By Gretchen Kurtz
By Cafe Society
By Mark Antonation
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By Jonathan Shikes
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By Patricia Calhoun
And now Penzeys has come to Colorado, with a store it opened in Littleton in 2009, another one that opened in Arvada earlier this year, and an outlet on the verge of opening on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall. There's just one problem: Colorado has had its own homegrown spice purveyors since 2004, when Mike and Janet Johnston opened Savory Spice on Platte Street. They soon acquired a host of devoted customers, and more stores followed: at Lowry, in Littleton and Colorado Springs, and in Boulder, where partner Dan Hayward opened the shop in 2008, just a block and a half from where Penzeys now plans to open its own. But the Johnstons, too, have bigger ideas: They're franchising the Savory Spice concept and taking it national, with shops in Texas, North Carolina and California.
Mike Johnston, who started out in the fine arts, learned the trade at another Penzeys-connected spice shop, the Spice House in Chicago, owned by Bill Penzey's sister and brother-in-law, Patty and Tom Erd. "Even though the job paid only $8 an hour, I instantly found it satisfying," he says. "The act of blending spices and watching the different-colored ingredients meld into a new color was similar to painting, in a way, and the grinding of cinnamon sticks through essentially a wood chipper made the job pretty manly, too!" He grew intoxicated with spices, and he and Janet — who had absorbed her husband's love of food and cooking — decided to open a shop of their own. After some consideration, they chose Denver as the location. Savory Spice carries extracts, dried herbs, all kinds of spices (including several varieties of pepper and cinnamon), whole nutmegs, black garlic, a large and continually growing selection of curry blends, and many gourmet salts.
In the sixteenth century, Portuguese traders routinely seized and hanged Muslim spice merchants; in turn, the traders suffered continual challenge by the Spanish for control of the spice trade. Later, the battle was between the Dutch and the English, with Dutch merchants in 1623 torturing and murdering Englishmen on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas for cloves. Contemporary spice wars involve no bloodshed, but they can be almost as savage.
In April, the Milwaukee Journal ran an article about a new Food Network show called Spice & Easy, to be hosted by Janet Johnston: She and Savory Spice had been discovered when the stars of Road Tested visited Denver. A day later, an article about Spice & Easy appeared in the Denver Post, dubbing the Johnstons "Denver's new TV kitchen stars." Two days after that, Bill Penzey sent out an extraordinary e-mail to Penzey customers in the area. He spoke of his excitement about the pending move to Colorado, but added, "I also understand that there is another company that sells spices in the Denver area, and with our opening in Boulder and Colorado Springs, there have been negative statements made about Penzeys, about me, and about my motivations for coming to the area. That I am doing this because I want to be the 'Wal-mart of Spices'.... The fact is this 'Denver' business was started in Chicago in the middle of the night when its founder used his key, took Patty and Tom's blend book to Kinko's, and photocopied the entire thing." Penzey also mentions a lawsuit, now settled, and contends that Johnston got the idea for a Denver store from a contest sponsored by Penzeys asking customers where they would most like to see a shop located.
Mike Johnston confirms that a lawsuit with the Spice House was settled six years ago "amicably and confidentially," but will not comment directly on Penzey's accusations other than to say, "We are certainly disappointed that this is the way he has chosen to compete with us." He adds, "The seasonings we sell are created by us. They are our recipes, and we stand by them." As for the contest, Savory Spice was registered with the Colorado Secretary of State a few months before Penzey printed its catalogue questionnaire and long before the results came in.
Whatever Bill Penzey's reasons for locating in Colorado, this is not the first time he has moved into territory where a thriving spice shop already existed. An article in the Chicago Tribune in 1999 announced, "The spice wars are about to break out in Chicago," and described plans for a Penzeys in Naperville. The Tribune quoted Patty Erd about those plans: "I actually feel terrible about it.... My brother has an $8 million-a-year business, and we have two little stores. It was kind of an unspoken agreement he would stay away from Chicago." A month or so ago, a Penzeys opened in Winter Park, Florida, down the street from a year-old Spice and Tea Exchange franchise.
"Penzeys Spices has every right to sell their product anywhere they see fit, as does anyone who is in the business of selling spices," says Janet Johnston. "We were, of course, very worried when they opened a shop a block and a half from our shop on Main Street in Littleton after we had been open for three years. But since then, our business has never been better. Between the support of the local merchants on the street and our dedicated customers, our sales were up close to 21 percent last year and are up over 25 percent this year. My mother told me when they first moved in that competition is good; it's like when they put more than one gas station on an intersection."