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February 11, 2015

Sights, Scents and Stories from a Spice Emporium

By Joan Brunwasser

When we first opened our shop in 1957, we sold coffee, tea, nuts, and spices. I worked there for my allowance from the time I was 8, so I was able to be a part of our learning and growing process. We're still grinding in-house and mixing by hand small batches of our seasonings, which are formulated from old family recipes. Sharing top quality products with the customers that appreciate them is a wonderful daily experience.

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The Spice House
The Spice House
(Image by The Spice House)
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The Spice House, the Midwest's "merchants of exquisite spices, herbs and seasonings"

My guest today is Patty Erd, co-owner of The Spice House, the MidWest's "merchants of exquisite spices, herbs and seasonings" . Welcome to OpEdNews, Patty. How did you come to be in this business?

The Spice House is my family business; my folks began it in 1957. Like many generations, we did not really want or plan to follow in my parents' footsteps. Now, we are so happy that we ended up doing so, thanks to a little shove from my folks! My parents had moved our shop several places over the years, but landed on a wonderful historical street in downtown Milwaukee called Old World Third Street. Their rental lease had just finished and the landlords were not planning on renewing it. They said they just did not have it in them to build out another location; they were mid fifties at the time.

They wanted my husband and me to buy their business and give it a shot. There was a spot open right across the street, so it was an opportune time for the business to transition to the next generation. We bought the business and then spent our life savings doing the build out. In an uncannily similar experience, we are now in our mid fifties and would like to have a next generation learning the ropes, while we prepare to hand off the treasured family business. Most of my nieces and nephews are in their twenties, and consequently have their own dreams ahead of them, not ours. We are most curious to see how it will all play out!

Inside the Spice House
Inside the Spice House
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Some background first, please. You followed your parents into the business. How did they get involved with spices in the first place? What experience and expertise did they bring?

My parents met at a food company called Jewitt and Sherman that was founded in Milwaukee in 1875. Milwaukee historians say that this was the biggest wholesale shipper of coffee and spices west of the Alleghenies. My dad worked as a salesman in their wholesale division, getting new restaurant account. At that time, it was primarily premium coffee they were buying. As the coffee was excellent, most of his customers' inquiries were about other items like spices, teas, and nuts. He saw a niche market there and decided to start his own business a little down the road. When we first opened our shop in 1957, we sold coffee, tea, nuts, and spices. I worked there for my allowance from the time I was about 8, so I was able to be a part of our learning and growing process. Each year, we made a little more money to put back into things to help us grow. One year, we decided we could afford a small mill so that we could grind our own spices.

This made a world of difference because we could now personally ensure the ultimate in freshness and even tell our customers the date this spice was ground. The downside, however, is that the spice dust in the air permeated everything. The customers started to bring back their coffees and teas saying that they loved the smell of spices in our shop, but not in their morning coffee! At this turning point, my folks had to choose between these product lines and they chose spices. If they had chosen coffee, perhaps we would be the proud owner of a much larger Starbucks-type operation! We do love the spice world, the history is fascinating, so we are glad that is the road they chose.

You literally grew up in the business, Patty. Yet, it hasn't gotten old for you after all these years. Why not?

Don't get me wrong, some of it gets very old. But those are all things on the administrative side. My husband and I did not go to college to learn marketing, human resources, all the complicated interactions between website business and SEO, CPC, conversion rates, ROAS, etc and it is often difficult for us to wear these hats.

Patty and Tom Erd, proprietors
Patty and Tom Erd, proprietors
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I have no idea what any of those things are!

The spice part, that never gets old. We will forever love this part of our business. Getting in these products from all over the world and grinding them and mixing them into wonderful seasonings is our passion. When we get a new product for the very first time, we sometimes feel like a kid opening a Christmas gift. Sharing top quality products with the customers that appreciate them really is a wonderful daily experience. We have amazing customers, and the reason they shop with us is that they want to cook with top quality ingredients. It's like we have this super fun club where people who love to cook come in and become instant members. We share advice and suggestions, both ways. It's not at all uncommon for me to open our email and find a recipe that a customer wants to direct to a staff member that helped them because they were talking about making it. Even better, we often have customers bringing us goodies they made because they are so excited about how they turned out and want to share. How much more interactive and heartfelt could it get?

Fabulous! You started in the shop at age 8. I'd love to hear some childhood memories of those days. What do you remember?

On Saturdays, I had to go to the store to earn my allowance. Dad was an amazing man, and his ideas of spice studies were quite wide ranged and sometimes a little out there! One day, I had to open up a bunch of cardamom pods and count the number of seeds in each pod and record whether they were black or brown. Another time, he fell in love with this Russian cookbook and we made a really special spice gift box. I took Russian in grade school, and I had to draw the Russian names on the labels individually. Then, we got some pepper mills that had a top shaped like the onion tops of Russian orthodox churches. We painstakingly painted them to look like some of the domes of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.

We chewed on a black peppercorn each day at work for "remembrance". Another thing we would do was eat a little ginger, as that another of Dad's saying was "a pinch of ginger keeps the heart warm." At the recent wedding of my niece Eva, the first of our next generation to get married, we put out a bowl of ginger with that saying written on a window behind it, encouraging everyone to have a piece. When we were sleepy in the afternoon, Dad made us drink a mixture of cayenne pepper in water to liven us up. Dad was often in the back, working on his various "projects" and spice studies, while Mom manned the floor. The customers just loved her, and still do, 57 years later, on the days she is still in her store. She never lost her love of taking care of our people.

Very popular Aleppo chile pepper
Very popular Aleppo chile pepper
(Image by The Spice House)
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What skills did you pick up from your parents? Have you found their strategies still useful in today's economy? Do you all get together and talk shop, swapping ideas?

Dad loved the teaching aspect of the world of spices. He also had a large collection of cookbooks, many of them valuable antiques, so we could study recipes from different time periods. He liked to throw in a some philosophy classes as well. He followed the writings of two men most people have not heard of: Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, and their teaching about how we need to work with the universe to achieve our destiny and our consciousness. Obscure stuff that went way beyond the world of spices but that Dad still tried to incorporate into his daily spice work. My husband in particular picked up a huge amount from my dad. As kids, I think we had the brain set to tune out a lot of Dad's lessons, and daydream of more interesting things. My husband, not being of the same mindset, seemed to have paid far more attention.

Things always went long with my dad; he just had so much to share. When we sat down to holiday meals, Dad would do a reading before we ate. My siblings and I would see where the first bookmark tab was placed, and after gauging the second book mark to be about 50 pages later, would have to use all of our willpower not to roll our eyes or sigh out loud! Eventually, out of consideration to Mom, who made the wonderful meals that got cold every time before the readings were finished, we got Dad to do his readings towards the end of the meal. That sure was a conversation killer, though! When we opened our second store in Evanston, Dad would often call with advice or more learnings he wanted to share. Each call would typically last an hour. When our staff would say, your dad is on line one, my husband and I would point at one another, silently mouthing "it's your turn" as often our busy days did not really have a game plan that included a spare hour. I would give so much to still be getting these calls today.

#1 best seller: Back of the Yards Garlic-Pepper, Butchers' Rub
#1 best seller: Back of the Yards Garlic-Pepper, Butchers' Rub
(Image by The Spice House)
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I bet!

The core of what our business was remains intact. The tools of our trade are essentially the same. We are still grinding in house and mixing by hand small batches of our seasonings, which are formulated from old family recipes. Taking care of our customers and sharing our love of good food and recipes seems to be a timeless function of our business. As is treating our staff like a family. Treating all people and things with integrity and respect is something I hope most parents pass on to their children. We got all of that tenfold as my parents were such incredibly caring people. It's the peripheral stuff that requires you keep up with the ever changing world of technology. Luckily, business has been good enough that we can hire professionals for that. If Dad was still around, I could have put him in charge of social media, and he would have excelled at that!

Sure sounds like it! You have a boatload of wonderful memories, don't you, Patty? Do you have a particular spice or smell, with a story attached, that conjures up those early days in the shop?

Dad would do odd things, I suppose, to get us to focus. My husband is also fond of the saying "be where you are"! My dad would say, "today you are going to grind white pepper and we are going to say if you sneeze, you die. So, you will grind the white pepper without sneezing." And, somehow we did, which was tough.

Spice Collage
Spice Collage
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My favorite spice has always been vanilla. I was the kid that always got teased at 31 Flavors for not being more adventurous. It had nothing to do with that, I simply knew vanilla was the best flavor. I tried to add vanilla to many things where you would not normally think of it. When I was a teenager, I loved to fry up a quick lunch including thin cut pork chops. I would add orange juice, our Florida seasoned pepper, brown sugar, and a few drops of vanilla extract. ACH, my German grandma would say, you are crazy. As I continued to make these, at one point, I finally got Gram to have a taste. "Hmm, these ARE pretty good," a high compliment from her. Dad loved vanilla too; he did all sorts of creative things with the beans on a beautiful white marble slab that he reserved just for unique vanilla creations. He gave us his special personal recipe for our Spiced Sugar, when we opened our Old Town shop.

As kids, my folks would bring us to Chicago at least once every summer. For whatever reason, we loved the Old Town neighborhood, which back then was quite seedy and a little on the shady side. In retrospect, I realized my folks sort of saved the special shop we loved to bring out right after we asked, "Dad, what does XXX mean"? "Hey look kids," Dad would say, "there's the Fudge Pot, let's run!" and we'd forget all about that question! Who would have dreamed that 35 years later, we would open a beautiful little shop there? When my dad gave us that vanilla sugar recipe, he asked that we call it Old Town Spiced Sugar. And to this day, it is one of the very best things we make.

Nice! I understand that you are giving a lecture soon at the Skokie Public Library. Do you do that often? Who comes and what kind of reception do you get?

My husband and I have a very nice lecture called "The Lure and Lore of Spices" that is informative, educational and entertaining. Libraries these days are really amazingly modern places, most of the libraries we speak at now have meeting rooms that can hold around a hundred people. People love to learn and the history of spices is really fascinating so we normally have no trouble selling out these programs. Library patrons would be the regular attendees, although we do promote these lectures to our customers via our social media outlets. We are on the "public library circuit" so I would say we do at least a dozen of these library talks a year. We also speak at clubs that have a common interest, such as garden clubs, foodie clubs, etc. Another really fun event aspect for us is culinary author book signings and tastings. When an author is out promoting a new book, we make our events a little nicer than the big box store signings by cooking up many of the recipes in the book and sampling out to our guests. This past year we had Carla Hall, from The Chew, for example, Karen Paige and Andrew Dornenburg several times, and Dorie Greenspan. My staff loves these events, as many of them went to culinary school and this give them a chance to show off their cooking chops!

Shelf-full of colorful and fragrant merchandise
Shelf-full of colorful and fragrant merchandise
(Image by The Spice House)
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Cool! The Spice House has been around for a long time. What kind of press have you enjoyed over the years?

As the owner that wears the PR hat, if I really claimed the credit for all the fabulous press we received over the years, I think I could land a really nice paying job in public relations! The truth of the matter is that most of these stories come to us because we have such a unique and unusual business. We have had stories about us in most major food magazines and food sections of many newspapers not just the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Evanston shop was named Small Business of the Year in 2000. In 2002, we received a prestigious Good Eating Award from the Chicago Tribune. In 1999, Alton Brown filmed a piece for his show, Good Eats, in our Evanston shop.

The show was new back then, and the Chicago area had not picked up the Food Network yet. He was such a perfectionist, he was in our shop for about 10 hours and our spot was edited down to about two minutes. No one said much about it. The following year, people came into the shop and talked about seeing me on television. I had no idea of what they were talking about. Then I looked online and they were airing it again because it was his classic Christmas episode called "It's a Wonderful Cake." 16 years later it is still airing, now on the Cooking Channel. How much luckier could we get? We also did a podcast with Alton Brown last year for Nerdist. One of the scariest hours of my life, that man is so smart!

We have been on the TV show Real Simple, which was incredibly challenging as they wanted me to simplify curry powder. I think the question was, if you did not have curry powder, what three things could you substitute, for which there is no good answer. We did a few NPR interviews with Michelle Norris of All Things Considered, local radio with Dean Richards recently and Rick Kogan, a Chicago icon. So many more. I think possibly the nicest feather in our cap came last year when Food and Wine Magazine placed us on the short list of the Best Spice Shops in THE WORLD!

Wow; that is something! What haven't we talked about yet?

The creative process of our work. Imagine if you love to cook and you get to go to work in this place where there are 600 products to play with. It is a lot of work but so worth it. The subtle nuances of importing the top quality products from all over the world is quite a challenge. My husband is a master of this, and it seems that he is often off to the bank to wire funds to farmers in other countries which may or may not send us the product after they get the money. We import cinnamon from four parts of the world in whole form and then we grind it, fresh pretty much weekly, so it will be amazing. A man goes down to our grinding room in the basement for several hours to grind and sift the cinnamon. When he comes back up, he is the best smelling a man will ever be. I tell him I hope he has a date tonight as she will love his cologne!

Yum!
Yum!
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We mix up all of our own seasonings in house, in small batches: An incredible amount of work, but the results make it all worthwhile. Next week, we have our day-long brainstorming session with all of our management team. This is where we discuss new products we are being asked for on the front lines in the shop, and whether we should stock them or whether we think they will just be a flash in the pan. My crew, with their culinary background, also loves to mix up new concoctions so it's hard to put a cap on the new products! Unlike a big corporation that might have to go through a lot of white tape, we can get a new product on the shelf fairly quickly. Our customers get very excited about new products, I guess that's human nature.

Then the most fun part: we get to spend the day working with the best customer base of any store I know. Our customers love to cook and we really enjoy the exchange of cooking and recipe ideas and what they have made with our products that they really enjoyed. It's like subliminal advertising, and it even works on us. After talking about jerk chicken with several customers during the day, you just know you have to go home and make jerk chicken for dinner tonight. We also get to work hand in hand with a lot of high-end Chicago chefs. We do custom blends for many, and my husband serves as a top notch consultant for this. We even have to sign confidentiality clauses!

We do so many different jobs daily that there is never a boring, or perhaps I should say bland, day at The Spice House.

Mural Shelf
Mural Shelf
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Well, you've done a great job sharing your life at the shop, Patty. It's easy to see why The Spice House has flourished. Thanks so much for talking with me. It was really fun!

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Submitters Website: http://www.opednews.com/author/author79.html

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.


Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.


While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and Scoop.co.nz.

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