07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
The tribespeople in the remote Vietnamese mountain town were puzzled. They had never met a Western woman before, much less one as tenacious as Lucia Cleveland. The California entrepreneur arrived in their midst last spring, weary after a 22-hour flight, a two-day Jeep ride and a strenuous hike. The object of her obsession: their prized cinnamon. "The villagers didn't know what to make of me, but we somehow made a deal," says Cleveland, 47.
American chefs should be grateful. Back home, Cleveland christened her sweet yet fiery find Highland Harvested Saigon Cinnamon. At $5 a 1.5-oz. jar, it is now one of the top items in her 200-product Spice Hunter line, which, along with saffron from Spain ($8) and vanilla beans from Madagascar ($7), is available at select U.S. supermarkets, such as Whole Foods and Safeway. Aiming to awaken palates numbed by stale spices, Cleveland offers only naturally grown herbs harvested and packed to preserve their freshness. "Gourmet food used to be dusty packages on the shelf," she says. "Now taste is what it's about."
With her taste buds leading the way, Cleveland has taken the Spice Hunter from a shoestring operation in her living room to a high-growth company in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with a 100,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and a staff of 100. Last year, seasonings giant C.F. Sauer bought the firm, with Cleveland still on board. Says Bill Uhlik, Sauer's vice president of finance, who expects Spice Hunter to take in $30 million this year: "We couldn't afford to lose her vision."
Cleveland's trailblazing along the spice route was circuitous. The youngest of three daughters of James McMillan, a cardiologist, and Margaret, a social worker, she grew up in Manhattan and studied botany at Grinnell College in Iowa. After graduating in 1974, she traveled crosscountry with her boyfriend, Robert "Bo" Hunter, a landscape planner, eventually marrying and taking a job as a state water inspector in San Luis Obispo. Free time was spent on her favorite pastime—gourmet cooking.
Then one day in 1980, over a pot of chicken stock, Cleveland's life changed. Long frustrated by the scarcity of fresh spices, she lost her patience when she couldn't locate a prepackaged bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs required for many French recipes. "I realized I had to do something about it myself," she says. So with $10,000 in savings, she contracted with local farmers and importers and began selling freshly cut herbs through Gourmet magazine.
Gradually, after appearances at food fairs, where Cleveland cooked dishes such as blackened redfish seasoned with her herbs, local shops took notice. "I didn't make money for the first few years," she says. But by 1984 the company had turned its first profit—enough to eventually prompt Cleveland to quit her day job.
Though the business grew (instant noodles and risottos were added), Cleveland and her spouse drifted apart, divorcing amicably in 1987. Two years later she married Barrie Cleveland, a community volunteer she met at a fund-raiser. She cut back on travel with the arrival of daughters Kendra (in 1990) and Margo (in 1992). But in 1998, with a nanny in tow, the girls began tagging along on scouting trips. "In Greece they went to the beach while I was on the phone with oregano farmers," says Cleveland.
Now separated from her second husband (she blames "that standard successful-wife tension"), Cleveland recently moved with her daughters to an airy four-bedroom house near San Luis Obispo. The trio's next spice hunt is in Asia, but Cleveland refuses to divulge her destination. Brimming with a gourmand's glee, she explains, "I want a white pepper that won't leave black specks in a cream sauce."
Karen Grigsby Bates in San Luis Obispo