Christine Pistole of Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants knows that running a business—and crafting the perfect spice blend—is all about balance
When Christine Pistole took over sole ownership of Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants in 2013, she didn’t realize how many hats she’d have to wear to keep the ship sailing smoothly. She started Gryffon Ridge with her husband in 2009, and when they divorced in 2013, she quit her day job to run the company full time and hasn’t looked back since. Her first challenge was “doing it all and trying to learn your partner’s role and not always understanding what that person does until there’s that void,” she says. “I never thought I’d own my own business and now I’m doing it and getting through each day and it’s amazing.”
Pistole manages all of the company’s day-to-day operations, from crafting and cooking the spice blends, to bookkeeping, advertising/marketing, packing/shipping and selling at farmers markets and trade shows. Her mission—to “provide the highest quality herbs and spices to retail and wholesale clients and to educate people about what spices will do for their health”—has remained constant since its inception.
“So many people purchase with their eyes and the first mode of attraction is visual,” she says. Pistole attends the Brunswick Winter Market at Fort Andross and, in the summer, the farmers market at Brunswick’s Crystal Spring Farm, where customers can see and sample products. She also attends festivals and trade shows, like the Maine Artisan Bread Fair in Skowhegan, The Common Ground Fair in Unity and the Maine Harvest Festival in Bangor.
Gryffon Ridge has always been a home-based business, but changed its location in 2015 when Pistole moved from Dresden to Litchfield, where she expanded her home to build a full commercial kitchen, packaging area and business office. Her remote location doesn’t impact sales, since it’s not a retail operation, and Pistole has discovered her remoteness is, in fact, an asset to her well-being. “I wanted to be in the country where it was quiet and I can have my chickens, ducks and my dog roam,” she says. “I’ve also found a spot that works in terms of accessibility to markets,” she adds, noting her proximity to Brunswick.
Her goal with Gryffon Ridge has always been to provide organic spice blends at a reasonable cost. This hasn’t always been easy, as organic prices skyrocketed in 2009, then balanced out as the organic market became less of a niche. Despite market fluctuation, Pistole says it’s important to use certified organic spices because they reflect consistency in the quality and an organic label “ensures they have the best systems for their farmers, proper care of the fields and soils, and no chemicals in their water or fertilizers.” While organic certification is a constant, climate and growing conditions in the countries of origin are not. After a cyclone hit Madagascar in 2014, Pistole saw prices for vanilla bean increase to $400 a pound, compared to $89 a pound in 2013. “That’s just one example of what happens when you have to rely on a grown product. Right now I can’t get bird’s eye chilis due to not enough farming to fill the crop demand.”
Since she took over the company, Gryffon Ridge has grown so much that Pistole has had to offload some of her many responsibilities to keep up with demand. The business grew 13–18 percent over the last three years, and is projected to have 30 percent growth in 2018 due to an increase in online sales. “At this point in time, we’re poised to keep up with growth. When you work smarter and not harder you can do it,” she says. She’s hired a couple of part-time employees to help with production and shrink-wrapping orders and increased her production to 6–8 cases instead of 3–4 to keep inventory up. “This year will be different because we have a targeted growth pattern, which will consist of bringing in help to do some of the day-to-day processes not in the kitchen,” Pistole says, careful to mention that she’s not ready to “give up her hand in the craft.”
One catalyst for Gryffon Ridge’s growth has been Pistole’s recent partnership with famed chef and host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, Andrew Zimmern. “Andrew is an amazing chef and amazing man to work with,” Pistole says of the partnership. Zimmern discovered Gryffon Ridge Spices while visiting Portland in June 2017 and contacted Pistole after sampling her spice blends. “He loved the quality and flavor tones, so last year his rep contacted me and asked if I could produce some spice blends based on the regions where he was traveling.”
Pistole sent Zimmern her ideas and collaborated with him last summer to create the first set of five proprietary blends based on his travels. One big seller was “The Kentucky Table,” a blend based on Zimmern’s travels following Daniel Boone’s footprint across Kentucky, which includes fennel, rosemary, paprika, coriander, allspice, thyme, sage and “a slight chili flake to give it some heat.” “Northern Lights” is another blend based on Zimmern’s travels on the Paul Bunyan Trail in Minnesota, and “The Polish Pantry” is based on Napoleon Bonaparte’s march through Poland. Pistole designed the blend based on a recipe she found for Polish stew, and it includes “deep smoky flavor tones” of onion, garlic, caraway, allspice, paprika, mushroom powders and marjoram. In February she finished creating a new set of five blends for Zimmern’s upcoming spring season of Bizarre Foods. Customers can purchase the blends directly from Zimmern’s website.
Pistole’s culinary prowess comes from being a self-taught foodie who grew up in Lindsay, California, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley known as “the olive capital of the U.S.”
“Lindsay is a small-town agricultural area with lots of citrus, olives and great flavor tones. We weren’t a salt and pepper family,” Pistole says of her childhood experience with food and flavors. She stays up to date on culinary trends, reads cooking blogs and recipes for inspiration and experiments with ideas in her kitchen. Unfortunately, Maine doesn’t provide the right climate or growing season for the quantity and quality of spices Pistole needs. As a result, Gryffon Ridge’s spices come from abroad, as most herbs and spices are dried in the region where they’re grown, creating a fresher and better quality product.
As a result of high overseas shipping costs, Pistole has to be savvy about where to cut costs. She buys spices from organic spice wholesalers in the U.S. and certifies the product through MOFGA, a process that requires “a lot of paperwork tracing from the time they hit my doorstep to the time they leave my doorstep.” She’s made the process more time-efficient and digitized over the years thanks to technology. “Inspection alone takes about two hours, but prepping can take a couple of days,” she says.
Griffon Ridge became an S Corporation in 2011, which Pistole says has helped create accountability for her business and be poised for long-term growth. “I’d love to get the business to a stable production level to support myself and my employees with a decent cost of living wage and making the business itself a household name,” she says. She also anticipates changes in her buying process as she increases her purchasing volume. “When we started, we were ordering in five pounds, now I’m ordering 100–200 pounds at a time. The next step is figuring out how to reduce costs and put things on pallets so if product comes from a specific region you can mix and match a pallet.”
Through this rapid growth, Pistole remains mindful of the benefit of being a small business. “I want to grow, but I don’t want to become huge because I don’t want to lose that personal insight into what’s happening in my business,” she says. “I want to keep my standards the same as when we were small.”
She hopes to transition out of packaging and bookkeeping and hire a marketing manager and bookkeeper who can also help with purchasing, which would allow her to spend more time in the kitchen, where her passion lies.
Looking ahead to the future, Pistole also dreams of traveling to the countries where she gets her spices, for continued inspiration to create her unique and flavorful blends.
For more information, go to gryffonridge.com.
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.