Oftentimes the best, most successful businesses are those born from an understanding of a lack of something in a particular neighborhood. Such was the case with the Oaktown Spice Shop, John Beaver and Erica Perez's charming new spice shop in the Grand/Lakeshore neighborhood of Oakland. The first thing you'll notice about the space, once a men's clothing and shaving boutique, is the distinctly handsome aesthetic. The fixtures and shelving are all salvaged, and John searched high and low and pulled from his own personal collection to find the vintage scales and spice jars you'll see scattered about. It's the kind of space where each detail has been tended to, and you can sense right away that everything is in its rightful place. In that way, it feels very special. Very well-crafted. Very welcoming.
During my time there, I tasted two different kinds of cinnamon, and smelled the freshest cumin and coriander I've ever come across. I also learned about Tellicherry black peppercorns, which John described as fully ripened with a more refined flavor than traditional black peppercorn. When I told him I wasn't aware there were so many kinds of peppercorns, he likened the difference to varieties of tomatoes and how drastically they can differ in taste. After talking with John for just a moment, you realize you're dealing with a man who really knows his spices and blends. From the common to the more obscure, you're in good hands here.
Star Anise and Nutmeg
When John found out I was a baker, we chatted all about different varieties of cinnamon and vanilla, and I'm so looking forward to trying them out in apple and pear pies. If you're used to buying bulk spices at Whole Foods or other upscale grocery stores you're going to notice two things right away when you walk into Oaktown Spice Shop: first the prices are far better. Second, the spices are far, far fresher. You can open up the jars and take a sniff and it's possible that you won't even recognize some familiar spices you use often. This happened to me pretty quickly. New Year's Resolution #62.
As far as where they get their high-quality selection, John and Erica don't directly import any spices themselves; they work with distributors they know and trust, and have spices and herbs from all over the world including India, Africa, China, and the Mediterranean. When asked what the most popular spice has been so far, John doesn't hesitate to answer that the smoked paprikas practically sell themselves. Perhaps it's because such ingredients are being listed in more and more recipes these days or maybe because they're smartly displayed right by the register. Regardless, locals are snatching them up. Big time.
While they hold normal business hours now, they used to just be open on Saturdays while they worked out the kinks and got everything situated just right. Now that they're fully operational, John and Erica are starting to think about ways they can continue to reach out to the community and get people excited about spices. Erica and I talked about the possibility of having a booth at the farmers market, but for now they're taking things one step at a time.
When I asked how on earth you fall into the spice business, John mentioned how he used to work at a spice shop back in Milwaukee, where he's from, and couldn't stop thinking about opening a shop here upon moving to Oakland.
The neighborhood was a logical choice as the couple lives close by. But it was also a good business decision. There is strong foot traffic and being so close to the Farmers Market, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's inserts them into a dynamic food community with interested and eager customers who enjoy cooking, baking, and expanding their horizons. It's a win-win for everyone. And after a brief visit to the Oaktown Spice Shop last week, it's going to be an ongoing win for John and Erika.
Oaktown Spice Shop
530 Grand Ave., Oakland, CA 94610
Hours: Tuesday-Friday: 12pm-7pm
Website is still under construction; like them on Facebook to keep up to date.