Ask a Spice Shop Owner: Patty Erd, The Spice House

Max Falkowitz

As far as I'm concerned, there's no better one-stop shop for spices in this country than the Milwaukee- and Chicago-based Spice House. This second-generation family business sells some of the best spices around, and no matter how far my explorations into the world of spices took me, the Spice House always had what I was looking for. No, scratch that, they had three kinds of what I was looking for.

What goes into running a small business that sells to the top chefs in Chicago and home cooks around the country? I talked with Patty Erd, the store's current owner, to find out.

How did you get started in this business? This is my family business. My parents started it in 1957. My siblings and I all went to college to do other things, because it's not that attractive to just follow in your parents' footsteps as a merchant. But then we got a little bit older, and a little bit wiser, and we saw the beauty of this whole concept, and I thank them every day that I have this way to make a living, because I really love what we do.

What brought them to spices? My dad used to sell coffee, tea, and spices to different restaurants, and he would go deliver them, as a second job. The restaurants eventually told him, "there's good coffee merchants out there, and there's good tea merchants out there, but we really need more spices, so could you focus on that?" So that's what he did. Maybe if he had focused on the coffee part of the business we'd be Starbucks. We're not, but we're doing okay. There's a lot of coffee competition out there, but nowhere near as much spice competition.

So far as I know, the only other company working in your space on a national level is Penzey's. Penzey's is actually my brother's company. But there are more popping up now all over the place, so our competition is actually getting a lot more fierce.

What's different about your operation? We actually process the spices on premises at one of our stores, and there are small grinders in each one of our basements. Someone grinds cinnamon in each store about once a week, and when a man returns from grinding cinnamon for three hours, that's the best he'll ever smell. But the next day that same man might have to grind cumin or black pepper. When he gets on the train to go home, he always gets his own seat.

What are your most popular products? We sell single spices and lots of blends, to regular cooks and to major chefs in Chicago. The blends are our most popular. We have a unique niche in Chicago, a series of blends named after ethnic neighborhoods; I can only imagine what we could do with New York blends! So that's been a lot of fun for us, and those ethnic blends are one of our signature calling cards.

Everyone seems to think great spices have to be expensive, but yours are often cheaper than supermarket brands. How do you price your products? We don't really know why the big spice companies and grocery stores need to charge that much. Our pricing is based on what we pay, with a certain mark-up for labor and costs. Maybe the big companies and the grocery store have very very high costs, but you don't need to sell a bottle of cardamom for $15; in our store you can get half an ounce for $1.50. We're not in this to become spice millionaires. We want to be really accessible to everyone.

How do you find the spices that you sell? Probably 80% of our products come from farmers that band together. If you go to India, there's 200,000 turmeric farmers. Their products often go to a central place, which is then sent over here by a packager, and then we get it through a spice importer. We also deal with a lot of niche and boutique farmers in items that are not commercially produced—we're lucky to have connections for them.

For example, we know a man in California; his mother has a vanilla plantation in Tahiti, but it can only produce a limited amount of beans, and they're very very expensive. We have a really great connection with that farm, and we'll get maybe 20 pounds of Tahitian vanilla beans a month. That doesn't work for a larger company like my brother's, but it works for us.

If you could sit the country down for a lesson on spices and teach us one thing, what would it be? That cinnamon isn't just cinnamon. People know now that apples aren't just apples—there are lots of variations. It's the same way with spices. Also: ground spices have a shelf life, generally speaking one year. Beyond that, they won't make you sick, but they'll have lost their essential oils. Whole spices are a different story. You can keep them for years and years.

What's the strangest thing that happened in your stores? We had our first Spice House marriage. As a small business owner you sort of forget that you can have some impact on people's lives, but two of our employees fell in love, and they're going to have a baby. If it's a girl, they might name her Saffron!

Once we had the great fortune to have Julia Child visit our shop in Milwaukee. She just jumped into things feet first. We had this cinnamon that came from Vietnam, a long log, real thick, and hard as a baseball bat. The trade doors had just opened from Vietnam when she came in, and we were really excited to show her this bark, and then give her a taste in powder form. She took the bark out of my hand and took a giant bite out of it. My whole family was there, because it was a very auspicious occasion, and we all collectively sucked in our breath, and asked, "Do you want to spit that out?" But she kept chewing and chewing and chewing, and 10 minutes later she had chewed it enough to swallow it. She was just so gracious, and she said something like, "Oh my dear, you're absolutely right, this is a delightful cinnamon, thank you for sharing this with me!" She signed the rest of that bark; it's one of my prized possessions.