CJ’s Premium Spices mixes up new formula

Made in Milwaukee

Alan Swan and his brother Chad measure spices at their Oconomowoc production facility.

CJ’s Premium Spices
Industry: Seasoning and spices
Employees: 10

Alan Swan spent more than 20 years as a professional pilot, flying celebrities and entrepreneurs and often wondering what it was that allowed them to take a simple idea and turn it into a business. He also figured that in the right circumstances, he could make a go of it in business, too.

When a friend of Swan’s began taking a potato salad seasoning mix to farmers markets, Swan saw an opportunity to do it on a bigger scale.

Alan Swan and his brother Chad measure spices at their Oconomowoc production facility.
Alan Swan and his brother Chad measure spices at their Oconomowoc production facility.

The idea for the flagship CJ’s Premium Spices product is straightforward. A package of spices with proportions perfectly measured out to easily make a two-and-a-half pound batch of potato salad. Just mix it with mayonnaise and vinegar and fold into cooked and cooled potatoes.

The mix comes with no preservatives and no additives. It is organic and gluten-free. The goal is to provide a consistent mix that combines the right taste, texture and visual elements, something Swan says doesn’t exist in other products produced for a mass market.

“It gets a sludge factor to it,” he said. “They put in their ingredients, they pulverize it, then they start sticking to each other, so they have to add chemicals to it to keep it free flowing, and they just keep adding stuff to it, whereas we’re just straight ingredients.”

The last point is one Swan takes pride in.

“We’re essentially taking 12 spice shakers out of the pantry and putting it into a packet,” he said.

Beyond potato salad, Swan has also developed dill and onion dip mixes and plans to expand to other areas, like taco seasoning.

The other thing that makes CJ’s unique is its production space, an FDA-certified kitchen in the basement of the former home of his current business partner. Swan said those inspecting it were a bit leery when they first walked in, but were surprised when they saw how professionally the kitchen had been built out.

“They walked in there and (it was so clean) you could do surgeries in there,” he said.

As a pilot, Swan realized FAA regulations “are written exactly like the food regulations,” making it easier for him to read them and get up to speed.

The company was formed as an LLC in April 2014 and the kitchen was certified organic by July of that year. Over time, Swan said he realized doing business with his friend wasn’t a good fit, so Swan and his wife bought the friend out.

Now, Swan is taking a leave from his job as a pilot and making a go of it with his own business. His product has been picked up in stores like Sendik’s and he’s starting to get some wider distribution statewide. He’s also picked up some food service accounts, luxury suites in stadiums and he’s even received interest from the military.

Being in grocery stores helps Swan demonstrate acceptance by the market. He has a team of nine part-time employees who help with product demos, which helps drive sales at the stores.

Production, at the moment, is largely handled by the Swans, along with their friends and family. Depending on demand and the number of people involved, Swan said he can ramp production up to more than 1,000 packets per day.

While getting into grocery stores is a positive step, Swan is planning to increasingly focus on restaurants and food service applications. The reality is the labor cost and production time is about the same, whether he’s making the smaller packet for a 2.5-pound batch or a larger bag capable of producing 31 pounds of potato salad.

“It’s very tedious. It’s a small profit margin,” Swan said of the smaller bags.

Swan figures he’ll be able to scale up production as the business continues to grow. The effort has been entirely self-funded to this point, but Swan said at some point he’ll turn to financing to move to a larger facility.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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