I often find myself stumbling on many unique businesses throughout my culinary adventures. The Bay Area is especially full of small locally operated businesses that could teach the big wigs of the corporate chain world more than a few things about hard work, and taking pride in the selection and distributing of their products.
One of my favorite spots in the East Bay is the Oaktown Spice Shop. As a chef always looking to support local businesses while finding the absolute best ingredients, Oaktown Spice Shop in a gem of a discovery. I am impressed so much so by their business approach and the roots for which their business was founded, that I just had to share the stories of how this aromatic euphorium came about, and you will hear it straight from the owner himself, John Beaver. It was a blast chatting up with him, this guy knows his stuff!
To start things off easy, tell us just a bit about yourself, your awesome shop and where it is located.
I’ve always liked food and preparing food. When I was a kid I made my own peanut butter, labeled it and put it on the pantry shelf. I wasn’t a big fan of peanut butter. I liked it fine but it was more about making something, a product. I labeled “Beaver Brand Peanut Butter” after my last name. I don’t remember it being exceptionally popular with my siblings either – just something for my older brothers to tease me about. Years later when I was in high school I got a job in a spice shop. My interest in creating increased exponentially when suddenly surrounded by hundreds of spices. It was an exciting time. I felt like an adult. I was learning a trade: how to grind and blend spices. I was grinding cinnamon and cumin and allspice and everything else. It also encouraged some real disasters in the kitchen but that’s all part of learning.
The shop is at 530 Grand Ave in Oakland across from the Pergola (columns at the north end of Lake Merritt). My fiancé, Erica Perez, and I opened the shop last December just in time for Christmas. Erica still works a nine-to-five but is also very much a part of the shop. She’s at the shop weekends and testing out new blends in our kitchen during the week. Erica provided the motivation and her stellar organizational and research skills to get the idea of the shop transformed into the reality that it is now. Her interest in cooking and readiness to eat new cuisines fuels our exploration and passion for variety.
Our shop offers a broad selection of herbs and spices for cooking. I am always adding new ones to our shelves. Just recently I acquired amchoor powder, which is a sour powder made from ground dried green mangos. Our goal is to have fresh and flavorful ingredients. We’re a small shop so it’s not possible to have everything and have it fresh too. Even common spices like cumin can be outstanding when freshly ground. That is something you will find – really rich freshly ground spices. Modern cuisine isn’t static, never has been, so it is also important to explore new spices that are less traditionally used here. The artisan salts were new to me and they’re fascinating too. We have at least 15 different salts and they’re some of the most popular items in the shop. Our shelves are ever expanding with new blends too. We have some of the old stand-bys and some original blends too. It’s a lot of fun creating new blends using some more exotic ingredients.
I have to admit, the first time (and subsequent visits, truth be told) I entered your shop I felt a little like Charlie when he first made it to the Chocolate Factory. It really is incredible the variety of spices you have and the whole feel and layout of the place couldn’t be cooler. What possessed you to undertake this project?
I grew up with a local shop that was dedicated to spices and I remember going into it as a youngster and feeling excited. Not only was it visually appealing with the sacks of spices and the wooden boxes of cloves and cinnamon sticks but the smell was intoxicating. Serendipitously there also happened to be a chocolate factory with a factor store just a few blocks from the spice shop. We could hardly visit one without visiting the other. Those were the type of errands you didn’t mind taking part in. Upon moving to Oakland a few years ago and being forever a bit nostalgic, I found a few things lacking in my new California home – taverns on every corner and a spice shop. Putting a bar on every corner was beyond my capabilities but a spice shop was something I felt I could do. In the last couple of years a couple of new taverns have opened up in my neighborhood and there’s a spice shop! When it snows, it’ll be just like home!
Of all the different spices, spice combinations and just cool things in general there, what is the one item at your shop that excites you most and why?
I guess I could have a different answer every time I am asked that. The Persian black lemons fascinate me. They have the sour that you expect and a surprising sweet and interesting fermented flavor. I can’t seem to get enough of fermented things these days between homemade sauerkraut, kombucha and wine. I also just got some black cardamom in. Wow what a flavor! They have a real smoky earthiness contrasted by that camphor one associates with green cardamom. When it comes right down to it though, I love peppercorns. I guess they will always be my first love.
What would you like to say to people reading this who are thinking about coming by but aren’t totally sure yet?
It won’t cost you a dime to come into the shop, maybe a few quarters for street parking. It is an experience to be surrounded by spices. Some customers have even suggested I put in some chairs that could be rented in order to soak up all the flavors. It’s a type of aromatherapy. It will also ignite your culinary imagination and inspire you to take on both original recipes and unfamiliar cuisines.
In your opinion, what do you think is the biggest advantage people get when shopping from an independently owned, small and local food business like the Oaktown Spice Shop?
Good service and a great product.
Before we end, I have to ask the question everyone wants to ask…what is your favorite thing to cook with your spices at home?
The Spanish smoked paprika is always reliable. The smoke adds a nice layer of umami and is easier to sprinkle onto foods than bacon. Freshly ground peppercorns are close to my heart so I make sure to be well stocked with them. I also like to have a good chili powder on hand too. When you have a spice shop literally at your fingertips, you are really always using everything.
Thanks so much for your time John, any last departing words for our readers out in Kitchen on Fire-land and beyond?
I look forward to meeting you. We have a Facebook page where we post pictures and recipes and share info about upcoming events and new products. Both the Facebook page and our webpage have our hours listed. www. Oaktownspiceshop.com and www.facebook.com/oaktownspiceshop
I have been so fortunate to get to know the people of Oaktown Spice Shop, and you bet I will be frequenting this shop every time I am back in town. But, do me favor ya’ll and stop by and say “Hi” for me while I am away. I expect to have more students with crafty spice skills in my classes when I am back teaching in the KoF kitchens