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Condiments empire grew from Tupperware-like parties Add to ...

Picture a Tupperware party except with spices, salad-dressing mixes and other condiments.

Sylvie Rochette did, about 15 years ago. Now she presides over a growing empire of about 9,000 consultants who sell more than $40-million of her wares annually across Canada.

Ms. Rochette started the business in the basement of her family home in Victoria, B.C. For the last five years, Victorian Epicure Inc. has operated from an idyllic 33-hectare farm in North Saanich, about 30 kilometres from the city. The company now employs about 160 people at this "home office" in jobs that include testing recipes, packaging the products, marketing, research and development, graphic design and information technology.

"She went from craft shows to selling wholesale to now selling through independent direct saleswomen, and the company has just really taken off from there," said Ms. Rochette's daughter, Amelia Warren, who is now the company's chief executive officer.

Originally from Clermont, Quebec, Ms. Rochette, 55, came to B.C. 30 years ago and was working as a docent at the provincial legislature when friends encouraged her to try selling her concoctions. So she loaded her blends of spice mixes into her ancient Mercedes station wagon and took them to farmers markets and the local fall fair.

"I always had an affinity for cooking, coming from the east and coming from a family of foodies," Ms. Rochette said during a phone interview from San Francisco as she waited to board a flight to Mexico.

The array of fresh fruits and vegetables available in B.C. and the many ethnic restaurants she discovered in Vancouver, where she first lived after coming out west, piqued her interest in food. What inspired her to begin selling her wares, though, was the need for a little extra income while working at home to raise her two children.

Ms. Warren, 25, said her mom's initial motivation was to make quick, healthy meals for her two children. Ms. Rochette also wanted to be more efficient in the kitchen so she could have more time with her kids.

Victorian Epicure was founded in 1991 and at first products were sold wholesale. The business didn't really take off, though, until 1996 when it adopted a direct-sales model similar to the one Tupperware made famous. The wholesale business was successful, but it demanded that Ms. Rochette spend too much time on the road, away from her children. Which defeated one of her main reasons for going into business in the first place.

"I even considered quitting. But I said no. I said this is such a good product, I need to find a way to get it into people's hands."

That's when she realized that if she couldn't clone herself as a sales person, she could clone her way of marketing.

"The one-on-one selling is the perfect vehicle, perfect model to sell this product. When I had someone in front of me, nine out of 10 people purchased my product. So if I could re-create that times several thousand, I believed that this had a great future," Ms. Rochette said. "Now instead of having one Sylvie selling the products, there are 9,000 Sylvies selling the products."

Ms. Rochette began by selling four spice dip mixes: lemon-dilly, herb and garlic, sun-dried tomato, and curry. Victorian Epicure now sells 300 Epicure Selections products, many of them made from materials Ms. Rochette collected in her travels around the world. They include salad dressings, jellies, seasonings for salsa and pasta sauces, and herbs and spices for international cuisines, such as North African and Thai dishes. Other recent additions are wine jellies made of wine produced from grapes grown on four-hectares of vineyards planted on the North Saanich property since Epicure's arrival.

The company also sells cookware and kitchen gadgets as compliments to the food products.

On a recent Saturday in September about 100 people applied for jobs at a career fair at the farm. The company is increasing its ranks to about 160 employees at its home office, as well as adding seasonal workers for the busy fall season.

Ms. Rochette said she prefers to keep as much work in-house as possible. Inside the 3,700-square-metre warehouse, boxes of product are stacked five metres high on skids ready for shipment across Canada. The pleasing, almost intoxicating aroma of spices permeates the air.

"We are on track right now for 20 per cent year-over-year growth," Ms. Warren said.

Dr. Brock Smith, a University of Victoria business professor, said Victorian Epicure is well-positioned to capitalize on a sluggish economy because of the tendency for people to entertain at home rather than go to restaurants.

"I'm not surprised that they weathered the recession quite well because of that kind of cocooning that was going on last year and still is this year," Dr. Smith said. "Their product line fits well with an increase in home entertaining."

Dr. Lynne Siemens, A UVic professor who has also taught in the business faculty, said she has tried "and quite enjoyed" the products. When she was a young mother, Dr. Siemens also attended Victorian Epicure parties and found they were "a really great way to get out of the house."

"My experience at a couple of these parties that I went to was everybody buys at least something," Dr. Siemens said. "And then you have the catalogue and then you buy more. It is, I think, a very low-risk way for the company to find potential customers."

Both professors, however, noted that one drawback with some direct marketing sales schemes is a requirement for the reps to carry a certain amount of stock. That is not a requirement of Victorian Epicure, Ms. Warren said.

The professors also cautioned that at some point any market becomes saturated. With 9,000 consultants across Canada, is Victorian Epicure approaching saturation? Ms. Rochette doesn't think so.

"We haven't our reached our Canadian potential," she said. "Our desire is to be in every home in every kitchen by 2015."

And that's just in Canada. The company hasn't yet formulated any plans for entering the U.S. or other markets around the world.

Dana Nicholson, one of the company's eight executive sales directors, is among the top consultants, earning $190,000 in 2009. Ms. Nicholson, 42, started with Victorian Epicure about 10 years ago, while on maternity leave with her first child, and while she was living in Edmonton. At that time, she never dreamed of earning a six-figure income. Today, she has 1,500 other consultants, from across the country, under her wing.

"The beautiful thing with Epicure and with any direct sales company is we all start at the same place and it's really up to each individual what they do with the business and how big they build it," said Ms. Nicholson. "I tell my team members the only difference between them and me is I started first."

While the top Epicure consultant earned over $300,000 in 2009, the average income was far less, an average of $105.96 a month, according to information on the company website. Most of the women - and 98 per cent of Epicure consultants are women - are content to earn a little spending money and introduce their friends to the Epicure products, Ms. Warren said.

"As a company, our objective is really is to provide a great business opportunity that will provide predominantly women with an opportunity to make money and have flexibility and be at home with their kids," Ms. Warren said. "That's really important to us."

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