Nile Spice Has Right Blend For Growth
As the sun cast long shadows and a stiff breeze blew leaves from the trees, Nadim Spahi stood near a glass door and looked outside.
His eyes were fixed somewhere beyond the row of parked cars outside his factory-warehouse. He spoke of his sailboat, a 24-footer, as his mind drifted to the water, sailing through one of his favorite spots in the Gulf Isles or the San Juan Islands.
"It's a perfect day for sailing," Spahi said, as he turned and headed back into the plant to tend to another kind of steering - this time of a company cruising ahead at full speed.
Spahi is founder of Nile Spice Foods, a maker of spices, soups and rice side dishes that is headed toward sales of $5.6 million this year - a projected 50 percent gain over last year. That would be the smallest percentage increase since the Seattle-based company started eight years ago.
Nile Spice, whose sales have been doubling almost yearly since its founding, sells in health-food stores, warehouse-type stores, and grocery stores in the Puget Sound area such as QFC, Safeway and Larry's Markets. Sales jumped last year as the company entered new markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Texas.
Employees work around the clock at the Fife factory, filling cups of soup and spice bottles. Spahi is adding extra equipment that will triple the firm's output to 60,000 cases of goods per week.
Ask him what makes the company successful, and the 43-year-old Spahi smiles and shrugs. He describes himself and his part-owner and general manager, Judy Seebeth, as two people who grew into the business.
"We did what we promised. We took an order and filled it," he said. "I don't know if we had a business plan. We learned as we went. We have a lot of talented people and I give them a lot of the credit.
". . . A lot of people who know about business overcomplicate it. It's basically buying cheap and selling for more money. Arithmetic, really."
Spahi grew up in Egypt where his family owned a large textile company. He didn't show much interest in the family business, though.
Instead he came to Seattle in 1966. He attended the University of Washington, graduating in 1972 with a degree in food science.
Working in food-product development for several companies, Spahi came to a conclusion: Working for others is limiting.
"They don't let you use your imagination. It was boring, frustrating and became routine," he said.
By 1984, having left his fourth job, Spahi approached a health-food store with a table spice his family enjoyed in Egypt - a blend of grounded sesame seeds, coriander and cumin.
His move was timely. People were becoming increasingly conscious of diet and sodium intake, and alternative seasonings were becoming popular.
Spahi bought $500 of ingredients and filled bottles with spice in his spare bedroom.
"I didn't start a business to start a business. I was playing, just filling time." he said. "I think the reason they sold well is they had a niche. They were ethnic seasonings and most others spices had no ethnic flavor; they were healthy and were in an attractive package."
Following several meetings with the health-food store managers, the spice was added to store racks. He went to trade shows and as more stores added the spices, he created new spices - seven in all.
By the end of his first year, Spahi racked up $60,000 in sales. He knew he had found a new career.
But his biggest concern then was:"How am I going to get all of these bottles together?"
In 1986, as the business moved out of his house and into an office, Spahi developed a line of cous-cous, and pasta and chili dishes prepared and eaten from disposable cups. These have become the company's major products, replacing the spices, and accounting for 95 percent of Nile's sales, Spahi said.
Consider the case of Cost Plus Imports Inc. in downtown Seattle. Out of nearly 600 items in the gourmet department, Nile's quick-meal products are in the top 25 for sales, said Tom Duffy, manager of Cost Plus Imports Inc. in Seattle.
The reasons are distinctive flavorings and price. "It's an alternative for a lot of people on a budget," Duffy said. "Instead of spending three or four dollars on a sandwich, they can buy soup and a soft drink for less than $2 and have a nice lunch."
The biggest hurdle in developing these meals are finding quick-cooking ingredients, he said. Spahi works with food suppliers to develop chili beans or pastas that cooks in boiling water or microwave oven in less than five minutes.
Developing the taste is easy, he said. Relying on palates around the office, new products find their way to market usually in four to six months.
Spahi isn't sure where the company will expand next. Desserts, perhaps. But the company will not get much larger, he said.
"I could go crazy making it bigger and bigger, but what's the point?," he asked. "I don't like to work 10- to 15-hour days."
That wouldn't leave much time for sailing.
Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.