The Untold Truth Of Penzeys Spices

When thinking about recreating your favorite flavors from far-off lands, Milwaukee, Wisconsin seems like an unlikely locale for sourcing those ingredients, but the city is actually the birthplace of the one of the United States' foremost spice retailers. The story of Penzeys Spices begins with Ruth and Bill Penzey Sr., a midwestern couple who opened up a coffee and spice shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1957 (via Reference for Business). The couple brought their son Bill Jr. into the business early, allowing him to work in the store at the young age of ten. Penzey Jr. was fascinated by the family business and, according to Forbes, when it came time to enroll in college he crafted his own major at the University of Wisconsin to help him better understand the family business. Combining food science and history, Penzey Jr. dedicated his studies to all things spice related, including their usage in ancient times and digging deep into the complicated history of spice trading routes.

Bill Penzey Jr. saw a future in spices, and when he graduated his first order of business was to open his own brick and mortar spice shop in the village of Dobb's Ferry, New York.

The Penzeys spice catalogue was a one-man show

Although his first solo foray into the world of spice sales was short lived, Bill Penzey Jr. forged on with the family business. It was the '80s and mail-order catalogues were all the rage, so in 1986 Penzey Jr. decided to create a mail-order spice catalogue (via Refrence for Business).

The Penzey Spice catalogue was a one-man show, with Bill Penzey Jr. not only writing and designing the contents, but also filling orders and traveling to far-off destinations in search of the perfect specialty spices for the company to sell. In the catalogue, Penzey Jr. shared photographs and stories of his adventures with customers. A profile of the spice enthusiast and businessman in The New Yorker says that Penzey Jr. used the catalogue as both a marketplace for his wares and a space to share his own personal thoughts and opinions. While most retailers have chosen to keep their politics to themselves, Penzey Jr. has never hesitated to offer his thoughts, be it in the print catalogue, through posts on the company's Facebook page, or by famously spending $92,000 on pro-impeachment advertisements in 2019 (via The New York Times).

At Penzeys Spices stores, you can try before you buy

Before Penzey Jr.'s politics put him in the national spotlight, his collection of hard to find herbs and spices gained a sizable following with home cooks across the country. Reference for Business states that in 1994, Penzey Jr. revisited the idea of opening a retail shop in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This second attempt at a brick and mortar store was a success, and since then the Penzeys Spices brand had expanded to include many more locations throughout the United States.

While most people head straight to the baking aisle of the supermarket to stock up on sealed jars of oregano, thyme, and curry powder, Penzeys Spices offers a more interactive in-store experience. When visiting a Penzeys Spices location, The Kitchn appreciated the sensory elements of the shop, writing "A small bowl of the spice was set out so you could take a whiff or even have a taste if you wanted to. This made me realize how often we have to guess how an herb will smell and taste before buying it and how unsatisfying that experience is."

Penzeys Spices has always trafficked in hard to find herbs and spices

Since the beginning, Penzeys Spices has trafficked in hard to find ingredients. Those in the market for Turkish ground sumac berries and mace blade may not have much luck at their local grocery store, but items like those are what's given Penzeys Spices staying power (via Forbes). While the mail-order catalogue has been scaled back in frequency, Penzeys Spices does a robust business online, where they offer everything from Adobo Seasoning (a spice mix popular in Mexican cooking) to Zatar (a Middle Eastern spice blend).

Penzey Jr.'s decision to mix politics with the spice business has received a good deal of press (though not all positive). Despite this possibility of losing customers, Penzey Jr. has continued to use his platform to make the company's left-leaning beliefs known. Penzeys Spices even trademarked the slogan "Season Liberally" (via Vox), and the official company Facebook page is sometimes heavier on political opinions than recipes or cooking tips. While critics and even other spice companies have questioned this move, Penzys Spices online sales rose 60 percent after one particularly politically-charged newsletter was sent following the 2016 presidential election, so they must be doing something right.