By Jazmine Woodberry
Gourmet importer Culinary Collective celebrated its 15th anniversary in September, marking a decade and a half of importing goods from Spain and bringing them to the taste buds of eaters stateside.
The business started as a hobby for Betsy Power and her business partner, Pere Selles, after relocating from Spain to Seattle so Power could attend graduate school.
“We moved and realized there wasn’t any good food from Spain in the Northwest,” Power said. “And we ended up starting at the right time. The commercial offices from Spain were really promoting wines from Spain then, and people were asking, ‘Well, what do I eat with those wines?’” That’s where Culinary Collective came in.
First a small business with a couple vendors, Culinary Collective now works with more than 30 vendors distributing more than 140 different products, many of which fall under the Matiz España line, which focuses on traditional Spanish ingredients like olive oil, paella rice and spices.
The Matiz España line launched in 2003 as a Culinary Collective brand used to promote and showcase the vendors behind the products. “Having one brand made a lot of sense from a marketing and financial standpoint, while allowing us to highlight the vendors and connect them to the consumers,” Power said.
After the bump in the exchange rate in 2006 and 2007, Culinary Collective pushed to incorporate Latin American items into its offerings. “When the exchange rate started going crazy, we expanded into Latin America using our same model—small producers, native foods. We weren’t looking to replace items from Spain but to use our same model in a new region,” Power said. “We bounced around and landed on Peru because there’s so much food diversity in Peru. It’s one of the most diverse food cultures in the world next to Mexico.”
This push brought to light the Zócalo Gourmet line, which marks the company’s expansion to South America. Zócalo Gourmet features Peruvian vendors powering a collection of all-natural foods such as grains, flours, beans and chili pastes.
“When we turned to Peru, we wanted to have a completely different brand and a different division,” To the delight of both Power, who suffers from celiac disease, and others with gluten sensitivity, the line contains only naturally gluten-free items.
Culinary Collective uses strict sourcing criteria to ensure that their products are all-natural and that their producers are rooted in their communities and operate under a fair trade model.
However, Power said what truly sets Culinary Collective apart from others is focusing on foods native to the countries from which they are importing. “A lot of importers bring in such things as piquillo peppers and white asparagus from Peru and it’s had an impact on Spanish vendors,” she said. “We wanted to focus on such items as kañiwa, purple corn, and aji or chili peppers—items that are native to Peru.”
The company’s expansion has spread to Culinary Collective customers as well, as the importer has branched out from importing select products to Seattle to serving customers throughout the United States and Canada. Through September 2014, Culinary Collective will be highlighting and promoting different vendors monthly to commemorate this milestone. Providing foods through both direct sales to retailers and through distributors, Culinary Collective will be going over each region’s vendors with a fine tooth comb and allowing retailers and consumers to access a passport-style voyage through Spain and Peru via Culinary Collective foods.
“The hard part is getting the products into the American market,” Power said. “Our resources are very limited, and competition is very high. I would like to let our customers know about our mission and why we’ve chosen each vendor and product and why they should purchase it. Consumers are really ready for that message and we could do a better job of making that known and getting customers on board, [as well as] working with the sales staff at the retail level to help promote these products.”