A Little Alchemy and a Lot of Heart
Oaktown Spice Shop Heats up Grand Lake Neighborhood
What does a one-time English teacher do upon moving to Oakland and finding a tough job market? Open a most charming spice shop with his fiancé, of course. John Beaver and Erica Perez opened Oaktown Spice Shop in December to fanfare from friends and neighbors. Now the fanfare is growing, and on weekends, you’ll likely be met with a line while trying to purchase your Tellicherry black peppercorns or Hungarian paprika.
Beaver worked in the spice industry for many years at a family-owned spice shop outside of Milwaukee where he’s originally from, so while he’s a newcomer to owning his own business, he’s no stranger to the spice world. This is apparent the moment you step into the shop.
From vintage scales and spice jars to antique maps they use to point out the region where your spices come from, it’s all part of the sensory experience, one that will captivate both the casual passerby and the avid spice shopper alike. This is a place you can walk into knowing exactly what you need or a place to visit when you have a little time to kill and a desire to learn something new.
“Our shop caters to the everyday cook as well as the gourmet,” Perez says. “The quality is high and people in this neighborhood appreciate that.” Much of that appreciation centers on Beaver’s tireless efforts to source the very finest spices from all over the world and his knack for handcrafting special blends you won’t find anywhere else. You may be familiar with blends like chili powder or curry powder, but how about mole poblano, a blend made with dried chiles that mimics a mole that’s been simmering on the stove all day? The true artistry is apparent here.
“When people are looking for, say, Thai curry — made with a lot of fresh ingredients like chiles and shallots — to make a blend, you’re going to need to find dry equivalents of those ingredients and come up with a new way of making it. It’s kind of a hybrid. You’re trying to achieve a flavor and a texture that simulates the original without it being truly traditional,” Beaver says. This is what’s so often lost in the neon-lit bulk spice aisle at most larger grocery stores.
While the couple may flirt with the idea of other locations down the road, right now they’re settling in to their sweet lakeside storefront, and getting to know fellow business owners, neighbors and loyal returning customers.
“It’s nice to have the business in our community. We live in the neighborhood, so not only do I know the people that come in here, but I see my neighbors walking down the street,” Perez says with a smile. There’s great foot traffic, and being so close to the Saturday Grand Lake Farmers Market has attracted a loyal customer base of food-loving folks. And luckily, it only takes a quick stroll through the shop to be transported into another region of the world, another time and a slower more deliberate approach to cooking and spicing our food.
Oaktown Spice Shop, 530 Grand Ave., (510) 201-5400, 12–7 p.m. Tue.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat., 12–4 p.m. Sun., www.oaktownspiceshop.com