Each year, Oprah bestows a list of her favorite things during the holiday season. For entrepreneurs, being featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things list can be life-changing. This year, the list included makeup products from Lady Gaga to Michelle Obama’s Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice.
Whether you are a huge celebrity or a small business, highlighted as one of the seventy-nine companies can have a significant impact on your business. For the Asheville, North Carolina based restaurant group, Chai Pani, their Spicewalla retail product made the list. I spoke with the Brand & Creative Director, Michael Files, on how he was able to build a brand in two years that now has global recognition.
Creative and Brand Director of Spicewalla, Michael Files
Lauren Van Epps
How did the Spicewalla brand come about?
If you want to know how Spicewalla came about, you have to know about its mother – Chai Pani, the Indian street food restaurant opened by our founder Meherwan Irani back in 2009 in Asheville. Meherwan opened Chai Pani with this dream of showing off a whole side of Indian cuisine Americans had been missing out on, and it has since grown into a mini-empire of four other restaurants in the Southeast.
Spicewalla developed out of that when chef friends and a local food distribution company we loved started asking how they could get their hands on the same spices we were already sourcing ourselves. Then, a year after only selling to chefs, we started developing retail products for home cooks, and the response was massive. Our whole mantra has been to always stick to the way we do it in the restaurants: source as fresh as possible, and roast, grind, and blend whole spices by hand in small batches.
What does the Spicewalla brand encompass?
Like Chai Pani, the Spicewalla look and feel is cheeky but smart, with a love for the more unexplored visual elements of India. We sell spices from all over the world, but I like subtly showing off our Indian DNA through our branding, because India is the land of spice knowledge, and it’s at the heart of everything we do.
I do that by ditching the go-to tropes of Indian branding – losing the elephants and paisleys and digging deeper into the beautiful confluence of influences in Indian homegrown packaging – elements of Victorian-era patent medicine because of India’s time under British rule, Russian constructivist design lending big blocks of bold color and geometric typographic forms because of a strong relationship with the USSR during the cold war, and then stuff purely unique to India: that homegrown folk art illustration style, an overuse of multiple hyperbolic phrases like “First Class” and “Best Quality”, and all of that combined with the ever-present theme of “horror vacui” in Indian design: a fear of empty spaces.
Lauren Van Epps
What have you learned about successful brand building?
I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned is the value of always going deeper into what the people behind the brand care about and what they define themselves by, and searching for unique visual elements, letterforms, and slogans that genuinely fit and grow out of those things. With Spicewalla, we’ve had such an amazing response to our branding, and I really believe it’s because people recognize that yes, it has a veneer to it that is contemporary and hip, but there are also some more profound influences there that are genuinely unique to where we are coming from.
What was the process of getting on Oprah’s Favorite Things?
The most crucial part of the process was genuinely building something beautiful and intentionally made that a discerning homemaker of any gender would be delighted to have in their kitchen. We had a lot of faith that we had made something special that Oprah would notice, and luckily we have a super talented PR Director working for us that knew the nuts and bolts of how to legitimately have a shot at getting seen – knowing things like how crazy early we needed to send it to Oprah’s people, where to send it, and all that sort of thing. There was a small amount of feedback over a few months, but it wasn’t until early September that we found out that we were officially in, giving us only two months to prepare for the onslaught of orders we were about to receive. We also made a very cheeky video just for Oprah that imagined her elected “Intergalactic Queen of the universe” with a saluting kitten at the end. We still don’t know if that video tipped the scales, but Oprah, if you are reading this, let us know, because we had a lot of fun making it!”
Meherwan Irani celebrating Spicewalla on Oprah’s Favorite Things
What have been the results?
Getting on the list has been every bit as insane as we heard it would be. Out of the gates, our sales rocketed up about 3,000% on the first day and holding at about 1,000% improvement in daily sales since then. There was a feeling on the eve of the announcement when we weren’t sure if we wanted the stories of rapid growth to be true. On the one hand, we thought, “Are we equipped to handle this?”, but seeing as we had just bought every small tin available in North America, and had 85,000 more air freighted from China in time to meet the expected demand, we kind of needed it to be true.
Spicewalla brand on display
What advice do you have for those starting a brand?
My main advice would be not necessarily to find something you are passionate about but find something you can sink your teeth into. Meherwan gave a great talk once on the importance of commitment along those lines. Passion helps when starting a brand, of course, but more important is committing to investigating how you can make it truly original. I am passionate about uncovering ways to visually represent the story that is true to us, and I’ve become passionate about food through my time in the restaurant world. I think great brands are like great restaurants; they have very clear identities that can be explained in one concise sentence. And you can only get there by digging into your identity.