BY EMILY CHAPMAN AND DENISSE HERNANDEZ
Close your eyes and concentrate on the rest of your senses. Now imagine walking into a universal haven of fragrances and scents — a combinations of flavors that stimulate your mind and your taste buds.
That’s what it’s like to walk into The Spice House.
Ruth and Bill Penzey, Sr. opened The Spice House in Milwaukee in 1957. In 1992, they sold the business to their daughter Patty and her husband, Tom Erd. Despite the change in ownership, they continue the mission to provide customers with fresh spices.
Michael Kutka has worked at The Spice House for 17 years. He began as an inventory specialist before he became a manager. He said his experience as an inventory specialist has helped him in the various positions he has taken, including that of manager.
“We try to keep our inventory as low as possible, so we always have a turnover and always have fresh spices,” Kutka said. “That was a good skill to have in maintaining low quantities … without ever running out.”
He said the mission of the shop is to always have the freshest spices possible and to “always do grinds and blends in small batches, so we have a constant turnover.”
“I think of it as a world tour in one room because it really is that small of a world,” Kutka said.
Nathan Villa is also a manager at The Spice House. He has worked there for six years. Before working at The Spice House, he worked in information technology.
“Interacting with people is one of the best things about it,” Villa said. “You’re always working with another person. You’re not just staring at a computer screen or sitting in front of a desk all day.”
The establishment has been located on Old World Third Street for the past 40 years, but its exact address has not remained the same. It was located in the spot of Lucille’s Piano Bar and the spot of the Wisconsin Cheese Mart before moving to its current location, 1031 N. Old World Third St. in Milwaukee.
“The owner of the Cheese Mart still tells us that when he goes into the back room, there’s still an aroma of spices,” Villa said. “We haven’t been in that building for over 20 years.”
The Spice House does not have a warehouse where it grinds and packages all of its spices. Instead it grinds and packages each spice within the store. When grinding spices, employees begin with the ingredients of the spice in their whole form and handle them as little as they possibly can.
“We want the natural flavors to really shine through,” Villa said. “Which is why we do everything in the small batches … As you take a spice or an herb and you break it apart and grind it up, it starts to lose its potency right away.”
For grinding spices, there are two different options: the hammer mill or the bell mill.
“The hammer mill doesn’t really generate any heat,” Kutka said. “It just mashes the spices and knocks it apart, so that’s our ideal way to grind spices … We also have another mill called the bell mill and that has two steel plates that grind together. If we were uninterested in fresh spices, we would be doing everything that we could in the bell mill because we would get the most spice out of the whole spice. But because it’s not the best way to grind, we use the hammer mill.”
Even though they grind the spices as little as possible, the flavor of the spice changes each time because each crop is a little different. Spices come from seeds, berries, bark, roots and pits of various plants.
“By blending the spices, we ensure that we got a real consistent flavor and quality throughout all of our seasonings,” Villa said.
The Spice House only carries spices that can be used for culinary purposes. Two of its newer blends are the Berbere blend, an Ethiopian blend, and the Shawarma blend, an Eastern Mediterranean blend. The Berbere blend was created directly because customers requested it.
“There’s so many people from so many different places around the world, and there’s so many varieties of herbs in particular that are extremely localized,” Villa said. “They only grow in one little place and never leave that place.”
The recipe for the Jamaican jerk spice is an altered version of the family recipe of a man that used to live in Jamaica and became involved with The Spice House.
“The story that Tom and Patty, the owners, love to tell is how they tweaked this blend,” Kutka said. “Every Saturday, they were out in the alley cooking Jamaican chicken for people to sample. The overall consensus of what people liked best was what we ended up with. It is one of our most popular blends.”
Many politicians and local celebrities have walked through the doors of The Spice House. One of its most notable customers was Julia Child. She visited the store twice and contributed her recipe for the French Four and More blend, which was her take on a classic French seasoning.
The Spice House supplies a number of restaurants in the Milwaukee area. They also donate the coarse grind that comes from using the hammer mill to food pantries, churches and other charity organizations.
The Spice House’s dedication has transcended time. Food and Wine magazine declared it as one of the top eighteen spice stores in the world.