15 Years of Savory Spice: Q&A with Mike and Janet


with Emily Bishop
Savory Spice Team
September 14, 2019
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15 Years of Savory Spice: Q&A with Mike and Janet

September 15th marks our 15-year anniversary here at Savory Spice. It’s a big milestone that has us feeling both proud and nostalgic, none more so than our founders, Mike and Janet Johnston. With their hard work comes many amazing, crazy, and heartfelt memories. To highlight our golden birthday, we asked Mike and Janet to recount some of their Savory stories from the past 15 years:

You're celebrating 15 years since opening your first shop on Platte St in Denver. How did you pick this as your first location?

Mike: While Platte St wasn’t an active retail area at the time, it had a great, positive vibe. Our shop used to be a kayak shop, and at some point it was a dance hall. Originally, the entire building housed the Big Chief Bottling Company and we even found old porcelain bottle tops during renovation.

Janet: It had old, rippled tin ceilings, big beams in the walls, and a basement. That was the main thing; we needed a basement where we could grind spices.

Mike: But as we were building it out (we did most of the work ourselves), we’d sit on the front stoop taking a break and there’d be nobody on the street. We were like, ‘What have we done?’ It felt risky, and it was. If you go into the Platte St shop today, you’ll see that there’s a shower in the bathroom. Our back-up plan was that if it didn’t work out, we’d move into that space for the remaining portion of our lease. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do that.

Janet: A food writer named Ellen Sweets from the Denver Post really helped us out. She discovered us and asked if she could come back with her staff to do a write-up. We were like, ‘Sure, thanks!’, expecting maybe a nice little blurb. Two weeks later, we were on the front page of the food section of the Denver post. From then on, we were busy every weekend. We even had to rearrange the shop for better traffic flow! Ellen will forever be an angel to us for giving us that first boost.

Mike and Janet Johnston | Savory Spice

How are you celebrating this anniversary?

M: Janet and I will certainly celebrate with a special dinner together, but we really wanted to do something for our customers too. It just so happens that our 15-year anniversary is on September 15th, so it’s our golden birthday! I wanted to come up with a blend that represented both Janet and myself – she’s a baker, and I’m known for barbecue, so I made a seasoning that can be used in both applications. We’re calling the blend Sunrise Jubilee, named because bakers and barbecuers get up early to start their craft, and jubilee because we’re celebrating!

J: The blend itself also has a beautiful golden color. We’re giving out a free sample bag to customers that come into any of our stores nationwide (no purchase necessary) and online (with any purchase). So stop in and see us to try it out!

M: I’m excited about this blend because I’ve never combined these flavors before. I started with our Whiskey Barrel Smoked Sugar to represent barbecue with a subtle hint of smoke. I added Orange Peel along with Janet’s favorite spice, Saigon Cinnamon. I also added a touch of Yellow Curry to keep things interesting and a pinch of Espresso Powder because I can be a bit bitter sometimes *laughs.* It’s a unique blend and we’re excited for everyone to try it. It will only be available from September 15th through the 22nd, but if customers love it, we may bring it back. Who knows?!

From the past 15 years, what’s your favorite memory?

J: Mike and I got engaged before we left Chicago and I had this little antique diamond ring. After a long day at Denver, a tough day of work, we were headed home and I looked down and there was a dark hole where the diamond once was. I was just like, Ughh! Mike reassured me that we would find it. The next day, he vacuumed every nook and cranny of our Platte St store and we used an old sieve to sift the contents. Every single time I saw a salt crystal, I got excited, thinking I had found it. Finally, I saw it glisten in the dust, my special little diamond. I truly could not believe we had found it. It was awesome.

M: Mine is more of a time period than a specific event. It’s working in the Platte St store during our fourth holiday season. We subleased part of that space to our friends who owned a chocolate shop called Wen Chocolates. I just loved that holiday. The store was constantly jammed with folks buying spices and chocolate. Our crew was so in tune with each other and the customers. It was an orchestra of movement, and I was very proud of what we had built. It was magical.

Janet Johnston | Savory Spice
Mike Johnston | Savory Spice

What have you found the most surprising in this business?

M: For me, the support we’ve had from long term customers and our employees that have stayed with us for as long as they have. It’s crazy that Aimee has been with us for 12 years, Stephanie has been with us for 11, Marcus 10 years, and more. I feel like we built a great work culture, and I just didn’t think people in retail would stick around that long. I know we have a great product, but that loyalty still surprises me in a very gratifying way.

J: Yeah, I’m surprised by the number of important relationships we’ve made over the years. Some of our customers have become our closest friends, maybe because we worked so much and those were the only people we talked to all day! But the most surprising thing about the business to me is how much we’ve expanded. I walk back into our warehouse now and see product stacked to the ceiling. I ask myself, ‘How did we get here?’

M: This was not our plan – our plan was to open the Platte St store in Denver and maybe a second shop. To end up with 29 stores across the country 15 years later is definitely surprising.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were just starting out?

Mike Mixing Spices | Savory Spice

J: It was such a process. People ask how we built this company, and for us, we take things one day at a time, one issue at a time, one solution at a time. We didn’t just jump from there to here. I guess I’d say, I wish I had known more about Profit & Loss statements. The funny thing is that I still don’t know a lot about them! Neither of us have business degrees, so maybe we’d have wanted some more business acumen. But honestly, not knowing some of that stuff allowed us to be more creative.

M: That’s a hard question because a lot of the stuff we did then, we still do now. We still grind our spices, blend in small batches and sell in small quantities. I suppose the internet has taken off more than we ever expected and we have some catching up to do there.

J: But at least we were somewhat on top of it – we opened in 2004 with a website!

Mike, what spice in the Savory product line represents Janet and why? What about Mike, Janet?

M: I would pick the one she likes the most, Saigon Cinnamon. She’s sweet, spicy, and strong. She’s a big part of our success. Cinnamon is one of our top three products, and always has been. Early on in the Platte St shop, we did cinnamon tours, where we’d show people the different cinnamons that we sold. Through that, we were really able to show people how fresh our product was compared to grocery store spices. Cinnamon helped kickstart Savory, and so has Janet.

J: This is one of our newer products, but Mike would be our Whiskey Barrel Smoked Pepper. It represents innovation – we bought a giant smoker and Mike worked for weeks to perfect this product. All through the years, he’s been an innovator – the R&D guy that never gives up. And the pepper itself is bold, strong, and solid – it’s the king of spice, just like Mike!

Mike with the smoker | Savory Spice

What are you looking forward to the most for the future of Savory Spice?

J: I’m looking forward to watching our employees continue to grow. Some started as part-time workers or holiday help, and now they’re doing things like running the back of the house and owning their own shops. We’ve watched employees grow up, we’ve been to their weddings, we’ve held their newborns. I’ve always loved that.

M: From a business perspective, I’m looking to see how our brand continues to develop. I’m really excited about the innovative products we have and where those will lead. We’ll always be grounded as a spice company, but we’re kind of evolving into a flavor and a meal solution company with the addition of our new Spice ‘n Easy line. I’m excited to see how we will bring more life into this business, the journey it takes us on, and the people it brings into our lives.

Thank you to all of our customers, employees, and store owners who have helped build Savory Spice into what it is today! We celebrate this milestone with each and every one of you. Please visit a store or shop online September 15th through the 22nd to claim your free sample of Sunrise Jubilee. Enjoy!

What is your favorite spice that Savory Spice has created in the past 15 years? Share in the comments below or tag us on Instagram @savoryspiceshop.

Comments on this Article

(guest), on September 14, 2019

Love your shop in Denver! I live in Ohio and try to stop by whenever I’m in Denver! I’ll order online when I am unable to visit!

(guest), on September 14, 2019

What a wonderful story and how inspiring to hear the unexpected events that have shaped Savory Spice. Above all I can say that as a supplier we have been treated with dignity and respect and really feel that Savory Spice is a quality organization with quality people who care more about their customers and the products they sell. We know how much care goes into everything that happens in aSavory Spice Store and that discerning consumers know to come back time and again to buy quality and get great service from knowledgeable staff who care about their customers. We all know that online convenience seems to rule retailing these days. The convenience tail in online retailing sometimes seems to rule the quality and authenticity of products. At Savory Spice we know that we can shop with confidence for quality products and great service.

John Kimber

John Kimber

(guest), on September 14, 2019

Thanks for doing what you do! My first trip to the Platt Street store was in 2007, I was amazed by the selection was incredible!!! Every time I traveled to Denver on business, there was a Savory Spice stop. I was thrilled when I found out they had franchised and opened a store in my old home town of Charlotte, N.C. Now I travel the world as a Diplomat and love the fact that I can get their spices anywhere I live! Here's in another 15 and then another........

(guest), on September 14, 2019

My wife Teresa and I discovered the shop in Bend, Oregon at the Old River Mill District about 7 years ago. We love to wander through the shop finding awesome fresh spices. I have to agree with Janet as my favorite spice is the Saigon Cinnamon! I make the darkest applesauce around.

(guest), on September 14, 2019

I remember driving down Main in littleton and seeing your coming soon sign. I was so excited I drove by once a week just to see if you were open yet! When you opened my first purchase was Five Spice powder, I was so astonished at the fresh taste . Now I live in Cañon City and shop your Colorado Springs store, and online. I have managed to hook my sisters on your wonderful spices, and one lives in Texas and one in North Carolina.

(guest), on September 14, 2019

After receiving a small set of spices from my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas a few years ago, I fell in love with the Cantanzaro blend of Italian seasoning, which came from Kansas City. Living just north of Dallas, I began looking for a shop in this area. It was a surprise to find the closest one was in Austin. We always go to that area during bluebonnet season, so made our first stop at the Savory Spice Shop. What a delightful place to sample and choose what we wanted to take home. The chili seasoning, more Cantanzaro were our first choices, but we added sausage seasonings, and a couple other items. Since we couldn't wait till the next bluebonnet season, online shopping worked quickly and easily! Thanks for your committment to quality products!

(guest), on September 14, 2019

I discovered you Austin shop when I was looking for some ground red chile. I ended up going home with some of every chile you had! I still buy all my spices there, if at all possible. But alas, we will be moving in a few months. I wonder if you would consider opening a store in Corpus Christi, TX. Otherwise I guess it will have to be online.

(guest), on September 14, 2019

We discovered your Platte St store (and the chocolate shop next to you!) in 2008, and I instantly fell in love. The aromas that greet you when you walk in the door are heavenly! I still remember getting back home to LA and finding that everything in my suitcase smelled like spices. I did not mind! I’m hoping you will soon have a location in Los Angeles area, but until then, I order online. Thank you for your commitment to excellent, fresh spices!

(guest), on September 14, 2019

I think my favorites (couldn't choose)are Baker's Brew and Black Dust. I use Baker's Brew in chocolate cookies, cake and brownies, and the Black Dust is my favorite for slow roasting pork ribs and loins in the oven.

(guest), on September 14, 2019

We found Savory on Platte Street via the amazing cinnamon aroma while out walking one weekend. The shop had probably been open for a week or two when we first stopped in to discover the source- I’ve been a Saigon Cinnamon fan ever since that day. Congratulations on 15 years- and here’s to many more!

(guest), on September 14, 2019

I discovered the Lowry store several years ago. This store taught me what "sensual" shopping is all about. Your stores appeal to so many of my senses. Obviously smell is the first sense and perhaps the most appealing. The visual appeal of many of the blends keeps me interested next. I love shopping and looking, but, really I am listening to people around me talk in low voices about the spice or seasoning they are looking for to cook that special meal. It gives me ideas, too. Taste, this is the store that just keeps on giving from free samples to the flavor in my meals. The tactile touch of different grinds of salts and other seasonings adds so much interest. Yes, shopping at your stores is the most sensual experience of all. Thank you for your continued adventures to bring the world to me. I look forward to shopping in your Portland store since I have recently moved.

(guest), on September 14, 2019

I got curious when I saw the store in Lowry and stopped in to see what all was in there. I am always finding something new to try. Problem is I don't have any room left for more spices. I have 3 rows of them about 2 1/2 to 3 feet wide and 2 are double rows. Now you have me interested in another one. I never was a big fan of pepper, either, until I got some from you and started grinding my own. Who knows what I will put it on next.

(guest), on September 14, 2019

Always stop in at the Alderwood Mall location whenever I visit the mall. Always get great help and suggestions.

(guest), on September 14, 2019

Always have to go to store in Bend when we go visit our daughter & her family. Can’t live without the vanilla bean paste & cardamom.

(guest), on September 15, 2019

I have been using your spices for about 7 years. My local Savory Spice in Charlotte NC is great, but I also love to visit the Bend OR shop when we visit family in Bend. I really want to say that your stories have always inspired me because you all are authentic and talk about spice and food in a passionate way. I just brought fabulous spices from my home country South Africa, but my drawer will remain stocked with your spices. My favorite spice to cook with now is Peri-Peri.

Janet (registered user) on September 16, 2019

Thank you so much everyone for your kind comments. We would NOT be here if it wasn't for our customers and employees!!

(guest), on September 17, 2019

We first discovered your store in New Mexico 5 years ago on vacation! I always check out kitchen, tea and cooking stores! We were excited to learn that a store was planned in our area. Even though the store is 30 miles away and at least an hour away with traffic we still try to go 3 or 4 times a year! So happy to have discovered this fabulous business!

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