Business is seeking measure of success

Dried herbs, spices offered in packets that hold exactly one teaspoon

November 29, 2006|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to The Sun

When Baltimore business partners Katie Luber and Sara Engram were consulting with a graphics designer late last year about packaging for tsp spices, their new line of pre-measured cooking ingredients, the young man became quite excited about their venture. "Oooo! This is such a hot idea," he said. "It's like you two are the Spice Girls!"

Laughing while recounting this story, Engram, who is 57 (Luber is 45), drolly said, "I told him we were both too old for that name. We prefer to think of ourselves as the Carda-Moms."

Cardamom is one of several dozen organically grown dried herbs and spices that tsp spices plans to start selling online in a few days (at tspspices.com) and will have available at a few local outlets, including Atwater's in Belvedere Square, as early as next month. Coriander, fennel seed and turmeric are others.

Instead of arriving in the customary bottle, these spices come in tin containers of 12 packets - each holding exactly one teaspoon, or the cook's abbreviation of "tsp." Hence, the company's name.

If you have a bottle of cinnamon or tarragon that's been in your cupboard since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, you may not realize that once a jar of ground spices is opened and exposed to light and air, it quickly loses essential oils (meaning flavor) and generally has a shelf life of about a year, cooking experts say. But with the teaspoon-sized packets, a chef can open just what's needed for a recipe and be confident that it is fresh, Luber and Engram said.

The spices also have no filler, stabilizers or anti-caking agents that some spice companies use to prolong their product's shelf life, the partners said.

"Too often, people think of spices as if they are just bulk commodities, and they look for the biggest, cheapest jar," said Engram. "We want to make spices special."

"When we first started talking about it, though, we were just having fun," Luber said. "We didn't think we'd really embarked on forming a company."

The two women have a chummy rapport that may be partially explained by their shared Southern roots - Luber was raised in Texas, Engram in "L.A.," her comic abbreviation for Lower Alabama.

"We actually bonded over food," Luber said.

Both grew up around people who loved to cook. Luber still has handwritten recipes from her grandmother, mother and an uncle. Engram recalls homegrown vegetables such as shell peas and butter beans that were so fresh they didn't need any extra flavor from seasonings. "I'm pretty sure, though, we had salt and pepper," she said jokingly.

The women went into business together after a series of unlikely events and life changes. Until a few years ago, Luber was an art historian and curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while also working on a book about the Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer.

When her husband, Philip, accepted a job at the University of Maryland, they pulled up stakes with their two children and moved from Philadelphia. Before Luber left, a pal said she should look up Engram when she got to Baltimore.

Coincidentally, Luber and her husband found a house in Ruxton quite close to where Engram lives, so when she called to introduce herself, a rendezvous was easily arranged.

The women found they had much in common, including the fact that both were in the midst of career transitions. Engram had left The Sun, where she'd been a writer and editor, including a short stint filling in as food editor. Engram said she craved the opportunity to spend more time in her kitchen, cooking food slowly and arranging proper family dinners.

Writing a story in 2001 about Julia Child's donating her kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution had made a big impression on Engram. "I felt fortunate to be in her presence. Child changed American culture, and made us see that what happens around the table really does matter," Engram said. "It's a bigger thing than just food."

This was a sentiment Luber shared. As the new friends spent time together, they began to idly talk about turning their passion for discovering new spices into some sort of shared enterprise.

Such daydreaming could easily have gone nowhere, but Luber enrolled in business courses at the Johns Hopkins University (she received her master's degree in business administration this year), and for a class project submitted an idea the women had kicked around: pre-measured spice packets. Engram helped her write a proposal and was in the classroom the day Luber presented it.

"We decided we'd see how it was received, and take it from there," said Luber. The reaction was enthusiastic, and soon enough they'd lined up financing and found organic spice vendors to buy from and a graphics designer.

The spices will come both in individual tins of 12 teaspoons with a suggested retail price of $10 each and gift packs with cans of several spices - and names such as Sun Shine (lemon zest, orange zest) and Sweet Basics (allspice, anise seed, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) - ranging from $20 to $40.

In early January, the women will have their first major sales outing when they attend their industry's main trade show, the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market.

There they'll face some competition, notably Pinch Plus, a company based in Wooster, Ohio, which sells individual tablespoon-sized packets of spices at pinch plus.com.

"People are cooking less, so when they do, they'll make an effort to prepare something especially pleasing," said Megan Schoenfelt, Pinch Plus' owner. "By opening up just the portion you need, there are no more out-of-date bottles rolling around in your drawer, turning gray or going stale."

The Carda-Moms are undaunted, however, that they're not alone on the pre-measured Spice Route. "Rather than take spices for granted, we want to encourage people to see them as a gift," Engram said. "The way people eat tells you a lot about the way they live."

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