This fall, Albany will get its very own depot for freshly ground spices, when Oaktown Spice Shop opens its second outpost on Solano Avenue. On April 26, Oaktown announced its plans for expansion, a week after signing a lease for its new location.
Oaktown Spice Shop’s Oakland store, located at 546 Grand Ave., opened in 2011, and is a favorite among locals, who come for its excellent selection of hand-ground and hand-blended spices. Co-owners (and couple) Erica Perez and John Beaver hope to replicate its success in Albany.
When we spoke with Perez last week she said that most of the shop’s current customers live in Oakland within walking distance of the store. Yet, a good swath of Oaktown fans live in other Bay Area communities, especially Berkeley, but come less regularly.
“As close as the two places are, we learned from our customers that coming to Oaktown Spice Shop is still a trek,” Perez said. “Parking is hard, they have busy lives. If we open up [in Albany], we’ll be able to reach the people who live in Richmond, El Cerrito, or even the North Bay.”
Initially, Perez and Beaver looked at a spot in Berkeley, but it wasn’t a fit. Eventually, they set their sights on Solano Avenue, which they liked because it has a retail presence and restaurants.
“People like to hang out [on Solano], it has a relaxed feeling, good foot traffic,” Perez said.
The Albany Oaktown Spice Shop will be located at 1224 Solano Ave., where Five Little Monkeys toy shop was before it moved down the street in 2016. As with its Grand Avenue space, the Albany shop will have a spice blending and grinding area in the back. Perez said that the new location will mostly replicate its sister shop, but it may offer different, locally made goods, like chocolates, candies and hot sauces, that are more targeted at its Berkeley and North Bay customers.
Customer feedback also affects Oaktown Spice Shop’s offerings, and Perez expects that being in a new location will mean new product development. For example, its Oakland location has a large Ethiopian customer base, that has repeatedly asked for a good berbere (Ethiopian spice mix). Oaktown Spice Shop is currently in the process of developing a special blend that it hopes will get as close in flavor to the berbere that its Ethiopian customers know and expect. That means researching traditional Ethiopian spices, sourcing ingredients directly from Ethiopia, and, in some cases, when a spice isn’t available, finding an acceptable substitute.
Berbere is made with korerima, or Ethiopian cardamom, which has a slightly different flavor than standard green cardamom pods. The berbere blend also incorporates a chile that is not currently exported to the United States, so Perez is working on finding a stand-in chile. Once the shop has created the blend, they’ll still need to make sure it passes muster.
“We do have some Ethiopian friends and customers to help us with that,” she said.
Oaktown Spice Shop is Perez and Beaver’s first business, and you can often find them working in the shop. We asked Perez if she’s worried about opening a new store as a small business owner in the East Bay, with rents and wages continuing to soar. She said that it has been a struggle, but that she and Beaver pay their employees above minimum wage, and, as of this year, have started offering health benefits. Fortunately, the profit margin for spices isn’t as slim as it is at restaurants or other businesses, she said, and customers continue to come to Oaktown because its products allow them to cook at home and spend less money than they would going out to eat.
“We opened in 2011, and it was pretty much still the recession. We figured out how to make it work in that environment, which served us well.”
The exact opening date for Oaktown Spice Shop Albany has not been determined, but stay tuned on Nosh for updates.