Thekitchn.com suggests that you throw away your spices after one to four years, depending on the type, which means I’m probably about eight years behind. Luckily there’s a place that can help me restock with the freshest herbs and spices around: The Spice Rack in Chestnut Hill.
Co-owners and partners Andrea and Aisha Nash (no relation to me — that we can find) have been making their own spice blends for more than 10 years. They have their own brand in the shop along with high-quality, organic products from other merchandisers.
PGN: How did you two meet?
Aisha: We both went to North Carolina A&T State University. I studied business administration. I went to school thinking I’d become a veterinarian but I quickly discovered that I’m too much of a wuss for that. When we finished school, we decided to book it up north. Andrea wanted to go to New York City, but that scared me. I mean, I was literally frightened. I wanted to go to D.C., but she was over it, so Philadelphia was a good compromise.
PGN: What did you study?
Andrea: I went for criminal justice — I was going to go into law. She’s always saying I would have been a fierce judge. No holds barred! But as soon as we got here, we started an event-planning business. We did everything from weddings to big corporate events and everything in between. When we had our son, we decided we wanted something with more stable hours and we came up with this idea. We’re both phenomenal cooks and have been mixing our own blends for years. Making it into a business was a natural choice. At first it was going to be just spices but it’s grown into so much more: spreads and chutneys, oils, homemade granola, etc.
Aisha: The whole farm-to-table movement has helped us because people have really started to educate themselves on where their food is coming from and what’s going into their bodies. With our spices, there are no fillers like salts or other chemical components. They’re all natural. With our other curated products, we try to be the go-to place for any of your culinary needs.
Andrea: We like to think of ourselves as a community pantry. We have spices and pancake mix, loose teas and coffees — we painstakingly took a year to research the products we sell. With the exception of some of the spices, every item in our store is domestically sourced. And they are all made in small batches and come from small businesses like ours. In a world of plastic, you’ll notice that everything here is in a glass jar. There’s something about the care put into the products when they’re your own that makes them that much more special. For example, our granola is made in Germantown. She brings it on Tuesdays and we can’t keep it on the shelves. One of our hot sauces is made in Coatesville. It’s all organic ingredients and people love that.
Aisha: We’re also becoming a resource for artisans from Vermont to Florida who send us samples to see if they fit our standards to be in our store. The word is spreading and the Spice Rack its becoming her own thing.
PGN: What was your craziest moment when you were doing event planning?
Andrea: A caterer bailed on us at the last moment when we were doing a wedding with 300 guests. Thank God we’re decent in the kitchen. We called in everyone: parents, siblings, friends, aunties, neighbors — you name it.
Aisha: We were like, “I don’t care if you can’t cook — you can chop carrots.” I’d like to think we managed to pull it off. We’d told the clients and refunded their money because it wasn’t the menu they ordered, but after it was over they mailed us a check saying that the guests loved the food!
PGN: That’s amazing.
Aisha: But it’s a prime example of the benefit of working with a small business. Just last week, we got a call from someone who said, “I ordered something online and I’ve been waiting for two weeks for it.” I didn’t have any order on the books, but we went into Shopify and found that the order had never been forwarded to us. The address was local, so I called her and said, “We close tonight at 6:30. I’ll swing by and personally drop it off to you.” And I added a little something extra to thank her for her patience. As a small business, we have the luxury of giving that extra customer service.
PGN: Agreed. Once I’d forgotten to refill a prescription right before going out of town. I go to a small pharmacy, and realizing I wasn’t going to make it before closing, I called them. The owner said, “Take your time, I’ll wait for you.” When I got there, the place was locked, but he was waiting for me outside and said, “Just pay the copay the next time you come in.” That wouldn’t happen at a CVS.
Andrea: Exactly. When you own a small business, you can go that extra mile.
PGN: What has been the most difficult and most rewarding part of the business?
Aisha: For me, the most difficult part was being patient at the beginning when no one knew we were here … watching the paint dry and hoping someone would come in, knowing you’re not making enough to make ends meet. The most rewarding part was when we were in D.C. My brother was at a hotel bar and mentioned he was there for his sister’s birthday and that she owned a spice shop in Philly. The guy said, “The Spice Rack? I love that place!” It was fun being in a different town and hearing someone talk about us.
Andrea: The hardest part for me? When I was seven months pregnant, I stopped working and didn’t come back until after we opened the store. It was hard to separate from our son. Most rewarding for me was also hearing people talk about the store outside this area. I was at the hospital once for an asthma attack and the pulmonologist was someone who’d been in the store.
PGN: How do you make your spice mixes?
Aisha: Initially, at home in my kitchen. I’m always coming up with different mix profiles. Sometimes I’ll wake up and have an idea for a new chicken rub. We rent a commercial space where I mix them. A lot of times, the ideas are sparked by the customers. Lately, people have been asking for things with a little heat, so I created a habanero mango rub that people have been going crazy over.
PGN: What was your coming out experience?
Aisha: I grew up in the Bible Belt in a Christian family, so in high school I had boyfriends, but they were more like friends — nothing sexual. When I got to college, I came out and was able to blossom. If I could give advice to any kid contemplating coming out, I’d say, wait. I know four years of high school is a lot to endure, but try to blend in. Society sometimes puts pressure on people to come out before they’re ready. Sometimes the consequences are not worth it if you’re not able to handle them, especially if you don’t have support at home. It’s hard, but for me it was the right path.
Andrea: Ha — once again, I’m the total opposite. For me, I’d say as hard as it can be and as much as you’re going to have to endure, do it anyway. It’s a lot harder to try to live your life and not be free to be yourself. If you lose people, you will find replacements. Blood makes you a relative; it doesn’t make you family. And you can always find family, but you have to live your truth.
Aisha: I can see that, but for me, it’s nice to say that in theory, but in real-world context, it’s hard for a 16-year-old to come out and then have to live for another few years under someone else’s roof, if they let you stay. I’m not saying you have to hide, but take it case by case and think of all the ramifications.
PGN: You two are a perfect yin and yang. What’s in store for the store?
Andrea: We’re in a brand-new space: the little yellow house next to Weaver’s Way, which is exciting. We want to continue to be a place where people learn and share culinary knowledge. I do a lot of posting on Instagram of things I’m cooking at home. Eventually we’d like to do podcasts, but right now we don’t have the technical expertise.
Aisha: We’re also going to have a YouTube channel with everything from, “This is how we pick our meats at the grocer’s, this is how we prepare our vegetables,” to the struggles of figuring out what to eat each day: “What do you want to eat? I don’t know, what do you want?”
Andrea: For me, the hardest thing is when people ask me for the recipe for something I’ve made. I don’t use recipes — I cook the way an artist paints. They just do it. I don’t measure, I flavor as I go along. So if you could watch me, you can follow along and hopefully figure it out. Either way, we’ll have fun while we do it.
Call The Spice Rack at 215-274-0100, or visit online at phillyspicerack.com.