May Fridel, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, has always known the health benefits of good, clean, simple food. Yet, the benefits became even more apparent after her son began experiencing chronic respiratory illnesses and allergies. Turning to the Ayurvedic style diet she had grown up on in India, May used organic spices, eliminated processed foods, found local and sustainable sources, and in a few months, he was thriving. It was then she knew that her knowledge of organic spices and clean eating could help others too. What started as a grassroots kids cooking class in 2008 has morphed into Passion for Spices in Summit, offering culinary classes for kids through adults, corporate team building workshops, and a brand of organic spice blends. Besides being the founder and CEO of her business, this mom of one in is also a food literacy advocate, a philanthropist, and culinary author of the Indian Cuisine Diabetes Cookbook. We caught up with May to talk about the way her business grew organically, how she brought families from all over the world together during the pandemic, and the best local source for farm-to-table, artisanal meats, and ingredients.
Please tell us a bit about your background and your family. I grew up in Kerala, India, the spice center of the world, and I come from a long line of spice merchants. I earned my master’s degree in mathematics and computer science from The Indian Institute of Management and came to the US to further my education. Post-university, I was a knowledge engineer working as an executive in the financial sector when I met Frank, who would become my husband. We got married at The Grand Summit Hotel and loved the town so much that we ended up buying our forever home and raising our son, Matthew (19), in Summit.
Where did your love of food come from, and how did it inspire you to start Passion for Spices? Growing up in my family, we ate fresh food all the time. Everything we ate we grew, or it was grown locally. And then when I came here, I saw how people ate for convenience, and I took on that way of eating, too. But, after Matthew was born, he developed health issues, and I knew I needed to do everything I could to help him. When I introduced the Ayurvedic cooking style that I’d grown up on, he started to thrive. I knew that it was getting back to the basics of good, clean, simple food, flavored with high-quality, healing spices, staying away from processed, and being as sustainable and local as possible, that made the difference. It also played a role in my idea for the business since I knew I had a wealth of knowledge that could benefit others.
What made you decide to launch Passion for Spices, and how has it evolved? Thanks to my family background in spices and my desire to continue learning more and educating myself, my knowledge of spices is tremendous. I’ve also always been fascinated by different cultures and the culinary experiences they bring to the table. My business began with a very sustainable model at a grassroots level with kids cooking classes. However, they’ve always been more akin to culinary classes because we also teach the art and science behind cooking through parts of the program that includes fermenting, baking and pickling. Over time I built a following and acquired fans around me, and the business grew organically from there. In addition to the kids and teens after-school classes, we also have adult classes, corporate team building events, private classes, and specialized culinary experiences where we bring in experts from different regions worldwide. Recently, guests enjoyed an “Evening in Spain” Experience with food, wine, music, and dance, taught by a food and wine expert enthusiast from Spain. We also just held a Corporate Team Building Event that was a Tuscan Style Feast Experience.
Has the pandemic caused you to pivot at all? The live classes needed to be temporarily closed, so I launched Cook at Home, a virtual program via Zoom. We would send the recipes beforehand, and if the people were local enough, they’d pick up their local food kits, and if they weren’t local, we’d send details of what they’d need to purchase before the class began. It was a big success for parties and helped families connect over food. One family that lived in the US and France enjoyed a cooking experience “together” while celebrating a milestone birthday. And even though we’re doing in-person classes again, I plan on continuing with some of the Zoom classes, but with particular celebrity chefs from London and other locales around the world.
What do you wish you had known about being an entrepreneur before launching your own business that might have helped you avoid some of the bumps? Because of my education, career background, and how my mind works, there isn’t anything I would have done differently. I was very intentional in the way I launched my business, and I continue to be intentional in my step-by-step approach to growing it.
You sell two spice blends online. Why these two? I’m a strategist, and I care very deeply about spices’ different flavors and health benefits. I can’t find quality spices that are guaranteed free of pesticides, so I get them from India and then steam clean them to ensure their purity is genuinely 100% organic. The combination of spices that I put in my blends is very specific and put together in such a way to help the body absorb all the health benefits available from them. The two that I’ve chosen to sell are the most versatile blends. The Keralan Curry blend is earthy and smoky and tastes so good when used on meat, poultry, seafood, and veggies. And the Kashmiri Garam Masala pairs perfectly with lamb, poultry, and veggies and can also elevate a dessert to out-of-this-world status!
We know you’re passionate about spices. Is there anything else you’re passionate about? I’m passionate about influencing people’s lives and helping them find a balance to up their happiness factor. I do this through my cooking, business, or the many organizations and charities I’m involved in, including the Suburban Chamber of Commerce, the Community Development Block Grant, and the Dominican Nuns of Summit.
What are some of your favorite local NJ businesses? I highly recommend D’Artagnan. It’s where I purchase all of my ingredients for my cooking school because it’s consistently the best quality you can buy. The owner is a French woman who lives and breathes the farm-to-table, artisanal, free-range, and grass-fed philosophy so that everything is genuine, as good-for-you, and tasty as possible. And I love Christine of Christine Keeley Photography, who does fantastic work. She’s talented, driven, and does everything from beautiful portraits to headshots to events.
What are some of your favorite things to do in NJ with your family? Our son Matthew has always loved history and learning, and the Morris Museum is something we’ve always really enjoyed. Also, Matthew was involved with the Boy Scouts of America for a long time, and we all got involved. I was a den mom, and as often as possible, Frank and Matthew took advantage of all of the great hiking trails in our state. I was also chosen to be one of those honored at their 2021 Tribute to Women Awards Luncheon.
What is your best piece of advice for a NJMOMpreneur thinking of launching her own business? Do what you’re passionate about because if you’re like me, it will energize you, and you’ll love every moment you’re working on your business. Also, start slowly. Your business model has to be sustainable—don’t throw lots of money at it immediately. Instead, minimize your experiences, keep your overhead low, and grow from that. And finally, surround yourself with experts. I’m an expert on spices, but my business calls for more than that. For example, when I have a French cooking class, I don’t teach it. I have a French expert teaching French cuisine. And when I say expert, I mean expert. Go to the top people in their field to get your information. You need to surround yourself with people of value to grow your value.