‘Burlap & Barrel’ co-founder reflects on CUNY beginnings and entrepreneurial career

When added to a dish, spice builds on the existing flavors with zest. For Ethan Frisch, the wild cumin that he found in the mountains of Northeastern Afghanistan added that kick to his life. The spice was what blew away his friends in the restaurant industry and what inspired him and business partner Ori Zohar to found Burlap & Barrel.

Advocating for sustainability and fairness in food systems, the single-origin spice company has connected small farmers around the world with customers in U.S. markets since 2016. As its co-CEO, Frisch spearheads the company’s steadily expanding global operations. The entrepreneurial New York native’s path to where he is today, however, is rooted in CUNY.

Frisch graduated from Macaulay Honors College in 2008 through the CUNY baccalaureate program, holding a bachelor’s degree in conflict studies and another in education in social change.

While his home campus for the program was City College, Frisch told The Ticker that he studied at various CUNY institutions — including Baruch College, where he took a course run by the Sidney Harman Writer-In-Residence program.

Having “had such a blast at City College and CUNY in general,” Frisch said his education served him well, citing the diversity of the interests and people at CUNY as well as the passion of his professors.

“I had professors who, in addition to being college professionals, were also activists in all kinds of political issues and writers,” Frisch said. “So much of that has affected my career in sort of inspiring me to be independent, pursue my own interests and find ways to connect things that don’t necessarily seem like they could be connected — like spices and social enterprise.”

After graduation, Frisch worked various jobs in restaurants and nonprofit organizations. He even served as an adjunct lecturer in political science and international studies at City College from 2007 to 2009.

In 2010, he briefly ran an activist ice cream business called “Guerilla Ice Cream,” which he co-founded with Zohar. After finishing graduate school in SOAS University of London, Frisch worked as an aid worker in Afghanistan, where he found the spice to his next career opportunity. But he “didn’t know about anything of the business or supply chain elements of what” he was doing.

“I was literally carrying home spice and duffle bags,” Frisch explained to The Ticker in an interview on April 13. “I didn’t know anything about import-export, freight forwarding, customs or import regulations — nothing. I had to sort of figure myself and kind of piece it together as I went.”

When Frisch was launching Burlap & Barrel, he asked Baruch professor Jerald Saltzman for advice on his business’s supply chain. The two mutually connect through Frisch’s family’s synagogue, where Saltzman is a member.

Saltzman invited Frisch back to Baruch on March 7 as a guest speaker. Frisch shared his company’s story and logistics system to students taking OPM 3710, a course that focuses on global supply chain management.

“When he came to the class, we would never expect him to be so casual,” Juliana Miranda, a Baruch junior who is in the class, told The Ticker. “He was very nice in general and also very open with people asking questions.”

Impressed by how Frisch demonstrated “how you can take nothing and make it into something huge,” Miranda added that he showed the students “exactly how quality matters.”

“You don’t always need to get over on people,” Miranda said. “He explained he paid his farmers exactly what they asked for. He treats his workers very well, and he still makes a very profitable business.”

Frisch said the class “already knew way more than [he] did, at least when [he] started the company.”

To CUNY students seeking that career path, he said “in the process of starting a business, having your message dialed in is really important — understanding what you want to do, and how to help other people understand what you want to do in a sufficient way, a clear way [and], a compelling way.” 

Frisch never planned on becoming an entrepreneur, but he fell into “an incredible career path” in which he got to pursue something he is passionate about.

“Pursue entrepreneurship — even if it’s not a full-time thing, even if it doesn’t become your main source of income,” he said, adding that it “can be incredibly valuable — personally, professionally and financially.”