Kalustyan's Spices and SweetsDate: 07/01/08 | Source: Specialty Food Magazine | Author: SUSAN SEGREST
Categories: Industry Operations; Retailers
SPECIALTY AND ETHNIC FOODS STORE KALUSTYAN'S SPICES AND SWEETS, FAMOUS FOR ITS IMPRESSIVE ARRAY OF REASONABLY PRICED, HIGH-QUALITY SPICES, began in 1944 when K. Kalustyan opened a grocery featuring Southeast Asian food on lower Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. After several years, he purchased a nearby Middle Eastern grocer and merged those products with his original inventory. After his death in 1988, when the current owners—Bangladeshi cousins Aziz Osmani and Sayedul Alam—bought the store, they began strengthening the inventory with a wider range of specialty food packaged items, grains, beans, dried fruits and nuts, Ayurvedic remedies and more.
Today's Operation...In addition to its Lexington Avenue location, Kalustyan's offers products online and wholesales to national spice merchants as well as to restaurants via distributors such as Dairyland, in the Bronx. Responding to many customer requests for a place to sit and eat, the owners expanded a small prepared foods counter where shoppers had been able to purchase falafels, stuffed grape leaves and hummus into a larger department with a few tables. Kalustyan's provides corporate and party catering as well, drawing on its existing prepared food menu.
Number of Products in the Store...More than 5,000
Total Square Feet...4,000
Square Feet of Selling Space...2,500
Number of Full-Time Employees...13. The chef has been there more than 35 years.
Number of Part-Time Employees...5
Estimated Weekly Transactions...3,500
Estimated Weekly Sales Volume...$75,000
Variety of Spices on Offer..."We sell more than 500. While other stores may offer one or two types of black pepper," explains Osmani, "Kalustyan's will have an entire row of fresh black peppers ranging from Indian Tellicherry black peppercorns to Indonesian Lampong whole black peppercorns to others from Brazil, Ecuador, Vietnam, Malaysia and more. We import raw materials from more than 70 countries and then grind the spices according to our own consumption so that they are always fresh. We make our own blends as well by tasting what is out there and modeling ones of our own."
Newly Popular Spice Blends...Berbere from Ethiopia, a mix of ginger, cardamom, red onion, red pepper, garlic, allspice, rue seeds, bishop's weed, black cumin, white cumin and salt. Another increasingly popular one is Ras el hanout from North Africa, which contains anise, fennel, all spice, cardamom, clove, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger and nutmeg, and is often used in couscous. But the store also offers more traditional blends such as Cajun, Greek and Portuguese.
Most Expensive Spice...Piment d'espelette, a spicy pepper found in the Basque region of France, runs $110/pound.
Other Specialty Products...The store offers everything from Harvest Song Preserves (Armenia) to Belvoir Fruit Farm Elderflower Cordials (England) to Terramater Olive Oil (Chile) to McLure's of New England Maple Syrup (U.S.) to freshly prepared sweets such as baklava and pistachio delights. There are aisles filled with Middle Eastern oils, Asian sauces and items to prepare sushi rolls. As with spices, some categories feature a wide variety of similar products. With rice, for example, Kalustyan's carries Thai sweet rice next to Spanish Arroz Bomba, Italian Vialone Nano saffron rice, country mixed rice and others. "Nut oils are also popular now," adds Osmani.
Surprising Successes..."Quinoa—white, red and black—is doing very well for us. Chefs always want to discover something new and these varieties are catching their attention," notes Osmani. "Grain sales have been increasing steadily for more than five years. Nuts are also growing. We do most of the roasting locally."
Customer Base...A mix of food professionals from all over the city as well as people who live and work in the neighborhood. "Sometimes chefs or food editors will come in and just wander the aisles looking for inspiration," explains Osmani. "All the magazines and food shows come here to buy for their recipes because they can get what they need at a reasonable price. People working in the neighborhood will grab a quick bite to eat at lunch and neighborhood residents will come in on their way home to pick up exotic oils or just grab some frozen olive samosas to heat up at home for a party. Most of our clients are knowledgeable, but some will want help doing something new. We'll guide them with ideas or sometimes we let them go through the cookbooks and then help them pull their items together."
Biggest Challenge..."Space," notes Osmani. "When we think about bringing a new product into the store we have to plan for it like we are bringing home a new baby. Where will we put it? What will we have to move or discontinue to add the item? Can we rearrange the shelf so that customers can access it easily? It is quite difficult to keep up with new products while keeping old favorites."
What the Owner Enjoys the Most..."I feel very proud to see what is in the shopping basket," says Osmani. "You don't always see the relationship between papadams, couscous, preserved lemons, harissa and sun-dried tomatoes, but then they all end up in the same basket heading home with someone. It's a small part of the United Nations. It makes me very happy."
Susan Segrest is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.