian and Liz Hemphill’s successful business of twenty-two years, Herbie’s Spices. But one thing that has remained a constant from day one for the Central Coast couple has been a sharp focus on their niche market and a fierce determination not to stray from that, despite attempts by the supermarket giants to lure them. Staying true to their niche has clearly paid off. Herbie’s Spices is one of the best-known culinary brands in Australia and Ian and Liz are regarded among the world’s top spice merchants. They have a distributor in Singapore and supply many of Australia’s top chefs, including Neil Perry, Maggie Beer and Tetsuya Wakuda, as well as over 300 specialist retail food stores nationally.
While Ian (‘Herbie’) Hemphill has a fascination with the spice trade, this wasn’t always the case. The younger son of John and Rosemary Hemphill, who pioneered Australia’s love of herbs and spices in the 1950’s and 60’s through their business, Somerset Cottage, Ian grew up surrounded by their produce and in the company of renowned Australian chefs. But it wasn’t until he began working alongside his father on various aspects of running the business, while studying at NIDA (where he met Liz), that his interest in the family business was first sparked. That interest was further ignited when he made his first trip to South-east Asia’s exotic spice markets.
A few years later, Somerset Cottage was acquired by Singapore company, Spices of the Orient and Ian moved to Singapore with Liz and their three young daughters to manage the company. When the Singapore Manufacturers Association asked Ian to represent Singapore at the first International Spice Group meeting in New Delhi in 1986, Ian says it was a defining moment. “When you work in the spice industry in Australia you feel very much on the outer because it is such a niche sector of food manufacturing. But in India you are taken in as part of a brotherhood of spice merchants. That’s when I became hooked on spices.”
Returning to Australia with the family in 1990, Ian was invited to join Masterfoods as marketing manager when they moved to the Central Coast in 1991. He says, “My first reaction was, ‘no way will I work for a company that had been a competitor for so many years’. But then I reconsidered it after doing some research into the Mars Corporation. I really respected the Mars approach and the way they treated their employees and suppliers. Furthermore, as a corporation they have always been fully self-funded. So from a business perspective it was a valuable learning experience.” Ian was there for six years while Liz, an accomplished home cook, was secretary of the Food Media Club of Australia Inc.
Seeking a change from the corporate world, Ian and Liz decided to open their own spice business in 1997. They purchased a terrace house with commercial potential in Rozelle, converting the ground floor into a small shop, living upstairs and using the garage as a food processing and storage area. Based on his experience, Ian ensured all protocols for food safety were properly set up and put systems in place to ensure their products would be readily accessible Australia-wide by establishing a good mail order system from day one.
Awareness of herbs and spices was increasing in the general community, spurred on by reality TV cooking programs like Surprise Chef and Masterchef, and the Hemphill’s made hard-to-find spices readily available. “We knew the dynamics of the spice industry and could see people were getting more interested in spices and cooking,” says Ian. Liz developed a series of family-friendly recipes and accompanying spice kits with the help of daughter Kate, a chef who trained at Prue Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London. They also set about educating people on the use of spices and ran regular spice appreciation classes. The business thrived and in 2000, Herbie’s Spices won the Gourmet Traveller Jaguar Award for Excellence for Innovation in Produce. Later that same year, Ian’s first book, Spice Notes – a Cook’s Compendium of Herbs and Spices was launched to critical acclaim.