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North Hills Monthly

‘Tis the Seasoning: Local Spice Stores Do Big Holiday Business

Nov 30, 2017 01:19PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

It has been said that variety is the spice of life. Nowhere is that more true than at Pittsburgh area spice stores, where the sheer variety of spices and seasonings available are enough to transport even the most casual cook into olfactory nirvana.

Yes, many spices are available at grocery stores. But what makes spice stores appealing to customers is being enveloped in a sensory delight of scents, from pungent to pleasant, as well as the ability to find rare and unique spices.

At these spice stores, there is no such thing as just pepper. At Penzeys, for example, you might find Mignonette pepper, Aleppo pepper or Indonesian course ground white pepper among its 250 different spices, herbs and blends, which are sourced from all over the world and reflect the different tastes and cooking styles of many countries.

Penzeys, which started in Squirrel Hill and moved to the Strip District about 12 years ago, provides a culinary trip around the world in one shop. Within its walls, you might find Turkish broken leaf oregano, Italian sausage seasoning, Greek seasoning, Hungarian sweet paprika, Chinese five spice, Mexican chili piquin or Korintje Indonesia ground cinnamon, among others.

Store Manager Frank Locante said that Ceylon cinnamon, directly from Sri Lanka, is one of its rarest products. “Our bestsellers are Vietnamese cinnamon, vanilla, and Sunny Paris—a salt-free blend that can go on a lot of different things,” he explained.

During the holidays, Penzeys will often have prepared holiday gift boxes, such as those featuring hot cocoa or packages geared toward bakers.

For the uninitiated, walking into a spice store for the first time can be surprising. “There can be so much variance within one spice. For instance, there are four types of cinnamon. And people think of mint, but there is spearmint and peppermint—they are all quite different,” Locante said.

Pittsburgh Spice and Seasoning has been in business since 1967, and moved from the Strip to Crafton Heights about a year ago, where it operates both a wholesale distribution center as well as a retail shop, having taken over the former Schaeffer Elementary School. The store, which is family owned and operated, started as a casing company and ultimately expanded into spices and seasonings.

Alicia Galway, general manager of food safety, said that they carry about 500 spices and over 1,000 types of seasonings, which includes custom blends of seasonings that they create in-house for private and corporate customers.

One of their bestsellers is a dry rub called Wing Dust seasoning. “A lot of people use it on French fries,"she said. "And it is one of those seasonings that is good on every type of meat, including chicken, venison and even fish.”

Another extremely popular product is their Hillbilly Jerky Seasoning, which is sweet and spicy with a touch of crushed red pepper. Other popular sellers, particularly during hunting season, are fennel, paprika and one of their many varieties of black pepper, including the curiously named Ghost Pepper Powder.

During the holiday season, baking spices including pumpkin pie spice, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon sticks climb in sales. Pittsburgh Spice and Seasoning also makes custom spice baskets for any occasion.

Galway said that people would be surprised to know just how many spices exist beyond the grocery store selection. “They’re so versatile—a lot of people buy steak seasoning and only use it on steak, but you can use it on fish and wings,” she said, adding that their spices are sold in ground, whole or rubbed formulations. “You can also turn any dry spice into a marinade with olive oil.”

The freshness of spices made in-house is one reason why customers are drawn to spice shops.

Con Yeager Spice Company opened its third retail location this past July in Zelienople; two other stores are in New Castle and Evans City. Bill Kreuer is a fourth-generation owner of the company his great-grandfather began, and there is no sign of the spice business slowing down. “I sometimes say that Christopher Columbus was looking for spices when he found America; I don’t think it’s something that is going out of style any time soon,” he joked.

Con Yeager still makes its own spices, including hundreds of seasoning blends for commercial use. Kreuer says that their bestsellers are garlic and cinnamon, but during the holiday season, the company caters to commercial and home deer processors who are making their own deer sausage or jerky. Con Yeager also carries many types of burger and jerky seasonings.

Besides spices and seasonings, customers can find casings, coffees, and hardware items like boning knives and grinder parts. At the holiday season, retail customers can find premade gift boxes of various spice assortments, like a chili lover’s collection or a wing and fry collection. You can also make your own gift box.

In addition to providing recipe cards in their stores, Kreuer said that they are unique in that they provide customers with a lot of information. “We can tell people the ins and outs of making sausages, things to do, things not to do, shortcuts and more,” he said.

In fact, here is a tidbit from Kreuer worth passing along:  Put garlic in the freezer, as the cold temperature prevents evaporation and a dark freezer prevents the quality of the garlic from degrading.

And don’t forget: spices make good stocking stuffers!