The teas bring in customers to the Spice & Tea Exchange at the Westfield mall, but the numerous exotic spices and spice mixes keep them sticking around and coming back.
While I was interviewing Joel Meek, the proprietor of the Spice & Tea Exchange, a man came into the store and bought a half dozen packages of teas and spices. “This is my favorite shop in the mall!” he said without encouragement.
That’s the kind of thing a retail store owner wants to hear any day of the week. Meek is not your typical retail store owner. He has owned the Spice & Tea Exchange for nearly a year now, having opened at the mall on December 5, 2018.
He’s a registered OR (Operating Room) nurse, who, with his wife became a devoted foodie. People who like new and exciting cuisines often discover the joys of cooking (with apologies to the late Julia Child) and those who cook with passion and a sense of discovery will inevitably discover spices.
“It started when a friend gave my wife and I a big gift from Penzeys Spices. We thought that was a neat gift. My wife and I are hobby cooks and like watching the cooking shows,” Meek recalls.
They were also “travel nurses” which means that they would travel to different cities, such as New York City, Seattle, Dallas and San Diego and stay for 12 weeks, working limited contracts at hospitals that needed their services. “This took us all over the country,” says Meek. “We would choose a city and make friends and trade recipes. We learned a lot of different cuisines, such as Mexican, Indian and South African.”
He remains a part-time OR nurse, although he has largely abandoned his peripatetic ways to watch over the store. One thing from his nursing he continues to use as store owner: his friendly gift for gab. He says he doesn’t care if someone comes into the store and walks out with a purchase as long as they enjoy the experience. “Just open jars and have fun!” he encourages customers.
Many come in for the hot tea that he always has brewing. He’s always willing to whip up a special order cup of any of the teas in the shop. This is a good way to sample a blend you may not be familiar with.
His interest in spices brought him to become a franchisee at Spice & Tea Exchange. “I was already into spices but now I’m learning about teas,” he says.
His wife, Vicky, has two grown boys, one who is an astrophysicist (literally a rocket scientist) and the other just retired from being a Navy SEAL. Together they have an 8-year-old daughter “who keeps us busy, but we have set the bar high for her with her brothers. She wants to be a baker, which surprised us because we cook but don’t bake!”
Meeks is gearing up for the holidays, when he fully expects to be swamped by customers interested in exploring the store’s extensive collection of spices and teas, any one of which would make a great gift for that hard to shop for friend or loved one.
I asked him to bring out some of the popular sellers and the first things he showed me were some winter teas: including Fireside Spice, an oolong tea and Chocolate Candy Cane, a loose leaf tea that actually has tiny candy canes in the mix.
Another favorite is Earl Gray Crème. Earl Gray, of course, is the classic tea flavored with bergamot; in this variation some vanilla is added. “It changes it up into a unique tea,” says Meek. “I totally sell out of it constantly.”
Another popular seller not just during the holidays but throughout the year is the Tuscany Spice Blend, which has a dozen uses in all sorts of Italian cooking.
For holiday dining at its best, look for the All Purpose Brine Seasoning. This salt and spice blend works especially well for lamb and pork. It is dominated by the heady scent of rosemary. “I love it on a roast,” says Meek.
Another tasty concoction is the Espresso Steak Rub. “The coffee flavor doesn’t carry over but it has a spiciness that will flavor it up real well.”
The Backwoods Hickory Rub has a special feature: “They pick it up and smell it and take it home to try it out. And then they keep coming back for more,” says Meek.
Another delectable spice mix is the Indian Yellow Curry. “We make it simple for people,” said Meek. “You don’t have to find a recipe for it. We also have Thai Curry and Malaysian Ginger. “All you do is add coconut milk and vegetables or chicken and you’ve got dinner!”
Often you will see Meek and his employees grinding the spices for the curry on the front counter.
“We offer a lot of options for size too,” he says. They have small, one ounce bags that allow you to see if you like a spice or tea before you invest a lot in it. On up to 4 ounce bags once you decide that you like it and want a good deal for buying a larger size.
The average customers at the store are ages 28-50 who buy tea or spices for cooking. “Typically people come in for the tea and they will say, ‘Oh you have spices too! They want to look at more and want to try different things,” said Meek.
The millennials, on the other hand, will often come in for a cup of tea to go.
“This is my dream job. It’s different than I expected,” says Meek. “As a nurse I was looking for less stress. Now I use my nursing people skills by talking to people. I don’t have to sell you stuff. I just enjoy talking people because I get to be me.”
The shop is open seven days a week, Monday-Friday from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.