Just like vegetables, meat and other, more scene-stealing ingredients in the farm-totable approach to food manufacturing, the quality and origin of spices can have a significant effect on the resulting dishes. After a young adulthood spent working in restaurants, Calicutts Spice Co. proprietor Robert Orth made this realization while in pursuit of the ideal barbecue rub.
“If you talk to anybody who barbecues, they’ll tell you the secret to it is not the sauce — it’s the spice rub,” he said. “The smoke permeates the spice through the meat.”
As a consumer, the optimal combination of the dozen-plus spices that would create a vibrant rub was expensive — more than $100. The blend, made of spices procured from a grocery store, was bland. An academic by day, Orth did the research and looked into what it would take to create spice blends of the caliber necessary to make great barbecue, spices that were toasted and blended fresh for consumers to use in their kitchens.
Then it occurred to Orth: “There’s nothing like this in Central Pennsylvania — is there enough of a demand for it?”
That was back in 2012, when he launched Calicutts as an Etsy.com store. Etsy, an online marketplace for selling handmade and vintage goods, enabled Calicutts to reach consumers without expending marketing efforts or establishing distribution channels. Calicutts wound up as a top trending product pick and was an Etsy editors’ pick as recently as the 2016 holiday season.
By August 2015, Orth was ready to stake out his business’ presence in Central Pennsylvania with a brick and mortar shop in Lemoyne. At that time, Orth’s mother-in-law, Autumn Ellis, joined him, and the shop launched with the two of them ready to demonstrate Calicutts’ craftsmanship and interact with customers as a team.
Ellis was one of Orth’s biggest supports from the beginning. She was looking for a new career at the very moment that Orth had to scale up — he needed help if the business was going to survive.
“People have these preconceived notions about son-in-law/mother-in-law relationships,” Orth said.
But the duo’s complementary strengths enable them to run a harmonious business. He sees the big picture, she maintains the day-to-day details. Together, they coordinate the importing of spices from all over the world to Central Pennsylvania.
No one else is sourcing, toasting and blending spices for consumers in the area, said Orth. He and Ellis can tell customers how and when each spice was toasted and each blend crafted because they do it by hand. No grocery store can tell customers so much information about the origin and freshness of the spices and spice blends being sold to them. Calicutts controls its means of production, enabling the company to keep filler and chemicals out of its blends, which are inspired by flavors from as nearby as Baltimore to as far-flung as Israel, India and Thailand.
By staying small and keeping the operations between Orth and Ellis, the company can maintain a commitment to the product and to customer service. Orth said managed growth is more important to the company than rapidly scaling up. This interest in doing things the best way — not necessarily the biggest way — extends to the company’s partnerships: Working with the farms that supply Calicutts with the materials to create its spice blends.
“It reverts you back to a time long before the internet,” Orth said. “It is a compliment.”
The operations at Calicutts’ partner farms have been consistent for centuries. Farmers in Yenbai, Vietnam, for instance, send their youngest child to a village to use a payphone in order to receive Calicutts’ order for Saigon cinnamon bark. The lavender the company sources from France is from a farm founded in the 1600s. Most of the farms its works with — in places like Indonesia, the Caribbean and Morocco — are along the equator, and none of them utilize pesticides used by farms in more developed nations.
“Working with local artisans doing incredibly high-end work has helped expand our product line,” Orth said. “As much as there’s an emphasis on competition, you want to lift everyone up with you.”
The fruits of these collaborations — spiced candles, shower scrub and soap — are available in Calicutts’ shop.
But it’s the customers that keep Orth committed and energized about the business, despite the travails of growing a small business.
“It’s the folks who come in and are blown away by what we’re doing and how the products resonate with them,” he said. “We’ve been blessed to cultivate such a fierce and loyal customer base.”
And that base has done a great deal to expand Calicutts. Word of mouth has spread so brazenly that Orth has had someone, unknowingly, recommend Calicutts to him.
“I had people laugh at me back in 2012: ‘How do you expect to make a living off of spice? It’s so readily accessible in the grocery store.’ But just because it’s convenient doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.”
Going into its fifth year in business, Calicutts’ most popular blend remains the one that started it all — the dry rub Orth had been searching for: Chipotle & Honey.
“That is, to me, the one that resonates the most — it started my business,” he said. “I was looking for a dry rub to make pulled pork … that’s what I ended up creating.”
With a heavy emphasis on Mexican flavors and a balanced sweetness, it is the blend that Orth recommends to anyone looking for an introduction to Calicutts, or to anyone coming into the shop who wants to start employing spice blends in their cooking.
There is another blend that is very important to Orth, though, one with some family history in it: Fire Salt (aptly, the sea salt is harvested by another family, one in Oregon that solar evaporates salt water that they pull from the Pacific Ocean every day). This hot-sauce-in-a-salt has its origin in “soupie parties,” where Schuylkill County residents like Orth’s Italian family would dry rub pork and make soppressata, a dry-cured sausage known as “soupie” in coal country.
“It’s steeped in family tradition … and I’m able to take that and bring it into the kitchens of other families,” he said.
By naming the company for Calicut, India, a major trading port that contributed to the Age of Discovery, Calicutts Spice Co. hopes to help customers discover the ways that spices can invigorate their own cooking.