Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ethical business is the spice of life for couple


LIFE OF SPICE: Axel and Sophie Steenberg inside their spice warehouse at Melmerby, near Ripon. Picture: Mike Cowling
NINE years ago Axel Steenberg “saw the light” and gave up his job in the City to go into the spice business with his wife Sophie. Catherine Scott met them.
from the outside, Steenbergs Organics looks like any other small industrial unit in Melmerby, near Ripon.
But as you enter the unassuming building you are hit by the aroma of all manner of spices. First aniseed, then chilli with a hit of ginger; the senses go into overdrive.
Axel and Sophie Steenberg went into the organic spice and tea trade nine years ago – giving up their high-flying careers to follow their dream – to work together, spend more time with their children and set up an organic and ethical spices business “that could change the world”.
What started out in the spare room of their Yorkshire home has now grown into a highly successful business which saw them move into a purpose- built 4,750 sq ft factory in 2006. There they employ 11 people sorting, blending, testing, packing and posting organic and Fairtrade spices and teas, as well as all manner of other eco and organic products to all corners of the country and beyond.
“We had outgrown our other unit where we were packed in like sardines,” explains Axel.
Steenbergs now has a range of over 200 individual organic spices and over 200 organic spice and herb blends, including a range of organic Fairtrade vanilla and bakery produce as well as teas.
Despite their growth, which now sees them stocked in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols and being recommended by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Yotam Ottolenghi, the Steenbergs have stayed true to their principals as pioneers of Fairtrade herbs and spices.
As well as their own brands they blend and package spices for other people, including Laura Santini.
When they decided to give up their careers and go into business for themselves, the only thing they didn’t discuss was that whatever they did would be Fairtrade and organic, it was a given.
“We didn’t decide on spices straight away,” explains Sophie. “But we were both keen cooks and we just couldn’t get the quality ingredients we wanted and so we realised there was a gap in the market.” They went on to become the first Fairtrade spice traders in Britain.
The couple met at university in Edinburgh. Axel was studying a BSc in Biological sciences with honours in applied microbiology and Sophie was doing an MA in politics, specialising in Environmental and African politics. Axel went on to train as a chartered accountant and ended up in the City.
Meeting Axel, it is hard to imagine him in the corporate environment of big business and finance. There is something of the mad professor about him and he seems in his element blending spices, seasoning mixes and tea and coming up with new products for the discerning Steenbergs customer.
Enthusiastically he shows me his little black books where he writes down his different blends of spices and teas like a complex scientific equation.
“I’m going to revisit some of the blends I did at the beginning because I am sure I can make them better,” he says passionately.
Having worked in PR, Sophie was fund-raiser for MacMillan Cancer Relief in Harrogate for three years. Then in mid- 2003 they decided to change everything.
“We set up Steenbergs Organics from a spare room in our house which we converted into an office and then we started a mad dash to find premises and get organic approvals in place as well as finding suppliers of ingredients and packaging,” explains Axel.
By October 2003 they had found a small food grade unit at Melmerby and had achieved organic status for spices, herbs and teas. But it wasn’t until February 2004 that they actually had a product to sell and www.steenbergs.co.uk was launched.
But they soon realised that they couldn’t rely solely on organic suppliers in the UK and so started what Axel describes as a “time-consuming passion” finding a core group of 20 suppliers across Africa, the Mediterranean and into the Indian sub-continent.
“We still have the producers that we had when we were first starting out,” says Sophie. “Those relationships are really important to us.”
The Steenbergs are true believers in the ethos that everyone should benefit from their success.
“It is very important to us that the growers get their fair share.”
Axel has been to India to see for himself the benefit of Fairtrade and how it is helping change the lives of the farmers and their families.
“We take so many things for granted but in many of these places they have no running water or access to education, this is where Fairtrade can help.”
Despite being great exponents of the Fairtrade movement, in the early days they did struggle with the bureaucracy.
“Spices just weren’t Fairtrade when we set out. You had to prove that there was a sustainable need for a product before it could be registered Fairtrade.”
And thanks to the hard work and perseverance of the Steenbergs their company became the first Fairtrade spice trader in Britain, launching the first UK Fairtrade spices in June 2005.
As demand grew they started to sell bulk into industry, but over the last two years the company has gone back to its roots.
“We felt we were loosing touch a bit, it wasn’t what we wanted to do, we weren’t enjoying it,” admits Axel.
“Now we have gone back to where we started.”
And it seems the joy is back. The couple talk with relish about their customers and the joy they get from being small enough to maintain the personal touch. It is clear the personal relationship with their customers and their suppliers is all important.
They are happy to respond to the likes and dislikes of the Steenbergs customer, with each unusual request for an exotic spice seen almost as a challenge. They have started to stock other organic and Fairtrade goods making their website something of a one-stop shop for the ethical customer.
In the fragrant warehouse, stocked alongside their best selling Organic Fairtrade Vanilla extract are Fairtrade cosmetics and even cat litter. But their primary interest is and always will be food and its ethical and sustainable production.
As well as the amazing smell that pervades throughout the Steenbergs factory, what makes this place unusual is the fact that it is a true example of the couple’s ethical approach to business and their products.
Clear corrugated sections in the ceiling allow in as much natural light as possible to reduce the use of electricity, the floor is covered in real linoleum or carbon- neutral carpets, the toilets are low water usage and the place runs on green energy and uses ethical phone services.
This is a couple who definitely practise what they preach.
LICENSED FOR FAIRTRADE
Steenbergs Organic is a fair trade business. Since its establishment in 2003, it became registered with FLO-Cert GmbH and The Fairtrade Foundation to trade in and sell Fairtrade tea products from the outset and Steenbergs Organic was the first UK business and one of the first three businesses in the world to be registered to trade in and sell Fairtrade spices and herbs. Most of its teas are licensed as Fairtrade. It also pays an annual contribution of one per cent of any non-Fairtrade tea sales to Practical Action, a charity focused on using basic technology to reduce poverty in developing countries.


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