Thirty-five years ago, we were at the helm of our catering business, working seven days a week, after which we would shutter up and travel extensively for six to eight weeks every summer. We visited many countries and were especially drawn to regions of the world where we would learn about and procure what we call “terroir-specific” spices. We always returned home with spices exclusively slated for our catering business, personal use and, of course, for sharing with colleagues and friends.
Fifteen years ago, the folks at Montreal’s iconic Jean-Talon Market, the oldest, open-air, public market in North America, invited Philippe and me to open a spice shop in the boutique section of the market. They convinced us to embrace the opportunity to showcase our then-modest collection of 103 single spices and eight traditional, handcrafted spice blends.
We cobbled together a business plan, with the help of our children, Marika and Arik, who had chalked up some rudimentary, after school/weekend retail experience. We implemented some sure-fire strategies including first-class client service; accurate, pertinent information regarding products; and fair pricing. Our goal was to ensure that our spice shop would be a positive, enlightening and enjoyable environment for all who shopped and worked there.
Once our livelihood, we had to retire the catering business as we travelled more frequently, exploring and hunting better spices. Our primary focus was to secure enough inventory to fill the shop for at least the first six months of operation. We had never bought more than 40 kgs of any spice and had certainly never made large batches of any of the eight blends we planned to offer.
A general contractor, electrician and plumber were hired, as well as the cash register specialist who had to be synchronized with the telephone company. Of course, the security alarm experts would have their own wires to secure before we could welcome our first clients. We outfitted the space with the required shelving units and storage facility, adorned the shop with mementos from our extensive travels, stocked the shelves and hired and trained employees. We had three months to get the job done. We crossed our fingers and prayed to the spice Gods.
The Jean-Talon Market’s Publicity Department had done a remarkable job publicizing the inauguration of the new wing. The press was invited to cover this milestone event. Among the 20 specialty boutiques slated to open in the market that day, December 1st, 2004, Epices de Cru was one of three ready to showcase our products. As a result, we were prominently featured as the establishment with the most colourful, exotic and aromatic merchandise on display.
We were now officially recognized spice merchants. The publicity garnered from that unforgettable December day generated an unexpected curiosity; within 10 days we were almost completely out of spices and blends. Our naively and painstakingly curated six-month inventory had all but depleted. The demand was so great and the enthusiasm so fervent, we had 50 kgs of black pepper from Kerala sent to us by UPS! There would be no financial reward reaped from that shipment, but our appreciative and deserving clients would continue to be well served and that’s what continues to motivate us to this day.
Today, Epices de Cru has approximately 300 single spices and some 125 spice blends, all still handcrafted in-house. Our website, spices, blends, recipes, photos, stories, books and videos are available to our clients throughout the world. They can learn, explore, experiment, cook and benefit from people and cultures that we have had the privilege of visiting and to whom we are forever grateful for their hard work, support and generosity.
Our little shop, Epices de Cru, is celebrating its 15th anniversary and two years ago we added our cooking school, La Salle de Classe, also located in the Jean-Talon Market.
Managing the shop, the school and the infrastructure that supports them – from spice sourcing and importing, administration, production and distribution of our products, to the marketing and promotion of said products – is an ongoing physical, cultural, gastronomical, logistical and human resources jigsaw puzzle that we actively work on every day.
The semi-retirement plans we once envisioned have been replaced by on-going attempts to pass on the knowledge we garner – along with the wonderful spices we continue to source – to our customers who, over these past 15 years, have been the bedrock of our company. We are extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to share all that we’ve learned over the years.
So, from all of us at Epices de Cru, to all of you in our beloved city of Montreal and throughout the province of Québec – and to our suppliers and customers around the world – you are the reason we do what we do.
From the bottom of our hearts,
Ethné de Vienne was born in Trinidad, so spices and cooking have always been a part of her life. She worked in fashion for many years before finally building the renowned Montreal catering service with her husband Philippe. Today, as a full-time spice hunter, she takes great care in maintaining Épices de Cru’s relationships in its vast network of suppliers around the globe. She’ll never deny that any dish can be improved by a little cumin or zaatar, and probably a nice glass of rum!