A Magazine for Food And Wine Lovers
SAN FRANCISCO HERB CO.
by Bill Kimball
A generation ago you had to go to Europe to find gourmet food
products. These days you can find a wide selection at your local
supermarket. The supermarket, however, can be an expensive source
for some items like spices and herbs, so set out in search of
a more reasonably priced source.
My inquiries led me to San Francisco Herb Company and it's
east coast sister Atlantic Spice Company. Where a gram of Spanish
Saffron in the supermarket cost me $10, San Francisco Herb Company
sells a full ounce tin of it for just $34. For years I had tried
to duplicate my mother's saffron rice without success for the
simple reason that I wasn't using enough saffron (at $10 or more
a gram it was prohibitively expensive). Now, thanks to San Francisco
Herb Company, I can get all the saffron flavor I crave for a
fraction of the retail cost.
Owner Neil Hanscomb, 55, a lean, tan, grey haired sailboard
enthusiast, became a CPA after a stint in Vietnam, bought into
the business in 1973 and became sole proprietor twenty years
later. He's a man with tremendous energy and a passion for business,
a happy workaholic who declares, "I'm a guy that gets excited
on Monday. I'm ready to rip. I'm into it. It's allowed me to
express myself. I'm a left-brained, numbers guy, not a speaker,
not an artist, not a promoter...What I try to do is take it to
the limit of efficiency."
He taught himself how to write software so that he could computerize
the business back when computers were still a rarity in small
businesses. Today he is constantly fine tuning the software to
give him a competitive edge. Everything is tracked by computer,
right down to the specific spot in the warehouse. Hanscomb has
22 computers and 15 employees to make sure that his customers
can rely on a steady supply of 450 dried herbs and spices, spice
blends, teas, baking items, nuts, seeds, dehydrated veggies,
essential oils, botanicals and potpourri.
From the 26,000 square foot warehouse at 250 14th St., San
Francisco Herb Company services the public with a small retail
room, but the storefront is a fraction of the mail-order business.
"In the Fall I'll do 4 to 6,000 pounds a day. In the off-season
2,700 pounds a day," says Hanscomb, whose storefront caters
to the local cognizenti and some of San Francisco's finest chefs
who come to hand pick from the huge stock of one pound cello/poly
bags. All of the items are bought in bulk and bagged at the warehouse
in San Francisco to lock in the freshness.
While cost is important, Hanscomb isn't buying second rate
product. "I'm buying the best there is, utilizing all known
factors," he declares. "I go to great lengths to buy..."
figuring out just when to buy and how much to buy. "The
point is that in the four star restaurant world the decision
maker is going to go for quality. That world is driven by chefs
and they've come to us by word of mouth." Fortunately for
the rest of us, he doesn't sell solely to foodservice and there
aren't two sets of prices for professionals and amateurs. And
four stars don't get any better service than the person who wanders
in off the street and buys a few items.
To cut costs he purchased the warehouse so he won't ever have
to worry about a rent increase, and he has cut out the middlemen
whenever possible, dealing directly with many of his suppliers,
particularly in Egypt. "I get better chamomile, better dill
seed, better dill weed from the Egyptians getting it myself,
than I could if I relied on someone else," he explains.
The lack of middlemen and the efficiency with which the company
is run translates to better prices for his customers. "I
market based on my cost. The difference between me and traditional...pricing
is brutal. "I'm not just beating them...It's over 50%."
By the early '90's Hanscomb felt he needed exposure on the
east coast. In 1993 he and Cape Cod sailing buddies, Mark and
Eleanor Irving, bought a warehouse in North Truro, Massachusetts
to found Atlantic Spice Company. Atlantic Spice has had great
success with both the local restaurant trade and with tourists.
The business has grown so much that the original warehouse has
been tripled in size.
Combined sales for the two companies tops $4.2 million and
the combined customer data base includes more than 30,000 names.
You don't have to travel to San Francisco or North Truro to
take advantage of the great selection or prices, however, as
you can either call the order desk or order online.