When did you officially open?
What inspired you to start the business?
Milliman: “We were in Portland and wanted a change. We both had corporate jobs for a long time. We decided we didn’t want to go back to the corporate world and keep doing what we were doing. We decided to move to Astoria and have a business that we could do together.”
How did you find this particular spot in Astoria?
Leiner: “We actually started our first two years down where Luminari Arts is (1133 Commercial St.), then this spot (1153 Commercial St.) became available as soon as our lease was up. We saved a fair amount of money by moving down here and we thought it fit better because the first place was cavernous.”
Milliman: “Our original plan was to have a commercial kitchen for cooking classes, but it was a historic building and venting out through the roof was problematic. This place was a good fit.”
How many different spices and teas do you offer?
Milliman: “About 360.”
What are your best-selling teas and spices?
Milliman: “Zhug, a spice blend from Yemen, is one of our top sellers. It’s incredibly popular.”
Interesting. I’ve never heard the word ‘Zhug’ before…
Milliman: “That’s the cool thing. We have so many spices and blends that people are not familiar with or couldn’t imagine that they could find in Astoria. We’ve been able to introduce some exciting flavors. Zhug is an amazing, little bit spicy, well-rounded blend that’s so incredibly versatile. Customers are having a blast with it. The Indian spices are also popular. We’ve got great restaurants but we don’t have a ton of variety like you would find in a city, so people are doing a lot more cooking at home I think. We sell a ton of cumin that we grind fresh here. Cardamom is a huge seller, especially in the wintertime because of all the Scandinavian communities baking Cardamom bread. With teas, our blend 1776 is popular along with our line of Rooibos teas. It’s an African red brush tea that doesn’t have caffeine.”
How do you find and determine what teas and spices you will sell?
Milliman: “We worked hard finding the companies that can provide the quality and quantity we wanted. We buy things in small quantities so it was about finding a balance. The other piece is our customers who inform us all the time, particularly with teas. For instance, I had customer ask for Canadian Breakfast Tea several months ago and we were able to bring it in. A lot is also our own research too. I love to cook cuisines from around the world and that informs a lot of the spice blends. But it’s really the customers who help us determine what to add next.”
Has there been anything that’s surprised you with how popular it’s been?
Leiner: “Yes, things like Asafoetida, things you wouldn’t find in the spice section of a normal grocery store. I’m always surprised how many people light up and say ‘oh my god, we can’t find this anywhere.’ Sumac is another one. People say they’ve looked all over and never found it but then they find it here.”
Milliman: “I think that’s the thing that surprises people the most is that they can come in a small shop in small town like Astoria and find things that they never imagined.”
What do you feel is the most unheralded and underappreciated spice?
Milliman: “In terms of an unheralded spice, I would say coriander, people just don’t think about coriander. People don’t think about, and chefs are guilty of this, the quality or the freshness of their spices. They’ll treat all their other ingredients accordingly, but then they’ll use a spice that’s five years old, which has no flavor. Using something that’s more fresh, especially if you grind your own, the flavor and aroma difference is so incredibly amazing.”
Leiner: “I think of the basic salt and pepper. People have no idea about all the different taste profiles of a large flake versus an ingredient-type salt. All our salts our unprocessed, so all the nutrients you’re supposed to eat are still in there. And the freshness of our pepper — we drive to Portland to a special place for peppercorns because they’re fresh. You pay a little bit more but you use less.”
Is there one thing you feel everyone should have in their pantry?
Leiner: “Wine (Ha-ha).”
Milliman: “If it had to be one thing, it would have to be good salt. Get rid of the little blue tub that tastes metallic. It will be life changing.”
Are there any particular spices or herbs that have gotten prohibitively expensive?
Milliman: “Vanilla has been a huge one, because there are so many things affecting the market. Part of it is weather and part of it is the big manufacturers. There’s a huge trend among food companies taking artificial ingredients out and replacing them with real ones, which is a good thing. But when you think about a big company like Nestle buying vanilla beans, which is already a shrunken market, they’re driving the price way up. The price of vanilla is unlikely to come down for a few years. Then there’s Aleppo Pepper, which originally came from Syria. When you think about the war and it’s impact, it’s been a challenge and most of the crop is now grown in Turkey. Za’atar, an herb from the oregano family, is largely grown in Israel, but they have a practice where they let their fields go fallow every seven years. You can get Za’atar then all of the sudden you can’t for another year.”
What do you sell the most volume wise?
Milliman: “Tea. Tea is fast becoming our top-selling item.”
How has the business evolved since the day you opened?
Milliman: “When we opened we had around 65 spices and herb blends. We didn’t have tea at all.”
Is there a seasonality to spice sales?
Milliman: “Yes, people do heavier cooking in the winter time, lots of stews and braises, so they’re using a lot more cumin, paprika, a lot more individual spices. In the summertime, when people are grilling more, the BBQ spices are popular. When we get into holiday time and people are baking, especially around Christmas, it’s cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger that are big sellers.”
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned as business owners?
Leiner: “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, and I tell other business owners just starting out, ‘Get off your butt, go out and talk to people and network, even if it seems like it isn’t going to be relevant to what you do.’”