In 2005, when Katie Luber, left, and Sara Engram, right, were launching their Maryland-based spice business, they had a conversation with a friend about their concept.
"He said to us, 'Hmm . . . spices, and you're these girls. . . . You're the Spice Girls! That's so hot!'" recalls Luber, laughing at the memory.
While the women were flattered, they didn't feel the description was exactly apt. "Let's put it this way," says the 48-year-old Luber. "We are waaaay beyond the 45-year point. We're like, 'We're not the Spice Girls. We're the CardaMoms!' "
Whatever you call these business partners and dear friends, their company, The Seasoned Palate, is as hot as the teaspoon-sized, individually sealed packets of organic ancho chile powder (as well as 23 other basic spices) they sell. You can find their products locally in supermarkets and specialty stores from Graul's Market in Ruxton and Atwater's in Belvedere Square to national food chains, including 275 plus Whole Foods stores in the United States.
Since their premeasured certified organic products—from anise seed to orange zest—hit store shelves in February of 2007, The Seasoned Palate (which now sells its products under two brands—tsp spices, which come in a boxed tin, and Smart Spice, a more mass-market line introduced in '08 with less expensive packaging) offers an alternative to buying bottles of spice that often go unused and clutter cabinets and drawers.
Although Engram and Luber had no industry experience, the fact that cooking and eating had a prominent role in their childhoods played a large part in their success. "I grew up with a mother who cooked dinner every night and breakfast every morning," says Luber, who lives in Homeland. "My father used to say, 'Your mother is a good cook because she buys good ingredients.' I think of that to this day."
For her part, Engram, 60, who lives in Ruxton, grew up in a large, extended family surrounded by aunts and uncles who all lived on the same street and shared a common garden. "We would have all this produce," says Engram. "All the dads would come home for lunch, and we'd have this huge midday meal with sliced ham, but then there might be five different kinds of vegetables."
Now, the women have written a cookbook sharing their love of food and spices. Many of their homespun recipes—such as an updated version of Luber's mother's Green Pea Salad and Engram's heirloom recipe for Pimento Cheese Spread—will appear in The Spice Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices (Andrews McMeel Publishing), due out in November.
With their book, they also hope to educate consumers. "When we first got into this, we just assumed that everyone knew what to do with spices because they are there in your grocery store," says Luber. "We realized people really don't use much spice at all. In fact, they are very afraid of it."
Most of the recipes in The Spice Kitchen and on Engram and Luber's website (tspspices.com) are geared toward the everyday cook. "We tried using the things we all use every night and just doing it a little differently or showing how you can make vegetables taste really good," says Luber. "Both of us grew up in butter-rich households, but you don't have to use a lot of butter. You can use spices instead. We call that 'spice enlightenment.'"
Their spices already have achieved a large measure of credibility with several coveted awards and high-profile magazine mentions, including a Gold Sofi Award for "Outstanding Food Gift" as well as a Silver Sofi for "Most Innovative Food Packaging" at the Fancy Food Show in 2008, and a plug on the "O List" in O, The Oprah Magazine. "Being in a spice town has made us more aware of spice," says Luber, referring to local giants McCormick and Elite. "We are a niche. We are looking to expand the category, not steal any market share."
The Seasoned Palate's founding was the perfect blending of timing and talent. When the women first met in 2002, Engram (married to Jack Reilly, who owns a home-inspection business) had just accepted a buyout from The Baltimore Sun, leaving her position as an editor. "My son [John Henry, 17] was turning 10, and I was never home for dinner," explains Engram, who had also done food editing while at the newspaper. "It just wasn't a family-friendly job."
Meanwhile, Luber was commuting to Philadelphia—where she worked as an associate curator for European paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—from Baltimore, where her husband, Philip, had accepted a position as associate professor and director of education and residency training at The University of Maryland Medical School. Six months of long-distance commuting had taken a toll on Luber, whose children, Jacob, now 15, and Diana, now 13, were in first and third grade at the time.
It was a difficult decision, but, ultimately, she decided to quit her job and stay put in Baltimore. "I was so sad about leaving Philadelphia," says Luber, "but one of my very best friends in Philly writes for The [Philadelphia] Inquirer, and she said to me, 'I have a present for you. I have a good friend in Baltimore, and you'll love her.'" Engram adds with a laugh, "I got custody!"
Engram and Luber hit it off immediately and discovered they had much in common. They were both Southerners (Engram hails from Alabama, Luber from Texas), hard-working, wisecracking, intellectual types, and passionate home cooks, who enjoy experimentation in the kitchen. (Pickled-beet ice cream was one recent attempt at invention, albeit an admitted failure.) Above all, jokes Luber, "We discovered that we both love mayo."
Their innovative idea to package pre-measured portions of spice came about as a result of getting together and talking about food (not to mention a shared disdain for their unruly condiment cabinets). "Sara and I would go to Lynne Brick's and then go for coffee at Atwater's," says Luber. "We'd look around us and notice there was this explosion of interest in food."
They soon realized during their discussions that there are a lot of spices out there, but no one had come up with a packaging innovation. "We also wondered why [spice companies] say to protect it from light, air, and humidity, and then they package it in these glass bottles," says Engram. "It's expensive to throw it out, but if you don't, your cabinet is a mess, and it's all stale."
As the women continued to forge a friendship over powwows at cafes and coffeehouses, including Petit Louis (where teaspoon-sized sugar "sticks" sparked the idea of similarly shaped spice packets) and Starbucks (where the flip-top gum boxes at the checkout counter ultimately inspired them to package their packets in beautifully boxed, stackable tins), they continued to refine their idea. "We thought one teaspoon made a lot of sense because that was the most common measurement," says Engram.
The idea went from concept to reality when Luber enrolled in an entrepreneurship class in 2005 at Johns Hopkins University as part of an MBA program. One day, while working on an assignment to come up with an idea for a viable business, Luber brought Engram to class and introduced her as a potential business partner. "Our first motto was 'Less waste, more taste,' and we thought it was brilliant," recalls Luber. "We were giddy because it was so much fun to be able to say, 'We're not just going to talk about it, we're going to try to somehow codify it.' My professor said, 'You could make some money with this.' He really liked the idea."
Encouraged by the positive feedback, Luber and Engram worked on developing their product. One essential component from the get-go: going organic. "We were interested in the packaging and the freshness," says Luber. "We started soliciting samples from suppliers and the difference was not just a little difference—it was huge between the organic and non-organic."
After an initial run of 24 spices (supplied by a high-quality spice company and a yearlong search for a packaging company the women declined to reveal), Atwater's agreed to sell their product, including special gift tins with sets of complimentary spices. "It was so unique," says Ned Atwater, the store's owner. "People just loved it."
To operate at a volume high enough to distribute not just to local specialty shops but on a national level, Luber and Engram continue to contract many aspects of their operations, mostly involving packaging. Of the money invested in The Seasoned Palate thus far, about $750,000 has come from outside investors while the remainder has come from Engram's and Luber's own personal coffers. Like most start-up businesses, the company has yet to turn a profit. By next year, the women say they expect to be in the black.
And while Luber and Engram acknowledge that their price point per ounce is higher than other brands (12 one-teaspoon packets for $9 of tsp spice or 4 one-teaspoon packets for $2.99 of Smart Spice), there is no waste to the consumer. "You can buy a big bottle of cardamom for $13.99 at the Giant," says Engram, "but you are going to use one or two teaspoons and throw the rest away, or it's going to get stale. With our spices, you get full use."
Now that the duo has gone from holding board meetings in Engram's home to overseeing a staff in their new Towson office space, they look at their trip down the spice route with disbelief. "It was a lark," says Luber. "It was like our version of going to Vegas."
Recipes from The Spice Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices
by Sara Engram and Katie Luber
Pepperoni Spinach Frittata
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon anise seed
1/4 teaspoon coarse black pepper
pinch of salt
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/4 cup sliced pepperoni, cut into strips
1/4 cup freshly grated
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced yellow onion
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Preheat the broiler. Beat together the eggs, basil, anise seed, black pepper, and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in the mozzarella, spinach, pepperoni, and Parmesan cheese.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in an ovenproof, nonstick medium skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and bell pepper and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute.
Pour the egg mixture into the skillet and stir to combine the eggs and vegetables. Decrease the heat to low and cook the frittata until the egg mixture has set on the bottom and begins to set on top, about 5 minutes. Transfer the skillet to the broiler and continue cooking until the frittata is set, about 3 to 4 minutes. A traditional frittata is not browned. Loosen the edges of the frittata with a spatula, slide the frittata onto a plate, and serve immediately.
Clove-Spiced Caramel Corn
Makes 12 cups
12 cups popped popcorn
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Remove all of the unpopped kernels from the popped corn. Place the popcorn into a large mixing bowl. Combine the butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, cloves, vanilla, and salt in a medium saucepan. Cook the caramel mixture over medium heat, stirring continually, until the sugar has dissolved. Allow the mixture to come to a boil and continue boiling the caramel, over medium heat, without stirring, for 5 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the baking soda. Pour the caramel over the popcorn and gently toss, using two forks, until the popcorn is evenly coated with caramel.
Spread the caramel corn in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan. Bake the caramel corn for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Remove the caramel corn from the oven and allow it to cool before serving. Store the caramel corn in an airtight container for up to one week.
Gingerbread Cupcakes with Cardamom Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 12 cupcakes
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon dried lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/3 cups Cardamom Cream
Cheese Frosting (recipe below)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease 12 standard-size muffin cups or line them with paper cups. Cream the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the molasses, egg, and vanilla. In a small bowl, stir together the boiling water and the baking soda until dissolved. Stir the baking soda water into the molasses mixture.
Sift together the flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, lemon zest, and salt into a small bowl. Whisk the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until the batter is combined.
Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups. Bake the cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in the center of one or two of the cupcakes comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes before removing them from the pan. Place the cupcakes on a rack to cool for 30 minutes. Spread the cream cheese frosting generously over the cooled cupcakes.
Cardamom Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 1-1/3 cups
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons dried lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground green cardamom
Cream together the cream cheese and the sugar in a medium mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest, and cardamom and beat until fluffy and smooth. Chill the frosting in the refrigerator until ready to use.