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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Spice House Responds

Not long ago, I blogged about our experiences at The Spice House. I sent the link to the contact form on their website, and one of the owners Patty Erd wrote me back! I'm not sure how much of this letter was canned, however to me it didn't sound at all canned, so I'm amazingly grateful for her to take the time to engage the conversation with me. Some things I agree with, some things I disagree with, however when I read through her letter the first time it sounded as if she was a little on the defensive. Perhaps my original post sounded negative, and if that was the way it was received I apologize profusely. My goal from my review was to HIGHLY recommend the Spice House, but as with most things I think that even good things can be made better. So check out Patty's letter below, and I'll have some short responses below that.

Hi Nick,

Thanks for your review, very nice blog site you have. I wish I could find the time to blog more. In actuality, the business we are in, is extremely time consuming as we make all of our product, not quite from scratch, as the farmer gets the credit for the hard work of growing and harvesting the spices and herbs. We get it is bulk from all over the world, the sourcing and procuring high quality on a crop by crop basis is one of the hardest things we do. Once it arrives, we grind small batches fresh weekly to ensure very fresh product moving in and out of the store. So we grind cinnamon once a week, today we ground a weeks worth of black pepper. These then get mixed into our seasonings, and unlike you and your wife, the average customer buys far more mixes than straight spices. Very few people make their own taco seasoning, for example, but most home cooks make tacos and they use some sort of premade seasoning. We also hand package our gift boxes, and even though my staff is primarily culinary school graduates, I do not have any cheap nighttime labor to do this tedious gift box making, we all pitch in. We also have an incredibly busy website, and on any given day we ship out several hundred packages, again all packed up by us. So rarely does the free time expand enough for all we would like to do!

We appreciate and understand your suggestion, but we have been in business 53 years, and it has been a long evolution to figure out what does and does not work. The little bags are the cheapest way to buy spices, but they are not at all good for long term storage of spices. So if we premade your box, and those spices stayed together for a few weeks, all the bags would become similar in flavor, and cloves would be the dominant flavor. Sort of like that smell you get in our store, which is a mix of everything? We also have over 450 products, and for us to pick what the average person would want, would be pretty presumptuous, sort of like me telling your wife what five colors of blouses she should have in her closet! On your list, for example, I never use paprika, whole cumin, rosemary, sage or nutmeg as I really dislike these flavors. We do let people buy these one ounce packages so that they can try new things without huge expense, but once they have figured out what they like, most of our customers get a jar, and then continue to refill the jar when they bring home the next batch of spice. We only sell these one ounce packages in the shop, the website does not offer them. We also have really, really nice gift cards, so your gift recipient can be sure to pick which flavors they like. The gift card is packaged in a nice bag with our 52 page catalog and some lovely smelling spices we drop into the bag, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cloves, to make a much more special presentation than a generic gift card.

So next time you are in, please ask if I am in and if so, I will be happy to give you the nickel tour and show you where the straight spices reside. I do want to let you know that most of Chicago's top chefs even buy curry powder from us, which is quite a testimonial to our curry. I had to drive to our Milwaukee store last week, as the film crew of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations filmed me and a top Milwaukee chef mixing up our special Maharajah curry powder which was going to be used in a special luncheon dish for Anthony the next day. They filmed the whole day, so if I don't get edited out, this will air on the show in a few months. So hopefully, you might give our curry powder a chance! And Alton Brown does actually order vanilla extract from us regularly, although he certainly does not need to worry about budget like most of us do.

Thanks again for the review,

Patty Erd
The Spice House

So there you have it. Overall I want to thank Patty for taking the time out of her busy schedule to write back to me. A few things I want to throw out there...

- Wonderful point that the little bags wouldn't be good for long term storage, but I guess I'd just say let's remove a few spices and throw them in the shaker jars. Or do you know of another low cost method in which you could pack them so the tastes wouldn't wander?

- As far as not being presumptuous about what the average cook would want in their spice cabinet, granted not everybody would use the same few basic spices/herbs, but I would say that we could make a pretty good guess. I mean, every time you put together a gift basket you are being presumptuous about what somebody would want.

- Regarding the large number of spice mixes, one of my good friends Don reminded me that creating a spice mix isn't always an easy task and a good spice master is hard to find. Perhaps I'm just not used to using spice mixes (aside from the Italian Seasoning Blend and Chinese 5 Spice) that it was just a bit overwhelming to me. I will chalk this up to my inexperience with spices. Perhaps I just expected a shelf of straight spices and the other shelves were the mixes, instead of just intermixed with everything. But this I suppose organization structures are different for everybody.

Overall though, I want...no check that...I NEED to convey how much I love your store. I think I said that when we arrived my wife froze at the possibilities and didn't know what she wanted to buy. Once we got home to MN, she cleaned out our spice cupboard and we sent away for a stocking order from you. We have a friend who lives a few blocks away from the Milwaukee store so he went and bought the small packs of them for us and sent them over. We just want to make sure we actually would like them, especially for those with more than one option. Paprika for one...we've never used it as a spice as anything at the grocery store is just coloring. We went with the Hungarian Spicy or something like that, and it's fantastic. We had the spices sent to work and everybody who came by my cube could smell the bag I had on my desk and asked about it. Maybe a MN branch is on the horizon? I still haven't found a good option here in MN....more on that later.

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