"You never go back once you've gone fennel pollen," Bronwen Tawse says, opening a jar of the tawny spice to reveal its powerfully sweet aroma.
Tawse, who with her husband, Peter Bahlawanian, owns Spice Station, a year-old gourmet spice store in Los Angeles with a second location in Santa Monica, fell in love with this fragrant, intensely flavorful powder when the couple was developing their inventory. Tucked away off bustling Sunset Boulevard, Spice Station feels more old-fashioned apothecary shop than gourmet food emporium. Beautifully carved mortar and pestles, antique scales, and glass jars brimming with brilliantly colored powders line the shelves, which are made of reclaimed wooden pallets.
The earthy, relatively mild urfa biber was on Bahlawanian's initial must-have list, but it took nearly five months before he was able to find a source.
On closer inspection, the gleaming glass jars contain—in addition to usual suspects like cumin, paprika, and cinnamon—obscure offerings like an astonishingly spicy ghost pepper salt, the Turkish pepper urfa biber, and a popular house-blended Uighur barbecue mix—a medley of black peppercorn, Szechuan peppercorns, cumin, and ginger. Prominently displayed in front of each jar is a card explaining the spice's origin and best uses, both culinary and medicinal—creating a kind of museum of world spices.
By creating a well-curated line-up of rare spices sourced from around the world, Tawse and Bahlawanian have joined a growing group of small, independently owned spice stores around the country, such as Colorado's Savory (which recently began franchising) and World Spice in Seattle, that are giving herbs and powders the same treatment formerly reserved for epicurean favorites like wine and cheese.
Spice Station was born out of necessity. Tawse, who previously worked as a researcher for celebrity biographies ("I went from Tom Cruise gossip to black limes and fennel pollen," she says), and Bahlawanian, who was a concert producer, were longtime recreational cooks and spice lovers, but they often had trouble finding key ingredients for new recipes.
"My husband would go to the Valley for different things," Tawse says, referring to the ethnic groceries that dot Los Angeles's suburbs. But there was always something or other missing from the recipe.
"I'd been traveling and collecting different flavors," recalls Bahlawanian, who says he noticed others undertaking similar spice quests. "I told Bronwen one day, 'Maybe there's a business in this.' "
And so Spice Station was born.
In crafting an inventory, Bahlawanian says they started with the basics before quickly expanding to include salts, sugars, housemade spice blends, and a range of over 40 chiles.
Some of the more exotic spices have been difficult to find. The earthy, relatively mild urfa biber was on Bahlawanian's initial must-have list, but it took nearly five months before he was able to find a source. "99 percent of people I mentioned it to had never heard of it. I went to ethnic markets and they didn't have it. Finally I had to use resources, like old-school 'Hey who do I know in Turkey?'" Through a series of tangential connections and the help of translators, he was finally able to offer it at the store, and it's become one of their bestsellers.
Another challenge in the sourcing process is the couple's commitment to ensuring the freshness of their spices by keeping a limited quantity on hand. "I don't have a warehouse where I keep stock," Bahlawanian says, "I have enough to have a jarful."
Ideally Bahlawanian would buy directly from the harvesters, but because his orders are so small—often only between five and 25 pounds at a time, he has had to develop relationship with direct importers. "There are some things I'm not able to import myself because they're small quantities, so I found importers who are working with the harvesters I like and piggyback with them," he says. "I've eliminated distributors altogether; made deals to get it firsthand right away and move it real fast and it doesn't stay with me for more than a month."
Bahlawanian keeps the stock interesting by traveling as often as possible to visit the suppliers. This fall he's making a trip to Spain, with pit stops in Syria for Aleppo pepper, sumac, and mahlab, and in India for cumin and coriander.
On these trips Bahlawanian is often introduced to new spices, and, more importantly, the trips help him better understand the products he's selling back in L.A. "I enjoy being amongst the people that grow them," he says. "It connects me a little more so I can give a true and honest presentation of the spice when I'm in the States."
In addition to the informational cards describing each of the spices and an in-house lending library of spice-oriented cookbooks, customers are invited to smell and taste the products. "Customers have read about but may not know what turmeric is," Tawse says. "It helps to see it and smell it."
The owners also encourage their customers to do as they do, keeping purchases small and re-ordering regularly. Though the rule of thumb is that spices last between three and six months out of direct light, Tawse says theirs can go a bit longer because the spices come directly from the importers, without sitting in a warehouse.
"People come in here and they get excited," Bahlawanian says. "The aromas, the colors are so natural and earthy and at the same time exotic and mysterious. People feel that they're at home and away at the same time."