037 – Phyllis Hunter, The Spice Diva



Spice Work. Can a spice store be a community gathering place? It can. Meet Phyllis Hunter of The Spice Diva. This former opera singer turned shop owner has been bringing people together over their shared love of spices since opening her shop in The Main Street Market in 2011.

The Spice Diva is not only a source for fresh and unusual spices for local chefs, bartenders, and food enthusiasts, but a way for community members from other countries to find reminders from home. Her cooking classes bring folks together over the stove and her vast, ever-growing spice knowledge is reminding us all about the value of buying fresh, buying local. Her shop, located in a well-loved but underappreciated part of town, expands our views about the world over a shared love of food and flavor.

How can we make sure West Main Street remains a vital part of the community and its members remain in the conversation with regard to beneficial development and growth? We talk about that. The Midtown Street Fair was my favorite event of the year, not only for the food but for the broad swath of folks who attended. Can we bring it back? How do we include every neighborhood in the conversation when it comes to festivals and development benefitting the entire community, not just students and tourists? How do we help the homeless population in a way benefitting their needs as well as the needs of business owners? We cover that too.

Smell is such a powerful sense. Instantly you’re transported to a different place and time. It’s just one of the reasons Phyllis discovered her passion in food was spice. After walking into the Oxbow City Market in San Francisco she was transfixed. And knew in an instant we had to have something like that here in Charlottesville. Did fate cause her to go into that spice shop? Whatever it was, we’re the lucky ones. In her new, much larger space Phyllis has the resources to offer even more gathering opportunities: cooking classes, tastings, book signings, whatever you can think of related to teaching the endless knowledge around herbs, spices, and teas.

In addition to all this, The Spice Diva carries salts and peppers, oils and vinegars, Belgian chocolate, cocktail bitters and syrups, as well as the famous Habiba Sauce and salad dressing from Aroma’s. She’ll soon carry gelato from Splendora’s and the saffron from Rumi Spice is a collaboration with a nonprofit that benefits Afghan saffron farmers. Her patrons including area chefs and bartenders from Brazos Tacos, Michael’s Bistro, Tavola, Revolutionary Soup, Ten, Alley Light, Feast!, and Mountain Culture Kombucha cement the fact this shop is a gathering place for the entire Charlottesville food community. Chef Harrison Keevil from Brookville came in while we were talking!

Like many grocery store foods, spices and salts are processed with preservatives added to keep them fresh. So the good stuff comes out and nutrients like iodine get added back in, Morton’s salt being just one example. Everything at The Spice Diva is Kosher and Halal, as well as additive-free with no MSG or anti-caking agents. Spices start to lose their flavor after two weeks with nuances of flavor decreasing over time. The Spice Diva turns over half the shop every week, so you can be sure everything you buy is at peak flavor and freshness, without preservatives.

Why is she an advocate for buying local? How does having fresh and unusual spices change the way you cook? What are the additional revenue streams she uses to keep her business viable and thriving? What is berbere spice and why are local foodies clamoring for it? What is Relay Foods and how does their locally-based “Blue Apron”-type service work? What are the wonderful origins behind her logo? We talk about it all.

I love how Phyllis is using spice to bring people together for teachable moments. Not just about flavors and where they originate, but about expanding the whole notion of what it means to buy local. It’s so much more than going to the farmer’s market. Everyone uses spice even if it’s just the salt they sprinkle on a hardboiled egg. The day I interviewed Phyllis in her store all I saw was smiling faces. You smell cinnamon, or nutmeg, or clove and you feel joy. It reminds you of home and hearth. Of good times. Spices cross cultures. Cumin is used in India, Mexico, Africa. You find curries not just in Asia and India but in Africa and early American cookbooks from the 19th century. Spice as community. I like it. And I think you’ll like this episode. Cheers.

SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:

  • Cooking Classes at The Spice Diva! – Area food historians, butchers, and chefs teach you the basics, culinary history, and how to implement spices in your kitchen. Do you have a large dinner group but a small kitchen? Have your dinner at The Spice Diva! Maybe you and your friends want to learn more about spices? Phyllis can design a cooking class catering to your needs!
  • SCORE – Want to start a business? This nonprofit can help.
  • JQ Dickinson Salt Works – Artisanal salt farmed by hand from an ancient ocean buried underneath the Appalachian mountains. For 7 generations.
  • Peg’s Salt – You’ll want to put it on everything!
  • Relay Foods – Local business that does the shopping for you. Buy spices or have their registered dietician plan a week of meals.
  • Rumi Spice – Kimberly Jung and Emily Miller are US Veterans working to help Afghan saffron farmers by connecting them to the international market.
  • iSpice – an iPhone app that can teach you about spices.

This episode is sponsored by In A Flash Laser Engraving.

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