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Connecticut startup aims to spice up amateur chef recipes

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    HARTFORD, Connecticut (Hartford Business Journal) — Years before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a trend of home-bound amateur cooks attempting high cuisine dishes, Lisa Carson and Connie Wang saw a barrier that’s kept people from experimenting in the kitchen.

It’s the spices.

“Spices are an ingredient category where you have to buy these big jars,” Carson said. “And when you buy a jar of say sumac because a recipe calls for a teaspoon of it, you probably won’t use it again until after it’s gone stale.”

In response to that problem, Carson and Wang in 2018 started a company called OCCO, which makes single-serve spices that are sealed in small packaging similar to Nespresso pods.

The two former New York PR pros are currently running OCCO out of a temporary office space in Bridgeport, after the COVID-19 pandemic complicated plans to base their operations in Hartford.

They have ties to the Capital City because they participated in the 2019 Hartford-based Stanley+Techstars Accelerator sponsored by New Britain toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker.

Today, they split their time between New York and an apartment they rent in Bridgeport nearby their workspace.

Fresh sells
OCCO’s packaging is designed to block oxygen, light and heat, which cause the essential oils in spices to oxidize and evaporate, resulting in stale flavor. Providing fresh ingredients is a key part of their value proposition. In fact, the duo traveled pre-pandemic to southeast Asia on a three-month sourcing mission to find the best possible ginger, chili and other spices they could sell.

As they sourced spices and packaging materials in the months after establishing the company a few years ago, Carson and Wang were looking for ways to attract prospective investors and partners. That’s when Carson stumbled upon the Stanley+Techstars Accelerator, a business development program for young companies.

The accelerator brought OCCO into the fold, and executives at Stanley made themselves available for advice and connections to possible investors, Carson said.

As of mid-January OCCO raised $74,000 in an online Kickstarter campaign; Carson declined to disclose if her company has received any other funding.

“[Stanley Vice President of Business Development] Marty Guay and [CEO] Jim Loree, and that whole group has really welcomed us into their family with the resources of a company at their scale,” Carson said.

Those connections came in handy when the pandemic hit, Carson said. Materials OCCO uses for its spice pods are made in China, and travel restrictions made it nearly impossible to get their orders filled. But when Stanley offered the help of its global procurement team, OCCO was able to get what it needed from China in short order, Carson said.

Connections, cooperation and mentorship like that are a big part of why Carson and Wang think Connecticut — and specifically the Hartford region — is the place where they want to grow OCCO.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re early enough in our business that we want to listen and learn,” said Carson, who added she and Wang still intend to eventually lease work space in Hartford. “But we feel very confident that we understand this [spice] problem, and people want this problem solved.”

Business plan
OCCO is preparing to launch its product in February, selling direct-to-consumer online, Carson said, but it’s not ruling out selling at retail stores in the future.

The target market is a mix of Millennials who are beginning to move beyond microwave meals into more complicated recipes, and older empty-nesters who are taking up cooking as a hobby. Carson said there is probably a lot of crossover between people who use single-meal ingredient services like Blue Apron, and people who would buy OCCO spices.

“I would say anybody who has used a meal kit like Blue Apron [is in our target market],” Carson said.

As for revenue projections, or whether the ultimate goal is to be acquired by a larger company or become an Amazon-of-spices, Carson’s not sure.

“Nobody has a crystal ball,” Carson said. “But we are not trying to just chug along, we’re looking to do something big in this space.”

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