Urban Accents' growth reflects US consumer demand for premium rubs, spice blends, sauces and more

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Tom Knibbs and Jim Dygas of Urban Accents.
Tom Knibbs and Jim Dygas of Urban Accents.

Related tags Grocery store

Urban Accents started as a premium spice-blend brand sold at specialty stores, like Crate & Barrel, but “the world has evolved a lot in the last 20 years”  since the company launched, so that high-end blends now also are sold in supermarkets, said chief creative officer and ‘flavorista’ Jim Dygas. 

If there is one company that can testify how the landscape for premium products has changed greatly in the US in the past decade, it’s Chicago-based Urban Accents.

It’s not just spice blends that Urban Accents sells these days. The portfolio has expanded to include baking mixes, rubs, pasta sauces, and brining kits, sold in more than 6,000 stores. “We have a very vast SKU count, so you’ll rarely see all of our products in a store,” ​Dygas said. “But we’re located in most cities in the US.”

A look back in time

The company started in 1996 after Dygas’ partner, Urban Accents founder Tom Knibbs, lost his job in a plastics company. But a combination of Knibbs’ entrepreneurial spirit and his family’s enthusiasm for cooking drove him to experiment with making spice blends, which proved a hit when they were given to friends and family as presents.

pumpkin sauces
The company recently launched a line of pumpkin sauces: Mole, Tagine, and Curry.

“Spice—it’s an easy point of entry because there’s not a ton of equipment involved early on,” ​Dygas said. “[Knibbs] was bottling and filling for the first year or so out of our basement.”

But they noticed that the spice category lacked creativity, and they decided their particular spin would be the naming and positioning of flavors from all over the world. Dygas took some cues from the cosmetics industry to design how the spice blends’ packaging would look like.

After winning some attention at trade shows, like the Fancy Food Show​, Dygas recalled that the company’s first big hit was when Knibbs sent some samples to upscale home goods chain Crate & Barrel. Dygas remembered how the buyer, not having expected any shipments, contacted the company: “She said, ‘Who are you guys? Why haven’t I heard about you?’He came out and came back with an order for our pizza sauce [from Crate & Barrel],”​ Dygas said.

Starting specialty, now in supermarkets

Urban Accent’s focus into the grocery store channel started five to six years ago. “We realized at a certain point that if you don’t get into grocery stores you’re not going to get enough locations within a city,” ​Dygas said.

But it wasn’t just Urban Accent’s widening portfolio that earned it shelf-space with grocery retailers. According to Dygas, grocery stores today are very different compared to when the brand first started.

“You didn’t have Trader Joe’s in ’96 in Chicago, you didn’t have Mariano’s. Grocery stores mainly sold mass goods,” ​he added. “We were actually kind of frightened by distribution and grocery distribution, they didn’t have natural or specialty shelves back then. ... They seemed to lack creativity."

Grocery stores’ adoption of premium and specialty spice blends and mixes, in turn, was a sign that consumers are starting to rub, brine, marinate and spice more. Building on that idea, for the company's 20th​ anniversary this year, it relaunched the brand with the call “Your Culinary Wingman,” ​and the tagline “We’ve got your back in the kitchen.”

“We have had double digit increases [in sales] and we’ve doubled our doors since 2014,” ​Dygas said.

With its distribution growth, the company has also increased in staff-size. It now employs 21 full-time employees in an approximately 30,000 square-foot facility in Chicago’s Ravenswood corridor, where the products go through final assembly (done manually by hand) and quality control. The facility also acts as a hub for its internet business.

“We wanted to go from a product that’s kind of a treasure-hunt find in small specialty stores to being able to get some volume,” ​he added.

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