NEW YORK — There is nothing ordinary about the gourmet seasonings and mixes offered by Chicago-based Urban Accents. Take the brand’s flapjack mixes, for example.
|Jim Dygas, co-founder of Urban Accents|
“Instead of doing a blueberry flapjack, we infused lemon and lavender, just to give it a different spin,” said Jim Dygas, who co-founded Urban Accents with Tom Knibbs.
Since launching two decades ago, Urban Accents’ portfolio has grown to more than 150 products, crafted in small batches and featuring unique flavor combinations and ingredients. Available in 3,500 stores across the country, the brand’s offerings range from flapjack and frittata mixes to brining kits and dry glazes to seasonings for popcorn, seafood, vegetables and pizza.
Now in its 20th year, Urban Accents is venturing into sauces. The company debuted its first ever simmer sauces at the Summer Fancy Food Show, held June 26-28 in New York. Varieties include pumpkin tagine, pumpkin mole and pumpkin curry.
“Pumpkin is a good cross-cultural ingredient,” Mr. Dygas said in an interview with Food Business News. “You can find it in Asian cooking and Middle Eastern cooking and obviously in Mexico. So we used that as a base, and then we infused some of our spices to create these interesting simmer sauces.”
Urban Accents also introduced three pizza sauces: fire roasted Arrabbiata, Chicago classic, and Manchego and garlic.
“A lot of our customers have pizza stones and pizza wheels, so we see this as a good complement for them,” Mr. Dygas said. “DIY pizza is going through the roof.”
The company expects the addition of sauces will double the brand’s business in the next three years.
“We have been, to this day, anything dry,” Mr. Dygas said. “I think you’ll see more sauce introductions for the next couple years than you’ll see dry from us.”
The sauces were developed as a simpler meal solution than spice blends, which require more involvement in the kitchen. In the past 20 years, Mr. Dygas said he has witnessed a shift in consumer cooking behaviors.
“We’re getting a lot of entry-level cooks,” he said.
However, he added, “The consumers are much more educated. When we started there was no Cooking Channel or Food Network. The internet was in its infancy. I see 20-year-olds shopping at Whole Foods and understanding ingredients. They’re label readers.
“I think we have learned that in the past we’ve introduced products too early. Until magazines and cooking shows pick up on trends, you can be too early into a market. So we don’t want to be the first. We want to help to educate the consumers as to what to do, but it takes all of those media outlets combining to educate. We try to take something people understand, like chili, and build some new flavors and new experiences around them.”
Fermentation and blackened or charred flavors are culinary trends on Mr. Dygas’ radar.
“We are looking at updating blackening or using smoke and fire and char flavors,” he said. “A lot of those things can be achieved by artificial flavors, but we don’t play there. So what usually takes more time in development is trying to find natural flavors. We try to keep as clean a deck as possible, and the smoked side is challenging because you also don’t want it to be too salty.”
The company’s products recently were U.S.D.A. organic certified, and 80% of its spice blends are Non-GMO Project verified.
“Part of our problem is our No. 1 line is our Veggie Roasters (seasoning blends), but a lot of them contain cheeses, and finding Non-GMO Project verified cheese is hard,” Mr. Dygas said. “They’ve changed rules from when we started to now. Some of our other products have honey. With our new introductions, we’re trying to make them more organic and non-G.M.O., but we’re not quite there yet.”
|Tom Knibbs, co-founder of Urban Accents|
Inspiration for the business came after Mr. Knibbs lost his corporate job in 1996. Back then, he and Mr. Dygas already were crafting edible gifts for friends.
“Tom got fired from his job as a salesman and was miserable and said, ‘I want to do something,’” Mr. Dygas said. “His family has always been surrounded by food. Everyone in the family cooks. Everybody is adventurous in the kitchen, so I said, ‘Maybe you should think about spice blends.’
“It’s an easy point of entry because it doesn’t require a whole lot of equipment. I think the first line had 24 blends, and Crate and Barrel was our first big customer. That got us out of the house and into a co-packing facility, and from there now we have a 30,000-square-foot factory in a neighborhood called Ravenswood in Chicago.”
Twenty years later, the two founders are still figuring things out, he said.“I feel like we’re still in a building and growing phase,” Mr. Dygas said. “We get approached all the time by venture capital groups, and we’ve just decided when the time is right, we’ll talk, but at this point we’re having fun. We’re still creating.”