By Dave Bernard
Whether it’s a coffee-inspired seasoning blend that highlights the meat and poultry dishes of a popular Denver spice shop’s customers, a delicious all-purpose blend from St. Augustine, Florida featuring the sweet and fruity yet sharp bite of native datil pepper or the endless custom seasoning possibilities of Midwest spice stalwart Wixon, home chefs and the retailers that serve them have more delectable choices in seasoning blends than their pantry or store shelves can hold.
When it comes to unique flavor combinations, Coal Gulch Trading Company packs quite a punch for its small size. The three-employee Madrid, New Mexico company, which partners with a co-packer and is in its fourth year of operation, boasts a Scovie Award for its Ancho Herb Seasoning, a salt-free Italian blend that works with lasagna and spaghetti as well as a dry rub for meat and fish. The company also has a Great American Barbecue People’s Choice award for its Chipotle Seasoning blend.
Coal Gulch looks to infuse a dash of originality into its seasoning blends, as with its new Cayenne Seasoning that surprises with brown sugar. “We try to start with a traditional base,” said owner Michael Scott Reilly. “That’s a typical cayenne base, and then I try to twist it to my own taste and create something unique that sets it apart from everybody else. That and the fact that we’re salt-free and gluten-free as well – we’re getting a nice response to it.”
In addition to its cayenne, ancho herb and chipotle blends, Coal Gulch offers a habanero blend, as well as two glazes and a habanero mustard. Its products are sold in markets and gift shops in New Mexico and Arizona as well as in Ohio’s Jungle Jim’s International Markets.
St. Francis, Wisconsin-based spice company Wixon focuses on custom seasoning blends for private-label retail and foodservice clients. When Moe’s Southwest Grill needed a hot seasoning blend for its spicy guacamole, the 500+ location casual restaurant chain turned to Wixon. While Moe’s requested a very specific flavor profile with particular finishing notes, Wixon Corporate Chef Steve Padley and his team negotiated the complex arena of hot seasoning combinations to create a habanero-based blend for the chain’s now highly successful guacamole.
Whether solving seasoning challenges for a large casual dining chain, private-label client or startup gourmet food manufacturer, Padley finds this an exciting time for seasoning creators given the surging and varied demands of consumers looking for adventurous new tastes as well as authentic ethnic flavors. “American consumers are fascinated by what’s not here,” Padley said. “When they see the Travel Channel going to all of these exotic locales, and then they get on the Internet and do a little more exploration, they start to wonder what these flavors are like. And now with the millennials coming through and the generation behind them, I think they’re a little more adventurous in their eating.”
While the opportunity to create unique seasoning blends is “the greatest thing in the world,” according to Padley, he also emphasized the care that goes into creating the authentic ethnic flavors that consumers crave. “People are looking for flavors that are more real now, more authentic,” he said. “So it’s about getting the right type of chilies, the right type of herbs for this traditional fare. And having been in the business for as long as I have, I can take all the past learnings and really explore the world and do this sourcing.”
Other companies have found success with a business model that includes manufacturing as well as online and brick-and-mortar store sales. As these spice houses create new and unique blends as well as spot-on authentic combinations, they focus on bonding with in-store customers over the cooking experience.
“Our stores are about interaction,” said Mike Johnston, co-founder of Denver-based Savory Spice Shop. The staff at his stores focus on sampling and engaging with customers about cooking and goals in the kitchen. A perfect example is the company’s popular Mexican Mole blend. After a number of regular customers asked Johnston to come up with such a blend as a convenient alternative to the one to two-day intensive from-scratch process of creating authentic mole, he created a delicious chocolate-chili blend that turns two days of work into 45 minutes for savory ready-to-eat beef, chicken, pork or vegetable dishes.
Another blend that has been getting fantastic results for Savory Spice Shop is the company’s signature Baker’s Brew Coffee Spice. By combining a dark roast coffee with sugar, cocoa, cinnamon, allspice and cardamon among other ingredients, Johnston has hit on a blend that delights in both savory and baking uses.
Based in Palm Harbor, Florida, The Spice & Tea Exchange has 37 stores spread throughout the country, five of which are company-owned, including locations at Walt Disney World and Tampa, Florida’s Busch Gardens. When a walk-in customer at one of The Spice & Tea Exchange’s nationwide locations has questions about the inclusion of black tea in a peppercorn salmon rub, interaction is the keyword there, as well. “Our experience is all about smell, taste and getting to know what works for you and what you prefer,” said Libby Breivogel, Corporate Marketing Coordinator for The Spice & Tea Exchange. “Since nearly all of our blends are hand-mixed right in-store, we encourage customers to ask questions, and our stores host a lot of educational sessions and cooking classes.”
One of the company’s top sellers is its all-purpose Signature Spice Blend, created by founder and Managing Partner Clay Freeman. This blend includes the fruity yet hot datil pepper native to the St. Augustine area where the company’s warehouse is located.
Whether authentic traditional or new and unique, there is always room on the retail shelf for a quality gourmet seasoning blend. The nice thing is spices and blends never really go out of style. “If you look back at history, there have been wars fought over spices,” said Michael Scott Reilly of Coal Gulch Trading Company. “And just about every futuristic magazine, it’s all about spice miners and traders. So spices are a big part of culture and a big part of life. It’s something everybody can relate to.”