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Apr 1, 2008 11:38 AM

Spice House: A Disappointment

Went to The Spice House on Wells in Chicago on Saturday. Was excited to finally see the place.

Been a longtime Penzey's shopper (both retail and mail order), so that was my standard for comparison.

My Spice House experience was not a good one.

First off, not all of their spice blends list the ingredients. Some of the jars in the store lacked them and NONE of the labels on the jar/bag that you take home do. Annoying and downright stupid of them.

Second, they have very little in the form of pre-packaged inventory. Mostly you have to take down a large jar of product, haul it to the counter (be careful because they get visably pissed if you put it down on their marble countertop -- so why have a mable countertop in the first place?) and have one of the few frazzled staff people measure and package for you. Then go to a paper file folder and find a label to affix. This takes WAY TOO LONG. Moreover, different customers are taking various containers of product to the counters, so way too many jars are missing from the shelves.

Third, with one or two exceptions, the staff was snotty and full of attitude. A huge turnoff.

The store is way too small, especially given the confusing way business is done there. Also the old fashioned manual cash register which requires employees to use a calculator to tally up your purchases and figure out tax is not "cute," it's ridiculous. Sorry. Takes forever, especially when the employee makes an error adding up your booty.

The one thing that was a big plus was "tasting" jars, though I have some doubts about the sanitation aspects of that practice.

They do have a few interesting things that Penzey's doesn't, but their line and Penzey's is pretty much the same (understandable given that they are from the same family). I bought some of the items that Penzey's doesn't carry and a few that they do. But unless the former are things I find I can't live without or the latter are vastly superior to Penzey's, I'll skip the Spice House in favor of Penzey's.

Anyone else have a comparison?

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  1. I've never had to take a bulk jar down from the shelf and haul it to the counter. I've just told one of the staff what I wanted and they go weigh it out for me while I browse. The staff has never seemed snotty to me, but you may have caught them on a bad day. I actually prefer the fact that the herbs/spices are in bulk jars, more consistent turnover of product that way. There is no way to tell how long a prepackaged item has been sitting on the shelf before you pick it up.

    5 Replies
    1. re: LabRat

      I thought about the freshness aspect, but there's also no way to know how long it has been sitting in the jar. At Penzey's everything is pre-packaged but not a lot of units out, suggesting that it is bagged/jarred very frequently.

      Maybe my head-to-head comparison will tell.

      And maybe I did get them on a bad day.

      1. re: C. Hamster

        I've had a few bad experiences at Spice House on Wells along the lines of snotty clerks, but I do have to say that I've also had favorable experiences as well. One time, the clerk told me that their mid grade wasabi powder was the exact same as the stuff in the little green can at virtually every asian grocery store.They just bought it in bulk and put it in the jar. I usually stick to the Penzey's in Oak Park simply because it's much closer to my home. I generally only get peppercorns, and the freeze dried jalapenos there unless I have guests from out of town who have limited spice shops where they are from. Both places are good for gifts for people who are unfamiliar with spices, and they offer "safe" options for people who want to try new ethnic cuisines at home.

        That being said:
        If you are buying their blends, and especially "ethnic" blends, I think it's one of the greatest ripoffs ever, and I wish I could have gotten in on it. Their Indian blends have to be like an 800% markup over what you would find in an Indian Mkt. Their rubs are so incredibly easy to pre-roduce at home for about 1/5 of the price. The list for ethnic ripoffs is pretty long at either place. In Chicago, we have plenty of ethnic grocers, you just have to look.

        1. re: gordeaux

          I frequent the Evanston Spice House. They get down and package everything for you and it's never been slow when I've gone in. Agreed, "blends" are always a bad deal. I do like Salad Elegant and Sunny Paris and a few others but I don't kid myself that they are terribly good value.

          I like it that the Evanston place is right across from Foodstuffs. Great way to lighten your wallet in one stop.

          1. re: bibi rose

            I frequent the Evanston location of the Spice House too. I've had excellent service there also - very friendly, helpful, and down-to-earth, never any "snottiness". And they pride themselves on the freshness of their spices; I've never had anything other than great products and a great experience there.

            You're right about the great food-oriented location, too, bibi rose. Along that one-block stretch of Central Street, in addition to Spice House and Foodstuffs, you've also got Tag's (a local bakery), Linz and Vail (a local gelato store), Homemade Pizza, Starbuck's, and Great Harvest (breads).

            1. re: nsxtasy

              And speaking of Tag's, they are famous for their outstanding Florentines. Anyone who loves these chocolaty delights and is near Tag's should definitely stop in and try a 1/4 pound or more. And just up the road is Casteel's, one of my favorite coffee roasters. Great selection of coffee from around the world and fresh roasted daily selections. Oh, and Jackie's Bistro is just minutes away. Great neighborhood.

              I also second nxstasy's comments about the Spice House in Evanston. I have been shopping there for years, never had a problem with service, was always treated cordially and never had to pull down large jars to obtain anything. I cannot speak for the Chicago location as I only frequent the Evanston location as I live in the north suburbs - Highland Park.

    2. I've never had to get a jar down off the shelves(never seen another customer do it either).
      There are one or two sometimes irascible employees, but they are the minority. I don't want The Spice House to "get with the times." I enjoy their idiosyncrasies, especially compared to the one Penzey's I've been too that has zero personality and not nearly the stock that The Spice House carries(esp. when it comes to chile powders). As for the tasting jars; what's un-hygenic? You pour a little into your palm, sniff and or taste it, and, as I was long ago instructed by a Spice House staff member, dust any remnants from your palms onto the floor because, "it makes the store smell wonderful." I have to agree. Also, there are just a couple or so blends that I regularly buy, mainly I go for the high quality whole or ground spices. I've always gotten the impression that the turnover for the jarred spices is high. Can't say I've ever arrived home with anything I considered stale.

      2 Replies
      1. re: aelph

        Hmmm.... there were 4 employees working on a Sat. afternoon and that was not nearly enough, I guess, because customers were taking things down left and right.

        I agree about Penzey's staff being dull, mostly older ladies, but the younguns at the Spice House had some serious attitude and treated me as though I knew nothing about their products or about cooking. Go figure.

        The 3 Penzey's retail locations I have been to have IMO had a lot more stock than this location of the Spice House and better organized, as well.

        Point take about the blends. I am not a huge fan of those, save a few that I think are well done and money saving from Penzey's. I chose 2 that Penzey's does not carry and am annoyed that the ingredients are not on the label. That's just stupid, IMO.

        Also, hundreds of people handling the same "tester" jar pouring product into hand, hand then probably/possibly coming into contact with saliva, then repeating seems to pose some very obvious sanitation issues. I was undaunted though and tasted away.

        I should have said at the outset that they have no Spice House retail locations where I live, so I have no opportunity to give them a second chance right away. But I will when I get back to Chicago.

        1. re: C. Hamster

          I agree with their being understaffed for high-traffic periods(Wells location) and it's also probably difficult for them to suss those "who have a purpose" and the majority, imo, who merely mill about the store. Of course, both types of customers spend money. You're right about the tasting jars...I've yet to see anything untowards...and I take pains not to contaminate the surfaces of the bottles when I "test," but who knows what others do? Definitely give them another go and if it's not your thing then no harm done...there's plenty of competition.

      2. Personally, I'm not a fan of the Spice House blends and have never tried the Penzey variety. I've had good luck with the Dean and DeLuca brand of spices and herbs.

        I prefer to make my own blends with herbs and spices found in many of our colorful ethnic enclaves throughout the Chicagoland area...Devon Avenue, Argyle and Broadway, North Avenue & Harlem, Pilsen, Mexican town along 26th streets as well as in Pilsen, Middle Eastern Bakery on Foster Avenue, etc etc. Wow, I really miss the old school Conte De Savoia in the strip mall off of Roosevelt, etc. Even Whole Foods carries a variety of relatively fresh bulk spices and herbs....and they turn them over pretty quickly so things stay fresh.

        2 Replies
        1. re: amoncada

          I'm WAAAAY with you. So much cheaper, and I would bet my life that both places buy their blends from the same mfrs that sell smaller packages to the ethnic grocers around town. Then, they can mark them up to the moon since nobody knows any better.

          1. re: gordeaux

            Unless you're a cynic, no. The Spice House(and Penzey's) make a big transparent(meaning: they advertise their practices) deal of their sourcing of sustainable, agricultural projects. Patel Bros./SWAD etc....while cheap in bulk, I wonder about. I question an earlier comment regarding The Spice House's wasabi powders...on the one hand every commercial wasabi powder's going to have the same base: horseradish, coloring, and mustard. You won't discern much difference until you get into true wasabi root. I would never buy powdered wasabi root, but I believe The Spice House offers it...the same way they offer dried parsley, basil, and epazote...three herbs I also wouldn't purchase in dehydrated form no matter the quality of the purveyor. Also, some of their ethnic blends(specifically, the garam masala and five spice powder) may be easy to reproduce at home, but I give credit to TSH for putting their own spin on things; these blends differ from the typical commercial preps. FYI: read the story of TSH's garam masala...apocryphal, or not, it gives an indicator of their homegrown philosophy.