Spokane Journal of Business

A foodie flavor shop

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A foodie flavor shop
-—Staff photo by Treva Lind
Bill Coyle started Spice Traders Mercantile Inc. in Spokane Valley just over a year ago with his wife, Jan Love.

The owners of a Spokane Valley nursery have found a way to spice up their business plan—and boost sales year-round—with a separate enterprise on-site that offers specialty food ingredients and beverages.

Bill Coyle and his wife, Jan Love, opened Spice Traders Mercantile Inc. just over a year ago in a remodeled space within Plantland Nursery, located at 15614 E. Sprague. The new venture offers exotic spices, artisan finishing salts, loose-leaf teas, microbrews, wines, balsamic vinegars, and olive oils in a variety of flavors.

Spice Traders Mercantile caters to people, called foodies, who love to cook with high-quality ingredients, Coyle says. While he declines to disclose total revenues, he says that sales for the startup rose 22 percent year over year as of December, with particularly good results during the holidays.

"The high season for specialty foods is November and December," Coyle adds. "It's the food season. People tend to cook more and eat more during the holidays, and they tend to eat more exotic or interesting foods. Also, they make great gifts."

The couple says the garden and landscape greenery business they've operated since 2000 picks up substantially March through June. The nursery is closed from Christmas until March, although it continues to sell some garden supplies, while Spice Traders Mercantile stays open year-round.

Coyle adds that Spice Traders Mercantile brings business diversification. "It balances out our business flow, but they are two separate entities. As a small business in today's economy—we call it the new normal because it's going to be different for some time—we knew we had to reinvent ourselves in order to survive."

With hardwood flooring and decor suggesting an old dry goods mercantile store, the 1,000-square-foot shop displays rows of products, including clear glass jars filled with spices that line a wall. The spices include ones common to household cabinets—paprika, sage, and thyme leaf—along with exotic selections that include "grains of paradise" from Africa and juniper berry.

The spices are available in 1-ounce packets at prices that range between about $2 and $4. People also can buy the bulk spices in larger quantities.

"We have close to 100 single-ingredient spices and close to 50 blends of spices," Coyle says.

A central feature in the store is a bar of fusti containers, which are stainless steel drums with spigots for the vinegars and oils that allow customers to sample the flavors using tiny paper cups.

The couple maintains a blog, a Facebook page, and a newsletter with recipes and tips for using the specialty ingredients, such as a splash of flavored balsamic vinegar to spice up cake icing.

"The fusti bar is a tasting bar, so we encourage customers to taste because this is a new experience for most people," Coyle says.

The store stocks a selection of 22 different balsamic vinegars, starting with a traditional balsamic, and others that are infused with natural flavorings. All the vinegars have as their base a balsamic vinegar that was aged 18 years by a vendor in Modena, Italy, Coyle says.

Spice Traders Mercantile carries vinegars that include chocolate, raspberry, spicy mango, and garlic cilantro flavorings. The store currently has nine varieties of extra virgin olive oils that come from a California distributor and include such flavors as lime, garlic, and blood orange.

Oils and vinegars are available with a Spice Traders Mercantile label in 12.5-ounce bottles for $16, or in 1.6-ounce bottles for $3.99.

Another store section has about 20 different sprinkling salts with their natural minerals and in flavors ranging from raspberry chipotle to smoked bacon. "You don't cook with them," Coyle says. "You sprinkle them over a meal as you serve it."

Salts range in price from about $6 to $17 for a 1.5-ounce container.

The store also carries a selection of craft beers and wines, and about 70 varieties of loose-leaf teas as well as some gourmet packaged teas. In addition to Coyle and Love, Spice Traders Mercantile has one part-time employee.

By this spring, the couple plans to remodel an adjacent 1,800-square-foot pole building behind the specialty food shop for potential use by a brewpub, bakery, or craft business.

"We'll create it as a leasable space, with separate offices and facilities," Love says. "We will utilize the space whether it becomes an extension of Spice Traders Mercantile, or a related business. We haven't fully decided yet, but we're hoping to have that space completed by spring."

The nursery is on 1.7 acres near the intersection of Sprague and Sullivan.

Coyle, who previously worked as a contractor in the Portland area, did the remodeling work for Spice Traders Mercantile, and he plans to do the same for the adjacent area. The couple declines to disclose the remodeling costs.

Love says the couple's specialty-ingredients venture has attracted a core group of clients who follow their weekly newsletter delivered by email. "We have over 700 subscribers," she says.

Adds Coyle, "We search out from vendors worldwide."

Treva Lind
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