Oaktown Spice Shop Brings Fragrant, Flavorful Spices to the Bay Area
If you’re reading this, you probably care where your food comes from — meat and fish that’s sustainably raised, organic fruits and vegetables from local farms, and dairy products from small creameries doing things the right way. But what about your spices? Shouldn’t you be just as picky about the quality and origin of the products you use to season your food?
John Beaver and Erica Perez think so. After moving to Oakland in 2009, the couple was surprised to find that Bay Area locals weren’t putting much thought into their spices, especially compared to their meat and produce.
“I googled ‘spice shop Oakland,’” John said. “What came up was a movie about spices filmed in Oakland.”
It seemed the East Bay was in need of a spice merchant and John was eager to oblige. He had cut his teeth working at The Spice House in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he became obsessed with the smell, taste, history, and terroir of each spice. After years of grinding and blending, he became well-versed in the many techniques required to process different spices, and an expert at identifying quality.
As they walked around Lake Merritt one evening, John suggested to Erica, who was working as a journalist at the time, that they open a spice shop.
“I felt like my brain exploded,” Erica said. “That sounded like so much fun.”
They spent two years honing their business plan before opening Oaktown Spice Shop in 2011. John was the sole employee during the first year, after which Erica left her job as a newspaper reporter to join him.
“I have really enjoyed the challenge of growing the business — building a management structure and room for career growth,” Erica said. “Although it’s a struggle to keep up with the cost of living in the Bay Area, our growth has allowed us to provide our full-time employees with benefits such as medical, dental and retirement matching.”
Today, they have two locations, a full team of employees, and partnerships with restaurants, bars, wholesalers, bakers, and candy makers. They’ve even been recognized as one of the world’s best spice shops by Food & Wine Magazine.
Sourcing the World’s Best Spices
You notice the smell even before you step inside. Enticing aromas of freshly ground cinnamon, ginger, chiles, peppercorns, and everything in-between coalesce and drift out onto the sidewalk, luring passersby into the store. Most spices don’t smell this good, because they’re not made with the same commitment to quality that guides Oaktown Spice Shop’s sourcing philosophy.
“We try to find the absolute best-tasting version of every spice,” John said. “If the taste is intense or highly nuanced, then we're excited.” That often means focusing on spices with an interesting provenance, like Single-Origin Wild Mountain Black Cumin, which is harvested by foragers in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.
To do this, John and Erica work with dozens of different importers, which they admit can be challenging. But they’ve put in the time writing to different producers, obsessively tasting samples, and establishing relationships with vendors they trust. They’ve even sourced from farms supported by Roots of Peace, a non-profit that works in war-torn regions to restore land and build peaceful communities.
“When we learned of their mission creating new agricultural endeavors for farmers affected by years of war, we were really excited to work with them and help support their work, not to mention that the spices they are importing are excellent and unique, like the Late Harvest Peppercorns from Quang Tri, Vietnam,” John said.
Another reason Oaktown’s spices are so aromatic and potent is that they’re absurdly fresh. John and Erica buy whole spices and grind them in small batches every week or two to make sure everything they sell is packaged and sold at peak quality. The spices you find in grocery stores can sometimes be ground years in advance.
“Freshly ground spices make a big difference,” John said. “They’re a completely different animal.”
Better Seasoning Means Better Tasting Food
If old spices have been languishing in your pantry, upgrading them with freshly ground spices is one of the easiest ways to make your food taste better. John recommends replacing ground spices and herbs every year and whole spices, like nutmeg, every two years.
Whatever you do, don’t add more of an outdated spice to a recipe to try and make up for the lack of flavor. You’re just putting more of an inferior product into your food, John warns, which is likely to make it taste worse. Instead, buy small quantities of high-quality spices so you can use them up while they’re at their best.
Oaktown Spice Shop makes things even simpler for home cooks by offering dozens of spice blends — signature recipes hand-mixed in their shop. There are already more than 50 blends and rubs to choose from — like Chile Limon, Poultry Seasoning, and Pumpkin Pie Spice — with a handful of new options released every year. Their most recent addition, a Vaudovan or French curry, is already a favorite of their customers.
Blends from larger brands tend to use lesser-quality spices, so a lot of salt is added to make up for the lack of flavor. Since Oaktown Spice Shop uses only the best freshly ground spices, their blends and rubs have less salt, allowing the unique spices to shine.
Finding Spices That Are Right for You
With so many spices and blends to choose from, it can be tough to figure out where to begin, so John offered some suggestions to get you started.
For a basic upgrade, try finishing your food with single-origin Tellicherry Black Peppercorns. When ground, they are bold, spicy, and fragrant — a huge improvement on your run-of-the-mill peppercorns.
“We also have a brand new finishing salt we call Humboldt Flake Sea Salt, evaporated from Pacific Ocean water in Eureka,” John said.
If you’re open to some heat, he recommends chiles to add nuanced flavor. I spent all summer cooking with Oaktown’s Ancho Chile Powder — sprinkling it on grilled corn to make elote and adding a dash or two to guacamole — and can confirm the wisdom of John’s suggestion. My favorite so far is the Spanish Smoked Paprika — it is the essence of a simple homemade barbecue sauce I make, adding a smoky flavor and dark red color.
If you’re ready to start branching out from individual spices, John suggests trying some blends and rubs. Their bestselling “Better Than Everything Bagel” Blend is a smart addition to any spice cabinet — it’s delicious on grilled meats, roasted vegetables, eggs, and salads. The Grand Lake Shake and Montreal Steak and Chop blends are also popular, especially with omnivores.
I’ve used Oaktown’s Pickling Spice Blend to make dill pickles so good, I sometimes make burgers just so I have something to put them on. Their Madras Curry Powder is another pantry staple I rely on to whip up delicious weeknight curries with whatever protein and vegetables happen to be in my fridge.
For more personalized recommendations, John and Erica encourage you to swing by the shop, so they can learn more about your preferences and tastes.
“Every suggestion we make is determined by what the customer likes and what they’re looking for,” John said. “We love to get their feedback.”
Tell John which cuisines you enjoy and what you’re hoping to achieve in the kitchen and he’ll race across the store, gathering spices, blends, and herbs for you to try. As you sample his recommendations, he will tell you intriguing tales about the provenance and history of everything you taste. And you’ll be in good company — Chef Tanya Holland from West Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen popped into the shop during our visit, apparently a regular. I’ll have what she’s having.