Ann Wilder, co-founder of Vanns Spices

January 17, 2009|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,

Ann Wilder spun her adventuresome spirit and enthusiasm for cooking into a multimillion-dollar spice business that won her the admiration of accomplished chefs and local moms alike.

She died of heart disease Tuesday at 77, surrounded by family at her Ruxton home.

Mrs. Wilder was known for quality and traveled the world in search of the best spices for her Vanns Spices Ltd., a Towson-based company founded in 1981. It flourished despite operating in the same town as spice giant McCormick & Co.

But before her success in business, which included industry honors and a place for her spices on the shelves of high-end groceries such as Dean & DeLuca and Zabar's, she was a wife and mother looking for good food to feed her extended family. She was also a former Boys' Latin art teacher.

"When I was a kid, she'd make this tandoori chicken with yogurt," said her son Rob Wilder of Ruxton. "When I was in college, I was the guy who brought home three or four buddies for dinner, and Mom would put it together in a minute. For me, it was old hat, but my friends thought it was the best thing they'd ever tasted."

Ann Davis was a native of Columbia, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina. In the late 1970s, after settling in the Baltimore area, she began helping a friend, Val Limansky, with cooking classes she offered in her house. The pair began mixing their own spices and selling them at church bazaars and other events. Pretty soon, they launched Vanns Spices - named for Val and Ann - and began selling to local grocers such as Graul's and Eddie's Market.

The company, which had annual revenues of $3 million to $4 million, was sold to investment partners in 2006 after the partners and Mrs. Wilder disagreed on a direction for the business. It continues to sell spices.

Mrs. Wilder used some of her profits to help Rob Wilder start Wilder Foods Inc., which sells Mrs. Wilder's high-end-style spices wholesale to restaurants. She continued consulting for the company until her death, and her son said she traveled to Sri Lanka on her own last year in search of better-quality cinnamon even after she became legally blind.

She clearly was surprised by the extent of her success in the spice world. She told The Sun in a 1992 interview: "If I had sat down and said, 'What kind of business can I get into that I meet wonderful people - and crazy people - and get to travel, and something that would have a different problem every day,' I never would have come up with this."

Mrs. Wilder was frequently honored for her spices, earning an entrepreneur-of-the-year award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2004. And she had many followers.

"She was a walking encyclopedia of spices," said John Shields, owner of Gertrude's restaurant and author of several Chesapeake Bay cookbooks.

"Before I met her, all I knew was McCormick's," he said. "She opened up whole vistas to those of us in the culinary world. She could tell you about the growing conditions of spices. She visited restaurants. Not many spice people do that."

Services will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home.

Mrs. Wilder is also survived by her husband of 54 years, Richard Wilder of Ruxton; another son, Dave Wilder of Baltimore; and six grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun reporter Rob Kasper contributed to this article.

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