15 Years of Savory Spice: Q&A with Mike and Janet408
with Emily Bishop
Savory Spice Team
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.