The Einstein Test refers to the manner in which physicist Albert Einstein reportedly invited potential research assistants out for a bite, only to dismiss them on the spot if they seasoned their meal ahead of tasting it, his rationale being anyone who assumed an untouched bowl of soup required a dash of this or that lacked an open mind.
Now, while you might think a person who sells spices for a living would be all for people peppering their paprikash to their heart’s content, you would be dead wrong. Jess Lester, the founder of Railyard Spice Company, a months-old venture that turns out small-batch gourmet salts, sugars, cocktail rimmers and brines, rolls both eyes when the subject is raised.
"I definitely believe you should try your food before reaching for the salt and pepper shakers," Lester says, seated in a Grant Avenue coffee shop 20 minutes from her home in Headingley. "I know people who do just that and a few seconds later, when they complain their steak is too salty, in my head I’m going, ‘Hey, don’t blame the chef.’"
Lester, 35, grew up in Alberta. She spent most of her working life in the food and beverage industry — her first job was at Dairy Queen and she’s fairly confident she could still perform the upside-down Blizzard guarantee if called upon — and was, in fact, tending bar the night she met her Manitoba-born partner Chris Yaholkoski in Calgary 10 years ago.
The pair moved to Winnipeg in 2016 to be closer to his mother. Lester eventually caught on at the Holiday Inn Winnipeg-South as a bartender and remained there until March 2020, when she was laid off owing to COVID-19. She wasn’t overly worried at the time, having been told by a manager she’d probably be out of work for a month, tops. As the weeks went by, however, and spring became summer, she started thinking a backup plan was probably in order.
One morning in July 2020, Lester awoke up from a dream so vivid that she immediately reached for her phone to document every last detail: she was the owner of a biz titled Railyard Spice Company, a tag that wasn’t entirely random, she allows. A Canadian Pacific rail line runs 100 metres or so behind their property and whenever they entertained guests, they would jokingly call a makeshift bar in their garage the "Railyard."
As for the spice part of things, Lester reckons that stemmed from her long-held penchant for creating her own rubs and seasonings, by combining ingredients such as minced garlic or dried dill with different salts and whatnot.
"Even when I was working as a bartender, I was always fooling around with salts and spices, trying to come up with the perfect margarita rimmer, for example," she explains. "So if you’re asking whether I spent even a minute analyzing my dream to see if it contained some hidden meaning, the answer is no. I took it super-literally."
Unfortunately, it took a fair bit of time for the dream to become reality. A couple weeks after that fateful slumber, she fell ill with a non-COVID-related malady that had her in and out of hospital for the next 12 months. She used her downtime wisely. Whenever she was stuck in bed, sometimes for days on end, she would write out her time-tested recipes using notes she’d compiled through the years, in and around doing preliminary work on a website.
"I did a fair amount of research, as well, trying to determine if there was anything similar to what I had in mind," she says. "I spotted a few things based out of Toronto and Vancouver, but nothing really in the Prairies. By the time I had my surgery in July (2021), followed by five weeks of recovery, I was good to go, almost. It was just a matter of rolling up my sleeves and spending time in the kitchen."
Railyard Spice Company began as an online entity (www.railyardspice.com) in September 2021. Lester smiles, recalling the "happy dance" she performed the first time her phone emitted the sound of a cash register ringing in a transaction, the effect she went with to indicate a successful purchase. In early October she officially launched her venture at a Headingley-based pop-up sale, the catch being that, for health reasons, sellers were required to set up at the end of their driveway while interested parties went from house to house, mostly in the comfort of their vehicles.
"We did really well that afternoon despite the fact we couldn’t offer samples because of COVID," she says. "The fun thing was, Chris had the smokers going full-blast so the smell of our rubs hit you the second you rolled down the window."
Before long, people who’d bought her products, which arrive in semi-clear, resealable packages, were letting her know how they were utilizing them. Some mentioned her habanero salt pairs perfectly with scrambled eggs. Others commented that her pumpkin-spice sugar was just what their French toast had been missing all along. She also learned her lemon-rosemary salt goes great on grilled salmon and — this was something she’d never considered — that her dill-pickle salt elevates perogies to the nth degree. (Though she doesn’t have the required paperwork to ship south of the border yet, she has heard from curious Americans who wonder what a Caesar rimmer, made with sea salt, dried garlic, celery seed, paprika, garlic powder, ginger and two types of pepper, even is. When they discover it’s used in tandem with a libation similar in taste to a Bloody Mary, OK, they tell her, they look forward to ordering a few packs in the near future.)
A big fan of the Food Network, Lester says her mind is going non-stop, and that she can hardly move through the produce section of the grocery store without pausing to think what she could do with this vegetable or that piece of fruit.
"These days I have what I refer to as my three sleeps," she continues, mentioning fans of Taco Tuesday will be pleased to hear she is currently putting the finishing touches on a brand-new flavouring aimed specifically at that day of the week. "I usually go to bed at 10 only to wake up at midnight to enter something into my phone. I go back to sleep till three or so, then roll over to check my notes. By seven I’m generally up for good, and headed to the kitchen to make what I spent most of the night thinking about."
Before letting her go — she has a few orders to drop off on the way home — we asked Lester if she ever pinches herself, no pun intended, to make sure it isn’t still a dream.
Daily, she replies, noting she’s currently in discussions with representatives of several online shopping platforms interested in carrying her brand.
"I’ve only been at it this since the fall but what’s really blown me away is the amount of support I’ve received already from other Manitoba makers who’ve gone out of their way to let me know who to contact to get into a certain market, or who to reach out to for business-related advice," she says.
"I’m not going to lie, I definitely dreamed about owning my own restaurant one day. But did I think of myself as an entrepreneur? Not at all. But now that I am, I love everything about it. Plus, when Chris and I are making dinner together, we never have to run to the store at the last minute because we’re out of a certain spice."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.