Oaktown Spice Shop is a joyful stop on the errand routine. Customers can step into a beautiful, nostalgic and aromatic world, smell their way through glass jars of spices, have a conversation about their next meal with the staff, and find inspiration for their cooking.
The conversation may be about how to liven up the weekly baked chicken tradition. Other times, it’s about finding the elusive ingredients for a particular dish or cuisine, or learning how an unfamiliar spice can be used.
Our shops are located in Oakland, California’s Grand Lake neighborhood, on Solano Avenue in Albany, California and in the Castro Valley Marketplace in Castro Valley, California.
We focus on sourcing the absolute best-tasting version of each individual spice that we can find, which entails working with hundreds of different importers. We grind spices ourselves, in our shop, every week or two. This means the ground spices customers find at Oaktown are bursting with flavor and are far fresher than those found elsewhere.
Our spice blends are signature recipes, hand-mixed in the shop using our freshly ground spices. Some, like our Santa Fe Chili Powder, are our versions of well-known favorites, while others, such as the Grand Lake Shake or Umami Sea Salt, are our own inventions, born of curiosity and adventures in the kitchen.
When John Beaver and Erica Perez moved to Oakland in 2009, they found a community that placed immense value on food. But they noticed that while people were buying their produce at the farmer’s market and their meat at the butcher shop, they were not putting as much thought into where they bought their spices.
John had developed a fascination with spices early on, growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When he was in high school, during an otherwise uninspiring afternoon spent running errands, he and his mother visited The Spice House, a local, family-run spice shop in the city’s historic downtown.
Thick, dusty aromas of freshly ground cinnamon and cloves awakened John from daydreaming. He marveled at the burlap sacks stacked one on top of the other, each emblazoned with the name of a different foreign place: Tellicherry. Madagascar. Sri Lanka.
Perhaps sensing John’s curiosity, the owner of the business, William Penzey, Sr., offered him a job on the spot. For the next several years, John worked at the shop and learned about spices. They intrigued him -- each spice made him think of a new and different place, its history and its terrain.
How remarkable, for example, that India did not have chiles until the 16th century, sometime after they were ferried by Columbus from the Americas to Europe. Now, chiles are integral to Indian cuisine and the modern culture.
Under Penzey’s tutelage, John also became intimately familiar with the properties of each spice. Cinnamon chips had to go through the mill in several steps to reduce their woody, fibrous matter to powder, which then had to be rubbed by hand through the smallest screen to produce deliciously delicate dust.
John quickly learned the difference between high-quality whole spices -- bursting with flavor, plump in shape and vibrant in color -- and their inferior counterparts. Grinding spices in the mill every day also taught him the advantage of freshly ground spices. The moment a whole spice is ground, it begins to release its oils and lose flavor. Grocery store spices, ground years before, were paltry substitutes for the freshly ground stuff.
In 2009, John and Erica were walking around Lake Merritt when John suggested maybe they could open a spice shop where they ground fresh spices and made hand-mixed blends. Erica immediately loved the idea and, in the coming months, convinced John it was a true calling and not just a moment’s whim.
Erica, too, had a passion for food. Her most joyous memories were centered around food, whether it was her first time picking berries on the roadside or eating through the moles of Oaxaca during her months studying in Mexico. And it was John’s creativity with food, particularly a pizza-made-from-scratch on their third date, that had won her heart.
Erica’s experience as a newspaper reporter had taught her how to be dogged about details, how to become an expert in a topic, how to handle numbers, and how to get things done on deadline. She enthusiastically embraced the task of the executing the dream, working with John over the next year and a half on a business plan.
In 2011, John and Erica opened Oaktown Spice Shop. John worked full-time at the shop while Erica kept her journalism job and helped on nights and weekends. In that first year, John was the sole employee in the shop most of the time, grinding the spices in the back and running out to the front at the sound of the door bell.
Since then, Erica has joined Oaktown Spice Shop full-time and the business has grown to a full team of employees, three retail shop locations and a growing number of restaurants, bakeries and bar customers -- not to mention chocolatiers, distillers, popcorn producers and candy makers -- who source their spices from the shop.