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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, April 22

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« Crowning a Mix Master "I'm willing to give the Dutch, and their crazy huge pancakes, a chance" »

Feature Mon Oct 12 2009

The Spice of Life

I came home from the Ravenswood Art Walk with my mouth buzzing. It should, probably, have been because I couldn't wait to talk about the art I'd seen. But it was actually because I stopped in to tour local spice company Urban Accents, where I tried samples of Sloppy Joes made with their Rio Grande Chili blend, jalapeno-infused lemonade and some pineapple grilled with chili peppers and paprika. The rest of my body may have been in a still-half-asleep, Sunday morning daze, but by midmorning my tongue was abuzz and happy.

Before starting his business, Tom Knibbs, Urban Accents' owner, worked in plastic packaging, but his heart was always in specialty foods and spices. He says he once had to be dragged out of a spice shop, where he'd gotten lost amid the scents and ingredients lists. That and a desire to find a lemon-pepper mix without salt, lead him and co-owner Jim Dygas into the business. Their spice blends, once mixed in the basement, are now sold at Whole Foods, Fox & Obel and other specialty markets in Chicago and beyond. After talking with Tom during the weekend of the Art Walk, I exchanged some e-mail with him in order to learn more about life behind the spice rack.

Gapers Block: Was lemon pepper your first spice mix?

Tom Knibbs: Sonoma Pepper was one of our first blends. We opened with a line of 12 blends that we sold to a few independent gourmet retailers in Chicago, Michigan and Boston before getting our break with Crate & Barrel. [The retailer ordered a pizza-spice mix to sell with a pizza stone. Filling the order meant that Tom and his family had to spend long days and nights working to fill bags with his spice blend.]

GB: With the Crate & Barrel order, did you realize that you could make a living in the spice business?

TK: That big order gave me the capital to expand my operation and move it to the "next level."

GB: Do you have any advice for someone considering turning their food passion into a business?

TK: I tell everyone with a dream or idea to go for it. I also tell them that it will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you could ever imagine. But the sacrifices that you make for a passion you have are well worth it. You need to start small/local and make sure there is a viable market for your idea. You can't rely on friends and family to support you; rather, you need to get your products into the marketplace and see if people will pay you for your product. This can be small retail shops, farmers' markets, a restaurant, etc.

The first five years in business, I demo'd food almost every weekend around the Midwest, where stores carried my products. There wasn't a Memorial Day, July 4th or Labor Day when I wasn't at some store cooking and selling my products. You really have to know if people want what you have, and there is no better way than getting out there and seeing.

GB: Do you do any of your own grinding of the spices?

TK: Very early on we did, but after a year or so we took our recipes (formulas) and [hired] outside companies [to] do that for us.

GB: Did you ever (or do you) order any specialty spices from overseas?

TK: Many of the base spices or herbs come from outside of the U.S., but all of our blends are made here in the U.S. The blending is done in several different locations, but a majority of blenders are here in the Midwest.

GB: I tried your Gotta Cook Tonight Moroccan Tagine dinner mix. Did you spend months eating tagines and then going to work and testing different spice mixes?

TK: Our product development process involves everyone in the company. [Each employee has an equal vote when new products are tested.] Once we get an idea like our Gotta Cook Tonight products, we all get together and figure out what we want to accomplish and what flavors we are looking for. We wanted an easy-to-use spice blend that would make a main course meal for four to six people. We wanted world flavors that were above your traditional meals, and then we tested and tasted these for months here before going to the market. We had lots of tagine for lunch, and we took everyone's opinion seriously.

GB: Is there a spice mix or product that you feel most proud of?

TK: They are all like my own kids, so this is hard. I love our Chicago Steak & Chop [spice blend], and I think it's better than any other steak seasoning on the market. It is our Number 1 selling item. Our Jalapeno Lemonade is one of the most unique products we make. And this year, I couldn't be more proud of our Mango Masala seasoned sea salt. It's delicious and won a silver Sofi Award for us from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

But the whole line of dry glazes is probably the most unique idea we've ever developed. Using different sweeteners instead of salt and savories for a rub base is totally unique. No one is doing anything like it the way we are. My favorite from that line is Mandarin Ginger.

GB: Is there a spice mix or product you were sorry to have to toss?

TK: We used to make a product called Singapore Pinch. It was a blend with lemon pepper and a light curry; it was delicious. I loved it. But we were only selling a few hundred bottles a year, so we had to discontinue it about five years ago. We still get calls and e-mails asking for it.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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