Buying Local in Chicago: Q-and-A With Patty Erd of The Spice House

The Unwrap Chicago campaign, conducted by the non-profit group Local First Chicago, is aimed at persuading consumers to spend their holiday shopping dollars with locally owned small businesses. But why buy local? The Spice House in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood exemplifies some of the best reasons.

The Spice House in Chicago Illinois

There is the freshness of the products. The spices and other seasonings that The Spice House sells are ground and prepared on-site. Obviously, you can get most of the spices you need from your local supermarket, but you won't enjoy the redolent aromas that surround you at this shop. Nor will you find tasters that allow you to sample the products before you purchase them.

And then there is the customer service. Patty Penzey Erd, who co-owns the business (and its sister shops in suburban Evanston and Geneva and in Milwaukee) with her husband Tom, says most of her employees are culinary school graduates who can answer questions about the products with expertise.

And there is the essential role that small businesses such as The Spice House play in building strong local economies. The area of Wells Street south of North Avenue where The Spice House is located also includes bakeries, chocolatiers and even a shop that specializes in a variety of olive oils.

A piece I wrote about The Spice House for Unwrap Chicago's blog can be found here. An excerpted q-and-a from my interview with Patty Erd is below.

Benenson: Tell me a little bit about the history of the Spice House.

Erd: My parents actually started the business in 1957 in Milwaukee, Wis. When they started the business they called it "Spices, Coffee, Teas and Some Nuts." They did what most new spice companies do, they just bought spices already ground from the bigger companies. As they went on they realized if they could actually afford to buy our own grinder and grind our own spices, it would be the epitome of freshness and they did that. But what happened is spice particulates get in the air and the smell you smell in here goes into the coffee, goes into the tea, and tea especially is a delicate, fragile thing so people started bringing back the tea, saying, "You know, spiced tea is good, but it’s not what I wanted in this nice Darjeeling tea." So my parents had to make a decision as to which one of those roads to go down, and they picked spices.

Benenson: They could have been way ahead of the curve on chai.

Erd: [Laughs] Or maybe if they had picked coffee, we’d be Starbucks or Seattle’s Best. But we’re happy with our choices. It’s a fun, fun way to make a living.

Benenson: So how did the store migrate to Chicago?

Erd: They sold the business to us when they retired, so we’ve owned the business for 20 years... We found a place in Evanston... And after about five years there, we got acclimated to the city. We opened here, it’s been about 15 years. This is definitely our busiest store.

Benenson: Even in 1957, you could go to the store and buy spices off the shelf. You’re in competition not only with that but mail order houses. What’s the secret to the Spice House’s 55 years of success?

Erd: That’s not an easy thing in a small business to keep going for 55 years. What we feel we do that separates us from other spice companies is we do our grinding on the premises, and the blending, all our blends here in the store are mixed up by our guys. So we grind four kinds of cinnamon, and basically we try to grind what we foresee selling in the next week. A man goes down to the basement with a big bag of Ceylon cinnamon bark or Vietnamese cinnamon bark, grinds 100 pounds, comes out of the basement, and after about three or four hours is as best-smelling as a man will ever be. Next week, we do it again. As we get close to the holidays, sometimes that poor man has to do it twice a week, because it goes out the door so fast. It would take a lot of work to know if this cinnamon was ground this week or this month. But we like to think that people do have an appreciation for that.

Benenson: Obviously, customer service.

Erd: We hope we have good customer service. I’m very fortunate that the majority of my staff are culinary school graduates... Maybe they went into culinary school thinking they’d be the next Guy Fieri, and they’re peeling potatoes for eight dollars an hour. So they end up gravitating to a food business that might be a little more and has regular hours. We have a couple of people who, when they got married and the wife says, "The Saturday night coming home at 3 in the morning, it just doesn’t work for us." Or they have a family. So they come here. We try really hard to get good, knowledgeable foodie people for our staff.

Benenson: How has your customer base changed over the years, especially when the way we eat and tastes have changed so much?

Erd: The label my dad made for everything was good on steak, chicken and vegetables. Then he branched out to steak, chicken, vegetables and eggs. Now, it’s just a world apart. And we’re in a really good place at the right time with all the growing global fusion cuisines... The very cool thing about a small business is you can hear from your customers, we have a lot of four-star chefs as customers, you can hear from them what they’re playing around with, and it doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong... My staff is very creative, so every time we see that we’re missing something, we try to get it in the line. And being a small business, we can react pretty quickly, my husband and I as the owners. We have a meeting, and say we should really be carrying this matcha green tea powder, okay let’s do it, and it’s done. Whereas a bigger company has to go through a lot more paperwork to get new products in.

Benenson: Chicago, every city in the United States really, is more cosmopolitan than it used to be. You must be constantly having to be on your toes.

Erd: When we opened in Evanston, very white-collar compared to Milwaukee, and we thought we were going to have to bump up our line of vegetarian seasonings, we thought we might have to do more sushi seasonings. Still, the number one question we have in all of our stores, blue-collar, white-collar, is what do you have that is good on steak... The other thing we had so much fun doing when we moved here was our calling-card seasonings are actually all named after different ethnic Chicago neighborhoods. So we got one of these Ethnic Chicago books. We would go to all of these places, go to this Italian restaurant, and we made this blend called Taylor Street Cheese Sprinkle, named for Little Italy, and it has flavors that are used in Italian cooking.... It was really fun to do that. So we now have a solid 20-plus seasonings named after different ethnic neighborhoods. Hyde Park was the newest one, which people had been campaigning for for quite a while, and then a famous resident [President Barack Obama] made us, well, let’s do it.

Benenson: The Local First campaign is about community, persuading people to buy in their neighborhoods. How has the Old Town neighborhood changed since you moved in here?

Erd: Our landlord really liked the idea of trying to make this a food destination... In a neighborhood, like this, there’s no reason why you couldn’t buy all of your holiday gifts in a single neighborhood... I do the same thing. I try to shop locally and I try to buy my gifts locally...

We do have catalogs that I write, they’re 52 pages and they’re wonderful. But they do not get mailed to anybody unless someone calls me on the phone and says, "Please mail me one." We hand them out in the store, because they’re really a nice spice reference guide... The nice thing about being online, and I’ll do this, I go to restaurants, I look at the menu online and when I go to the restaurant, I know what they have to offer.... We have tons of recipes online, so we hope people go online, look at the recipes, find out what they want, and then come into the store, and they can taste and smell everything, and they can talk cooking with my staff.

Benenson: Are there special things you do for Christmas season?

Erd: We sell the gift selections far more during Christmas season. We have 30 themed gift boxes that range between $21 up to a 10-jar gift box that is about $50. You can do a Chicago neighborhood, and we’re real excited this year because we have new boxes that have a Chicago skyline. We haven’t done anything with packaging in the full 55 years we’ve been in business... We’ve got new labels that actually have all the ingredients on the label. Any person who has anything to do with cooking, we can point you to an Asian gift box, a Latino gift box, a curry gift box, a barbecue box, a chicken box, a fish box. If that’s not good enough, you can also put together your own selections of four seasonings...

The unfortunate thing for us, it’s super labor-intensive, and because we’re strictly about freshness, we cannot be building all these boxes during the summer, any slow season, we have to wait until right now to make them and get them fresh. So we’re totally up against it to keep up now. And then there are a lot of people who want to do corporate gifts, and they say, "If I buy 500, will there be a discount," and we say, "No, you’ll actually have to pay more." That’s like saying to an artist, "If you sculpt 20 of these, can I get a discount?" No, it’s the same amount of work either way. It keeps us busy. Our full staff and we have five stores, one is in the Milwaukee private garden, every one jumps up to about 13, 14, 15 employees during this time. That’s not enough. But because our staff is so trained, we can’t just call a temporary agency. They’ve got to know everything about 550 different products.

Benenson: Do you get a lot of newbies?

Erd: We have the full gamut. So those ethnic seasonings I was just describing. We put everything together for you, the only thing you have to do is sprinkle it on your chicken, roast it in your oven and you’re done. But on the flip side, we have four-star chefs that would never buy a seasoned salt, they want to make their own. We do some custom blending for some high-end chefs.

Benenson: What do you recommend in terms of shelf life and storage?

Erd: When we do presentations, which we do a ton of, it’s a great way to advertise, that question always gets asked. Generally speaking, ground spices or mixtures, simply have about a one-year shelf life. People might also say six months, but everything is so fresh in our stores we feel very comfortable with one year. Old spices will never make you sick, you’re not at any health risk, but you defeat the point in using them if they’ve lost their volatile oils. We’ve tried to tell people, you should pick one time a year, every year, when you clean out your spice cabinet. A lot of people pick the week before Thanksgiving. In actuality, the week before Thanksgiving is the hardest week of the year for us because people come in with long lists of one-ounce, one-ounce, one-ounce of things, and you might wait on them for a half-hour and their bill will come to $18. Once we clear Thanksgiving, people come in and they’re just stacking up the gift boxes at $20 a pop, and then you spend half an hour with them and it’s $300. It’s logical to pick Thanksgiving because you’re going to cook, you’re going to entertain and you’re going into the holidays, so it’s a great time to clean your spice cabinet.

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