Englewood-Based EssieSpice Wants You to Fall For the Flavors of Africa

Since 2013, founder Essie Bartels, a native of Ghana, has showcased West African spices in her line of dry rubs and sauces.

In 2013, Essie Bartels founded EssieSpice, a line of dry rubs and sauces made with West African spices. Photos courtesy of Julia Stotz for EssieSpice and Mark Clennon for CRWN Magazine for EssieSpice

You can find EssieSpice, a line of sauces and spices, in Whole Foods Markets throughout New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, as well as in the pages of national magazines. But, as founder Essie Bartels says, “it’s never an overnight story.”

Bartels started bottling sauces inspired by her upbringing in Ghana and world travels in 2013. Since then, she’s been on a mission to get people to fall in love with West African flavors. From tangy, sweet tamarind to fiery Scotch bonnet peppers, “I know people want these flavors. I’ve seen it,” the Englewood resident says. “When I do demos and cooking shows, people are over the moon.”

She started out selling her products online, and at farmers markets, festivals and independent grocery stores, encouraging shoppers to use her Mango Chili Medley liberally on everything from steak to sandwiches, and her guava- and ginger-packed TamarindOH! as a glaze for chicken or over ice cream. More than seven years in, she says, she’s grown a devoted fan base.

In the last few years especially, she’s seen more home cooks, retailers and the mainstream food media catch on, too. “We’ve been talking about African food being the next frontier for a while now,” she told the Wall Street Journal in January. “It’s good to see people finally paying attention.”

In the midst of this “long overdue” attention, Bartels has launched her newest product, called LOFF. A jarred tomato-based sauce, it’s a play on words for jollof, a beloved one-pot tomato and rice dish made throughout West Africa. For those who haven’t tried jollof, it’s “very similar to paella,” but, she says, “I always tell people it’s better.”

For those in the know, how to best make jollof is a matter of fierce debate. “It’s a labor of love, and there’s wars over whose is better, if you should put the onions first, of how much oil, how much tomato, spices, how long to cook it for,” she explains, with Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Cameroon and Liberia all laying claim to the best method and style. (Nigeria and Ghana have an especially impassioned jollof rivalry.) Bartels’ take? “Let’s make it easy for everybody to get their jollof and move on.”

EssieSpice

LOFF, a new EssieSpice offering used to make jollof. Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Smith Kelley for EssieSpice

Her version features two spices popular in Ghanian cuisine: West African nutmeg and grains of Selim, which Bartels describes as tasting like a cross between licorice and clove. Jollof, she says, is typically cooked with meat—beef, goat or chicken—but LOFF is vegan (all EssieSpice sauces are, except Coco-for-Garlic, which has honey); add the protein of your choice, or, she recommends, mushrooms in place of meat for vegetarians and vegans.

“You add your rice, water, salt, and that’s it.” And for anybody who’s not keen on jollof, she says, use it to make pasta, meatballs, it in a soup, on pizza, as a dressing.

This ease and versatility is how EssieSpice was born, after all. The original sauces, Bartels says, helped her avoid resorting to eating dreaded “bland food” while she was working corporate jobs, without spending hours every day cooking. When it came to sharing these flavors through EssieSpice, she figured, unlike a restaurant, sauces could reach people beyond a specific geographic location.

In practice, it hasn’t been easy getting products in stores all over the country. Especially for Black-owned brands. While some white entrepreneurs could sell “the exact same thing that’s on the market, a jam or something, and because of who they are, the access they have, they immediately get on the shelf,” she says. “That’s not the story for a lot of us, especially women of color. I’m hoping with my story, with Whole Foods seeing there’s a market for this, helps my brand and brands like me.” Getting into all tristate area Whole Foods stores, she hopes, is just a start. She wants to see EssieSpice, and brands like it, in the retailer nationwide, as well as in other major supermarket chains.

In the grocery aisle, and online, she does see progress, though. “I remember when I started, there were no brands like mine out there. Now, there’s still nothing exactly like mine, but there are more products from Africans and West Africans that are different and unique. There’s an olive oil brand owned by an African American woman called Exau. My good friend owns Egunsi Foods. There’s also Basbaas sauces from Somalia, and a girl making a West African hibiscus drink called bissap, Berry Bissap.”

Still, small brands have faced unyielding challenges over the last year. EssieSpice saw a surge in orders when lockdowns began, and then “we got another huge round of orders when the whole Black Lives Matter situation with George Floyd happened.” Growth is good, of course, Bartels says, but supporting Black businesses only after death and injustice is heartbreaking, while purchasing from a Black-owned business one time to publicly signal one’s political correctness, is frustrating. “We want people to support us because we’re good and they like the product.”

And then there are the major shipping delays due to mass online orders and other pandemic-related logistical challenges. “I hope consumers will give the same grace to small businesses that they do to bigger companies,” she says. “People are excited to support small, women-owned businesses, but we are in a pandemic and that comes with its own crazy, unique challenges on our mental, physical, emotional health. We’re really stretched.”

Still, Bartels is looking toward the future. On her last trip to Ghana, as with every visit home, Bartels delighted in researching new ingredients. She’s experimenting with different oils, honeys and cocoa butter, and pondering bottling whole and ground spices from West and East Africa, such as cardamom and star anise, nutmegs, plus spices found exclusively in northern Ghana.

Despite the greater interest in African cuisine, “there’s still so much more that needs to be done,” Bartels says, “before we get to the level of, let’s say, Thai, Indian or Mexican food,” in the States. “A lot of people lump African food together, but it’s probably the most varied cuisine in all of the world; From East Africa to West to North and South, it’s so extremely different. We need all the voices to make African food famous.”

You can order EssieSpice products online at essiespice.com, at New Jersey, New York and Connecticut Whole Foods Markets and at these retailers (the new LOFF sauce is currently only available on EssieSpice’s website).

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