Born to an Indian-Malawian family in Silicon Valley, Raina Kumra was fed herbs by her grandmother whenever she felt sick as a child. Kumra remembers chewing up cloves when she had a toothache and drinking peppermint tea when her stomach was upset. So in March 2020 when her daughter broke her collarbone in a bike accident and her husband had knee-replacement surgery, Kumra turned to her grandmother's teachings in Ayurveda, an ancient medical practice from India emphasizing diet and herbal remedies, to heal them.
Equipped with extensive experience in digital marketing and venture capital, as well from founding a startup years earlier, the now-45-year-old was interested in building something new. After conducting extensive market research to determine that there was a viable business opportunity in food medicine, she founded Spicewell, a Santa Barbara, California-based company that makes functional spice, or spice intended to have a positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. The three-employee company, which Kumra is bootstrapping, incorporated in March 2021 and began operation that November. In its first month selling products, Spicewell generated more than $10,000 in revenue, and is projecting $250,000 in sales by January 2023.
The epiphany moment
Kumra learned Ayurveda as a kid watching her grandmother mixing spices. For example, she says, turmeric and black pepper have antibacterial effects and support the immune system, while an herb called ashwagandha helps balance cortisol and lower blood pressure. Now supplementing the early knowledge she acquired by taking a plant-based medicine course at Cornell University, she says people tend to overlook the power of plants: "It was just very astounding to me that as a culture, in America, we have forgotten where medication really comes from. There's a reason all these plants exist."
The idea to turn the practice of Ayurveda into a business came to Kumra during her daughter's recovery. She had to hide vegetables in the 5-year-old's food by dehydrating and powdering them to blend into her smoothie. It took her daughter only 10 days to be back on her feet again, while most people with broken collarbones take weeks. After that experience, Kumra figured she could put powered functional ingredients into salt and pepper to deliver vitamins for every meal. "Americans are walking around with nutrient deficiency, so my idea was a simple step of helping people add more nutrients into their diets," she says. "It does not require a significant habit change."
From research to retail
Still, Kumra found that it wasn't easy to figure out which vegetables could go into salt and pepper that people wouldn't be able to taste. She spent six months developing the idea, studying spice brands and testing recipes with neighbors. Ultimately, she devoted her $100,000 savings to research and development, partnering with medical advisers including Mark Hyman, the founder of Lenox, Massachusetts-based functional medicine provider the UltraWellness Center, and Ann Veneman, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After countless experiments, the team finally landed on organic kale, spinach, mushroom, and broccoli. Kumra chose pink Himalayan salt as a base, and created a product that is 30 percent lower in sodium than regular table salt.
Spicewell's Ayurvedic salt and pepper is "pretty unique compared with other seasonings since it's enhanced with nutrients from organic superfoods," Hyman wrote in his newsletter in February. "Its new salt is blended with ashwagandha, an adaptogen that helps your body cope with stress. Its new pepper is blended with turmeric for a traditional Ayurvedic combination known to fight inflammation and support circulation." (Hyman serves as an adviser to Spicewell but does not hold a financial stake in the company. There is considerable debate in the medical community over the effectiveness of many nutritional supplements, and Spicewell's products are not subject to FDA approval.)
Some key ingredients were hard to come by during the pandemic. Spicewell sources Ayurvedic herbs like ashwagandha from India, so Kumra had to order them several months in advance to avoid supply shortages. There also were strikes at the ports in Pakistan last year where the company gets its Himalayan salt.
Spicewell struggled to find sustainable packaging as well. "I didn't really want to use plastic, but the entire packaging industry just pushes you to it," says Kumra. "All the cheapest things are the worst for the planet." Eventually she found a post-consumer recycled plastic product produced in California to use for Spicewell's five-ounce salt and pepper pouches, which it sells on its website for $15. She used paperboard tubes with recyclable aluminum bottoms to package other products. But the paper shortage and high shipping costs outside of the U.S. remain an issue for the company. "The pandemic taught me to always have my backup suppliers, have the quality test running ahead of time, and just be prepared for anything," Kumra says.
She adds that she hasn't seen many competitors in the functional spice niche yet. But there are other brands with similar products, such as Washington-based Artisan Salt Company, which sells healthy salt with flavors like truffle and lemon. Currently, Spicewell is focusing on growing its direct-to-consumer business and expanding on retail platforms like Amazon. Spicewell also sells in local stores including Farmshop in Santa Monica, California, and the Goods Mart in New York City, and is looking for more wholesale customers such as hotels and restaurants that might spread the concept of food medicine to a broader audience.