Small Business Profile: Rachel Simons, Owner of Seed + Mill - New York
Hey Rachel! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am originally from Sydney, Australia and moved to New York with my family in 2014. I have two kids - Oliver, 12 and Annika, 10 and our Dachsund, Buddy. We live in Chelsea, New York but love to travel, cook and eat as a family!
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I have an Arts Law Degree from Sydney University. Before starting Seed + Mill, I worked as an in-house media lawyer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I have previously lived and worked in Tel Aviv, London and Hong Kong. In 2012, I helped launch Australia's first social enterprise bakery, The Bread & Butter Project and remain a Director.
I met my two co-founders, Lisa Mendelson and Monica Molenaar, through our kids who are similar ages. Together, we started Seed + Mill in January 2016. We are all passionate cooks, who enjoy expressing our creativity in the kitchen and sharing great food with our friends and family. As health conscious parents, we are particularly interested in healthy food or 'better choices' when it comes indulgences.
I have always had an 'entrepreneurial bug' and a creative spirit. Before starting this business, I would often describe myself as a "foodie entrepreneur trapped in the body of a media lawyer". My mum worked extremely hard all her life and is still running her own business at 70. She has no plans to slow down. She is a huge inspiration to me in terms of a person who is always looking to learn a new skill, develop her passions and interests and lead a busy and fulfilling life.
Why did you start a business focused on sesame?
We like to say that tahini is the ketchup of the Middle East. It is a staple ingredient in every Mediterranean or Middle Eastern kitchen pantry and used in a far more versatile (ie sweet and savory) way. We want to introduce these global flavors to American kitchens, restaurants and foodies and transform tahini from an exotic hard to find ingredient to something used on an every day basis.
Sesame seeds are also highly nutritious and comprise one of the 'good fats' that help you feel full and satisfied for longer stretches of the day.
What did Seed + Mill look like when it started? Were you just a product line or did you start off with your space in Chelsea Market? What can people experience at your space?
Seed + Mill started as a retail only business in Chelsea Market, but we quickly felt the interest and demand for our products outside of our small physical small space at the market. So, we have been focusing on growing the CPG business that allows us to engage with a broader consumer base and on a larger scale. Our physical store offers a unique sesame experience, in that you can see us milling the seeds fresh onsite and drizzling hot fresh tahini over our tahini soft-serve (which is also only available at Chelsea Market).
How do you source your sesame and come up with your halva flavor combinations?
We only use Ethiopian sesame seeds from a town called Humera, which are known for their sweet, oil rich seed crops. Our halva flavors change throughout the year. We love to test different flavors that are unexpected when it comes to halva (ie Lemon & White Chocolate is one of our favorites). We are also experimenting with different seeds to make the halva - including a recent batch we made with half sesame and half pumpkin seed butter. It was delicious! We also love to hear from our customers what flavors you would like us to create and try to incorporate their feedback in the test kitchen.
We love that on your site you also give amazing recipes using tahini and halva! Do you have a favorite way to use your products?
Our goal with the website and social media is to inspire people to use tahini in unexpected and innovative ways, such as for smoothies, brownies, cookies and ice-cream - rather than just hummus, which is historically all anyone knew to use tahini for. Tahini is also a fantastic substitute for dairy products like yogurt, butter or cream so we try to promote it as the 'star' ingredient in our vegan recipes.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
We love the customer relationships. Nothing is better than seeing what people are cooking or baking with our tahini at home - or when they send us pictures eating ice-cream at the store. When you make something delicious and it really resonates with people it is a pretty fantastic feeling! The learning experience of running a small start up food business is also an incredibly rewarding process. Obviously, there are ups and downs along the way, but no day is the same and we are constantly evolving, meeting new people, making new sales connections and it is gratifying to be building a successful business from the ground up!
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face?
We are selling a product that is unique and not for everyone. So, trying to work out our category and our audience or consumer base is challenging. We are constantly torn between whether we are in the business of selling a health food product (tahini) or more of an indulgence (halva) even though they originate from the same seed and both have healthful properties. But, this split still has its challenges from a marketing and messaging perspective and segments our customer base. We also have the normal set backs that any small business faces - when you lose a talented team member or when a sale that you were hoping for doesn't eventuate. Being able to 'roll with the punches' and realize that the crisis of the day always passes takes patience and is an 'emotional muscle' that we are constantly trying to exercise and build.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other? How have women supported you?
LOVE this question!!! We have had the most generous and kind support from a range of woman from all backgrounds and walks of life. These relationships started as business discussions and many have led to intimate and lasting friendships. We couldn't have achieved what we have without support from a cheer squad of talented hard working entrepreneurial women. We just hope to be able to pay it forward or back to all the women who have helped us. I find women are also far more honest and vulnerable about the challenges of running a business and it is comforting to be able to connect and support each other at an emotional as well as a professional level.
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
I love to read memoirs and non fiction. I am currently reading The Book of Joy, which is a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Rev Desmond Tutu. It is a terrific guide in learning perspective and balance in life. I also love podcasts. For any CPG start up entrepreneurs out there - you must listen to In The Sauce with Alison Cayne from Haven's Kitchen. She is one of the most inspiring and extraordinary foodie women I know and deserves a community service medal for the time and effort she puts in to support other founders.
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
I love to learn new skills, even things that I find scary and intimidating like navigating a balance sheet or our financial model. Most importantly, I love learning how to be a better wife, a better mom, a better colleague etc - it all takes an enormous amount of self awareness and willingness to change and adapt to other people's needs. This can be a huge challenge, but trying to see a situation from someone else's perspective is an essential life skill - one I am always trying to master!
What are some of your favorite places in New York?
I love walking up the High Line and seeing all the new buildings, street art or just the seasonal changes to the trees, leaves and flowers.
I also love those rare days when I get some time alone and can wander around the cobble stoned streets of Soho and grab lunch at one of my favorite cafes, Westbourne, which is owned by a very inspiring woman, Camilla Marcus.
What's coming up for you?
We are launching a range of new CPG friendly halva products, as well as trying to expand our food gift business, so please keep us in mind when you are thinking of something delicious and unique to buy a friend or loved one!