Until late 2011, the only place to buy spices in Oakland was at a major grocery store — that, or online. But that fall, the husband-and-wife team of John Beaver and Erica Perez opened up a small storefront on Grand Avenue. They stocked a relatively small selection of everyday spices and a few signature blends, ground fresh and stored in a vibrant array on homey bookshelves. Oaktown Spice Shop was born.
Almost four years later, the shop is thriving. Beaver and Perez have an enthusiastic customer base and a bustling online presence, selling their spices through their own website as well as Food52. In addition, the shop hosts classes and events a couple of times a month — think a DIY Coldbrew Cacao and Bean-to-bar Hot Cocoa workshop, and a Kraut, Kimchi and other Lacto-Fermented Relishes class.
This month, the duo expanded their operations and moved into a larger storefront just down the street. The new location was designed by Oakland-based architecture firm Arcsine, which was also behind Duende, Rudy’s Can’t Fail, District, and forthcoming Calavera and Gussie’s Southern Table and Bar. “The first shop was small and humble. This one has a lot more polish,” said Beaver. That, and breathing room.
NOSH visited the new shop in advance of its grand opening party, which was held Thursday May 28. One step into the new store and we were greeted with a heady aroma of warm spice. Spices and herbs line almost every wall, and they come in almost any variety you could imagine — Oaktown Spice Shop stocks everything from black peppercorns and cinnamon, to hard-to-find spices like amchoor powder, holy basil and grains of paradise. But even the run-of-the-mill spices are not so ordinary. Beaver stocks several varieties of both pepper and cinnamon and takes pride in his house-made spice blends. Each blend is made in a small batch with freshly ground spices to make sure that the spices are at their peak flavor.
Beaver and Perez source their spices from “every continent except Antarctica,” said Beaver. Their sources are both small organizations and larger businesses. But, says Beaver, they’re all relatively small and “still run by actual people.” China, India, Vietnam, and North and West Africa are all major spice suppliers; some of Oaktown Spice Shop’s herbs come from California, but many are also imported from Europe.
Even before the move, Oaktown Spice Shop had grown and transformed from its first days of operation. Beaver and Perez wanted the store to function as a community store, and they have always welcomed feedback and suggestions from their customers. “We want to actually have a dialogue with our customers,” said Beaver.
Many of those suggestions were for newly popular Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients. Perez cites the popularity of the cookbook Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, for the spike in interest. She says they started stocking ingredients like sumac as the book climbed up the bestseller list. “The community inspired us to add things, especially spices from other cultures,” she said.
Their relationship with their customers extends both ways. Both Beaver and Perez are enthusiastic cooks, and they share recipes and cooking ideas with anyone who asks. Many of the recipes are printed up on small notecards to bring home.
“It is fun to create new recipes,” said Beaver. “They happen in an organic way — they’re usually just what we cook at home, but then we go back and write the recipes down in a more systematic way.”
Perez believes that this kind of dialogue is what really sets Oaktown Spice Shop apart. “At other places there’s no one there to advise or make cooking suggestions,” she said “People can come in here and figure out what to make for dinner.”
This commitment to conversation has kept Oaktown Spice Shop’s customers loyal — and made it possible for Beaver and Perez to run a successful business, even when only selling staples that people may buy just a few times a year.
“We still have hundreds of new customers every month. And then we have a good crop of repeat customers. Some come in once a week, some once a month, some come every six months and completely fill up their spice cabinet,” said Perez. And they do killer business over the holidays, selling gift boxes and kits. Plus, Oaktown Spice Shop offers blends that customers can’t find elsewhere.
“We have people that say they’re addicted to our ‘Better Than Everything Bagel Spice’ blend,” said Perez.
Besides the bagel blend, Perez says that their most popular items are their peppercorns, cinnamon, and homemade tonic water kit. In fact the tonic kit has been so popular that Beaver and Perez hope to expand their collection of DIY kits; Perez would like to add homemade mustard, gin, root beer and hot sauce kits to the shop.
As for Beaver and Perez’s favorite spices, Perez has been cooking eggs with their Mexican adobo and a weekly roast chicken dish rubbed with their Persian Lime Curry mix. Beaver, on the other hand, is currently “mildly obsessed” with dried ají panca peppers. “They’re a deep purple with a really fruity rich chocolate quality. Some people say they’re the missing link between fruit and vegetables,” he said.
But, he says, his tastes, just like those of most home cooks, change over time. “I will often get a crush on a new spice and use it all the time.”
Melati Citrawireja, who took the photographs for this story, is a summer photo intern at Berkeleyside. Citrawireja is a development studies undergraduate at UC Berkeley, currently pursuing a career in visual journalism. More of her work can be found online at Melati Photography.