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Consumed

Spice of Life

If James and Nate Banker have their way, "Pass the salt and pepper, please" will fade from polite dining-table conversation.

The Banker brothers have launched a black-and-white quest for fortune, in the form of Spepper, a blend of salt and freshly ground black pepper. "It has that 'Why didn't anybody think of this before?' quality, doesn't it?" Nate asks. But it also has a few skeptical shakes of "Why did somebody think of this?"

Are two shakers too much for America? Has the nation become so obsessed with convenience that it's willing to let strangers mix its culinary staples? Of course it has. And that kind of all-American thinking is what led to Spepper's creation.

What's shaking? With Spepper, Nate (left) and James 
Banker are men for all seasonings.
Larry Winter
What's shaking? With Spepper, Nate (left) and James Banker are men for all seasonings.

"I was eating eggs and hashbrowns at work," James recalls. "I was shaking away at the pepper shaker and thought, 'This is dumb.'" So he expanded the holes on his pepper shaker, added salt and fell in love. "I was hooked," James says. "I thought: 'Spepper.'"

James immediately phoned his older brother and shared his brainstorm. Nate remembers: "I told him, 'James, you're my brother, and I love you, but I'm sure somebody has done that already.'" A bit of research, however, soon revealed that no commercial outfit had ever launched a mix of simply salt and pepper. And certainly not one with such a catchy, now trademarked, name.

Five months, hundreds of salt and pepper blendings and $5,000 later, Spepper has arrived. The first 300 jars -- packaged by a spice company using the brothers' formula, and fresh off the UPS truck -- sit in the Bankers' LoDo office. (They also run a hospital-staff recruiting firm.) The bulk of the first shipment has already been claimed.

"This one's going in the museum," Nate says, holding the Spepper prototype jar. Behind him, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" plays on a radio tucked below a wall of awards that Nate earned for various sales gigs. A former Gulf War fighter-jet mechanic, Nate now talks of waging war on the nation's spice racks.

"Most people's first reaction to Spepper is, 'That's silly,'" he admits. "But you give them thirty seconds to think about it and the idea that it's silly goes out the window. To somebody from the '40s, frozen chicken is silly. Fish sticks are silly. It's a difference in thinking, between baking cookies or buying Oreos."

The Bankers, who come from a family of seven kids, put themselves in the convenience-is-king demographic. They share a love for Goober Grape (the striped peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly product), spray butter, Sporks and other time-saving kitchen wonders. "Disposable cutting boards -- those are awesome," Nate says. "If I can use it and throw it out, that's the American way."

And when it comes to table condiments, he insists, "There are a lot of people out there who would rather reach for one shaker to get the perfect blend every time."

According to Anita Fial, spokeswoman for the American Spice Trade Association, spice blends are the fastest-growing niche in her industry. Still, she giggles at the notion of Spepper.

Blends are booming, agrees Spice Islands' Diane McElroy, because "people like the convenience of getting their spices out of one shaker." She, too, is tickled by the simplicity of the Spepper concept. "It does seem kind of obvious, doesn't it?" she asks. "Sometimes it's the most obvious idea that becomes a big hit. A few years ago we all laughed at the idea of people selling bottled water."

McCormick is also building sales with blends, says spokeswoman Laurie Harrsen, although a straight blend of salt and pepper never came up in the company's research as a potential hit. "You can kind of combine the two on your own," she points out.

But doing so commercially is no easy task. Says Nate, "We thought the same thing: 'Heck, we'll just put salt and pepper in the same shaker.' It doesn't work that way. If you mix them in the same shaker, all the salt goes to the bottom and the pepper goes to the top." So the Bankers are using a trick of the spice trade to keep the two ingredients "in a perfect stasis," he explains. "When you shake it, it comes out perfectly blended every time."

Spepper consists of flaked, non-iodized salt mixed with cracked peppercorns, and the blend is packed immediately after the pepper is milled to help capture the pepper aromatics. This results in a nice earthy nose, rich pepper flavors and just a hint of salt. Although it may not wow salt addicts, they'll get their chance when Spepper Max, a saltier blend, joins the Spepper lineup. Spepper Light is also in the works, along with mini-packs of original Spepper.

But first, the Bankers must gain a national presence for their product. They're now selling Spepper over the Internet (www.originalspepper.com) and at Village Roaster in Lakewood, as well as pitching it to supermarket chains and local restaurants looking to eliminate the time that staffers spend filling salt and pepper shakers.

On-the-move consumers are another target. "It's great for camping, hiking, the office," Nate says. "You ever tried to drive with salt and pepper shakers? It's hard." Nate's former service mates are another target audience: "If I was out in the field, I'd make sure Spepper was the first thing to go in my pack."

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