Rumi Spice, a startup based at The Plant, sources its saffron from Afghan farmers. [DNAinfo Chicago/Janet Rausa Fuller]
BACK OF THE YARDS — You can get 37 servings of paella out of just half a gram of saffron.
But in that small pile of delicate, fragrant threads, Emily Miller and Kimberly Jung see so much more: fair trade, economic development, social empowerment — and what they say is the highest quality saffron around.
Together with three other partners, they import the world's most expensive spice from Afghanistan, a country associated more with strife and instability than rich agricultural history and potential.
In the short span of time since starting Rumi Spice, they have partnered with 34 Afghan farmers, doubling their collective saffron production; opened a processing facility in Herat, and inked a wholesale deal with the spice company Frontier Co-op, whose products are in such stores as Whole Foods and Mariano's.
Miller, Jung and co-founder Keith Alaniz, also an Army engineer officer, know Afghanistan well, having worked there in provincial reconstruction roles during multiple deployments.
Kimberly Jung, Co-Founder and CEO of Rumi Spice, pictured during her service as a U.S. Army Engineer Officer stationed in Wardak and Ghazni Provinces in 2010-2011. [Kickstarter]
Last year, both women were out of the Army, living in Boston and attending Harvard Business School. Alaniz, who is fluent in Farsi, was still in Afghanistan training military officers in the language and helping them understand the culture and people.
In his dealings with local farmers, Alaniz saw an untapped market. Saffron grows remarkably well in Afghanistan's arid climate, but these farmers had no means for distribution beyond the borders.
Janet Fuller details the difficulties of getting the rare spice to Chicago:
Wheels turning, Alaniz called Jung — "It was a Skype call," Miller said — and they started laying the groundwork for Rumi Spice. That was in March of 2014.
Jung flew to Afghanistan that summer to meet with farmers in the Herat region and with one of Alaniz's contacts, Abdul Shakoor Ehrarri. A college-educated agriculture specialist, Ehrarri led an agricultural services NGO and worked on an irrigation development project in the country's western basins for five years before joining Rumi Spice.
"He's the one on the ground every single day, working with the farmers," Miller said.
Abdul Shakoor Ehrarri (r.) is Rumi Spice's agricultural specialist in Afghanistan. [Rumi Spice]
By November, Rumi Spice's first saffron harvest was ready. Carol Wang, a Harvard Law grad and Rumi's fourth co-founder (she's the company's legal counsel, based in San Francisco), hand-carried the shipment, about five kilos, back into the United States, Miller said.
Saffron is an incredibly labor-intensive crop, which explains why it's so prized and costly — anywhere from $15 to $40 a gram. Just a pinch of it goes a long way. It's also high in antioxidants, believed to boost everything from eyesight to memory.
The reddish threads are actually the stigmas of the saffron crocus. Each flower has three stigmas that have to be harvested by hand. It takes more than 200,000 stigmas to make a pound of saffron.
Iran produces the majority of the world's saffron. Like olive oil, there's a murky side to the industry, marked by adulteration and a complicated export trail.
Saffron thrives in Afghanistan's soil. So do poppies, which are used to make opium, the Taliban's cash crop.
This gets at the core of Rumi Spice's business: to show small, poor farmers under pressure and taxation from the Taliban that there's an international market and legitimate income for them in saffron instead.
Saffron can provide anywhere from two to six times more income for farmers than poppy, wheat, barley or other crops, Miller said.
"Farmers win with saffron," she said.
Each thread of saffron is the dried stigma of the crocus and must be harvested by hand. [DNAinfo Chicago/Janet Rausa Fuller]
Quality distinguishes Rumi Spice's saffron, its founders say. In tests by the International Organization for Standardization, the Switzerland-based independent organization that sets and monitors standards for saffron and hundreds of other food products, Rumi's saffron surpassed the minimum crocin rating — its strength, essentially — by nearly 25 percent, putting in in ISO's top quality category.
After graduating from Harvard in May, Miller and Jung decided to relocate Rumi Spice to Chicago, where Alaniz had gotten an engineering job. (Rumi Spice is his side job. He's the company president, Jung is CEO and Miller is chief marketing officer.)
A Kickstarter campaign in June raised nearly $33,000. With that money, they bought new equipment for farmers and opened a facility in Herat to centralize the sorting and processing of the saffron, rather than having each farmer do it.
Miller said this not only improves quality and consistency, it's creating jobs. The 30 employees hired so far are mostly widowed Afghan women, Miller said. The goal is to hire 90 more women.
The old meat freezer in The Plant that now serves as Rumi Spice headquarters is a windowless, mostly empty room, but there are boxes filled with small packets and jars of saffron, labeled and ready to ship. The weathered face of one of their farmers looks out from the labels.
With the second harvest approaching, the Rumi Spice team is working on getting into stores and in front of chefs and consumers here.
On Saturday, and continuing monthly, Miller and Alaniz will sell the saffron at The Plant's indoor farmer's market.
Last weekend, Jung was at the Chicago Gourmet food festival sampling the saffron for the likes of chef Rick Bayless. She didn't have a booth. She just walked through the crowd, introducing herself as she went. Then she was off to Washington D.C. on a promotional push for a retailer that carries Rumi Spice.
Rumi Spice CEO Kimberly Jung meets with a saffron farmer in Afghanistan. [Rumi Spice]
The saffron is in eight stores on the East Coast. It is also for sale on the Rumi Spice website.
"We want [chefs] as brand ambassadors," Miller said.
They also want home cooks to see the possibilities beyond paella. At the Rumi Spice booth at the Fancy Food Show in New York in June, Jung and Miller passed out saffron vanilla snickerdoodles and saffron-infused tea.
Miller and her co-founders say saffron is just a starting point for connecting Americans to one of the world's richest but unappreciated agricultural assets.
"I don't think people know that Afghanistan used to be one of the world's biggest bread baskets," Miller said.
Down the road, the Rumi Spice product line could include Afghan cumin, almonds, pistachios and apricots.
"It's all about the Afghan brand. That's our biggest differentiator," she said.
Army veteran Emily Miller started Rumi Spice with fellow veterans and moved the company from Boston to Chicago this year. [DNAinfo Chicago/Janet Rausa Fuller]
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