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Jan 11, 2010 05:57 AM

Penzey's Spices catalog--is it just me?

I've been buying my spices from Penzey's for years--first from the catalog, then from the Richmond store. While I love the spices I have to admit that Bill Penzey's been annoying me for years because of his ongoing fat and salt phobia. I noticed on my last visit to the store that the big salt display had been diminished to just kosher and regular sea salt, and in the most recent catalog Bill had this to say:

"A really good and healthy thing going on with food right now is that people are using less salt. We want to be a part of this. Going forward we will continue to sell reasonably priced generic salts of the earth and sea, but we will no longer be selling the higher priced specialty salts. I feel things have gotten to a point where the specialty salts are glamorizing the use of salt and, with that, encouraging people to use more of it. I have also found that along with the marketing of specialty salt has come a great deal of misinformation, including claims that some salts don’t affect your health like others do. This is just not true and not something we want to be a part of. Salt is salt, it really is, and it tastes no different no matter where it comes from."

Why don't you just say "they weren't selling" like the nice man in the Richmond store told me when I asked about it? Apparently it's all right to sell spice blends full of sugar and have most of your catalog recipes be for desserts (they're low-fat!) but Dog forbid someone might put salt in something. Sorry, Bill, different salts DO taste different--and you said so when you started selling the salts a few years ago. It was an experiment that didn't work out, just admit it.


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  1. I have to totally, 100% AGREE with you on this. I bought a few gift sets this year for Christmas, and they included both catalogs from November and the "Holiday" one where Bill goes on his salt rampage.

    I purchased a small "set" of different salts this past summer that included about 6 types of different salts. (the European one? Smelled/tasted like rotten eggs. YUCK) I disagree that they all "taste the same." Each one of those salts had a different complexity to it, and a different "taste." I found myself using LESS salt when I used these designer salts.

    And the sugar content in some of their blends is just way too much. I would worry more about that then selling Gourmet Salts. I think it was complete cop-out on his part.

    1. I'm not too bothered by the absence of specialty salts....what I do find is that the catalog gets awful preachy, is too sentimental, and doesn't really have very interesting recipes in it. I'd probably buy more if the recipes were compelling and not so midwestern/homespun/folksy. Still, Ps is a good mail-order resource if you're in the boondocks without direct access to fresh spices.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Hungry Celeste

        I agree completely. I love Penzey's and they're got my business even if they start sending the catalog in cross-stich sampler format. However, I would probably buy a lot more if they would design a catalog that appealed more to my sensibilities.

        But I do want to point out that I am near a large city and have access to tons of spice merchants and was shocked to find that Penzey's really does have the superior product.

        1. re: Kater

          I love Penzey's and they're got my business even if they start sending the catalog in cross-stich sampler format. - Lol. That is so funny!! I have to say though, I am not a huge fan of their catalog, but I just love their spices!

          1. re: Kater

            Heh, nice. :-) I've always found the photos in the catalog and magazine to be the worst possible quality - whomever is calling the artistic shots doesn't appear to be a lover of actually eating food.

            1. re: tenacity

              i think it's on the catalog that "loving hands of home" feel.

              Like my grandma's recipes that called for a "glug" of molasses.

              1. re: tenacity

                Unless you love a good fish fry down at the Lutheran church

          2. I just ignore Bill and the catalogue. The quality of their spices and herbs is so good that I can't boycott them. I think different salts, though overprices, are fun - even those that threaten to break my teeth.

            They just opened a store 17 miles from me, so once in a while I go in and smell my way around - so much fun!

            5 Replies
            1. re: Claudette

              Exactly. I don't even read the catalog any more -- I should probably call and ask them to quit sending it. But I dislike it for the same reasons that I dislike the Sur la Table catalog and the Williams Sonoma catalog -- I just don't enjoy the overt experience of being sold.

              But oh, I appreciate the fact that at the store they have little jars of every spice for customers to smell! It makes a huge difference when deciding among different blends, or trying something new.

              Plus, they're the only place near me that sells Ceylon cinnamon, and I love their new cinnamon blend.

              1. re: jlafler

                You want them to stop sending the catalog?? Don't you get coupons for free stuff with your catalog?

                They suck me in every time with those, and actually it works well--I keep adding "must have" spices to my list based on those samples.

              2. re: Claudette

                I'm still surprised Richmond got a store--my husband still laughs about how excited I was when I found out about it.

                As far as the salt goes, it's just the principle of the thing. Ironically my newest Penzey's love is the shallot salt (fantastic on meats).

                1. re: MandalayVA

                  I love the shallot salt - it's my new 'secret' weapon. I worry that the Richmond store is so customer-less all the time. I stop in a couple times a month, and I'm always surprised that no one is there. On Saturdays, they definitely have more customers, but they don't seem to be die-hard fans. Even 20 people spending 4 dollars is just not a lot of sales.

                  Re: the salt thing - yes, the catalog has turned into a campaign stump for whatever the hot issue of the minute is. He's off the mark on his salt speech, for sure...

                  1. re: jeanmarieok

                    I'm there maybe once a month, but I usually go in on a weekday afternoon after work since my office is closer to the store than my house. There's always been a couple of customers there. I don't know what kind of advertising they do if any.

              3. That anyone would claim they don't tast different is hysterical. I still remember a salt tasting years ago and being amazed by how different they were.
                BUT and here's the biggie: I could only taste the difference when I tried a small small small taste. If I loaded up the bread/olive oil with a ton of a particular salt, I could just taste SALT.
                So maybe the real problem is that Mr. Penzey has not himself been doing a light hand on the salt and his doctor has caught up with him.

                1. If you don't mind mail order, The Spice House has a good selection of salts available. It's the shop originally owned by Bill Penzey Sr. and is now operated by his daughter Patty. The quality of the herbs and spices at both of the siblings companies is about the same.


                  5 Replies
                  1. re: LabRat

                    HUGE ditto on The Spice House!!

                    On every level, dealing with them has been a pleasure...

                    1. re: LabRat

                      I've always wondered if the Spice House and Penzey's are just selling the same stuff under different names or if there's truly a difference.

                      1. re: MandalayVA

                        The Meadow out of Portland, Ore. has a tremendous salt selection, and Mark Bitterman is very knowledgable about his salts. Love this place:

                        1. re: MandalayVA

                          Daughter Patty operates the Spice House, Bill Jr. runs Penzey's and most recipe blends originate from Bill Sr. and his wife Ruth... very likely.

                          1. re: MandalayVA

                            I've never mail ordered from The Spice House, just been in their store. They have very similar stock, with a bunch of unique blends ... and an attitude not found in Penzey's stores.

                            The last time I shopped there (about a year ago) they had a good selection of interesting salts.