hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




A quest for full flavor

Modern-day spice trader builds base in Columbia County



Contributing writer


Becoming a spice trader wasn’t part of Laura Griffin’s career plan.

But when she visited an Indian spice store in Boston in 2008, the experience changed her life.

“The store had a wall of spices that looked and smelled amazing,” Griffin recalled. “And I realized my spices at home didn't smell like this. My cinnamon smelled like dust in comparison.”

Griffin ended up buying a few spices from the store and going home to indulge in the hedonistic pleasure of spices that are truly fresh and flavorful. Then she had a revelation: Hers couldn’t be the only cupboard in America cluttered with containers of less-than-dazzling spices.

So despite having no experience in the food industry, Griffin set to organize her own spice company. The company, Your Spice of Life, now has its business office at Griffin’s home in Hillsdale, and Griffin rents space at a commercial kitchen in Kinderhook to process and blend herbs and spices.

In fact, Griffin moved from Saratoga to Columbia County three years ago after deciding Hillsdale was the perfect location to set up a spice trade.

“I did homework and looked at demographics,” Griffin said. “Hillsdale was a bull’s-eye on the map: 50-mile radius from Great Barrington, Northampton, Lenox, Albany, and two hours to New York City. … It was so perfect, I couldn’t believe it. And it’s smack dab between Great Barrington and Hudson.”

After a bit of research, she found a supplier in Oregon who grows organic herbs and imports organic spices. She also has found local suppliers for some ingredients, such as the nuts and dried fruits she buys from Tierra Farm in Valatie. Griffin said she orders spices and herbs in their whole form, as much as possible, to retain optimal flavor.

“I buy things like cumin and cloves whole and grind them into blends I've developed,” Griffin explained. “My blends have been a lot of trial and error. Initially I got my inspiration from existing blends on the market, like McCormick's Italian seasoning blend.”

But her efforts to obtain quality ingredients put Griffin’s products in a different class from the national brands.

Flavors for varied tastes

Griffin has come up with 15 blends and counting, ranging from the sweet to the intensely savory.

Her “Viva Italia!” blend, for example, contains traditional elements such as basil, garlic and rosemary, but also fennel seed and lemon peel.

“It’s probably my most versatile blend,” she said. “People use it on salads, vegetables, pasta, and leftover Italian take-out.”

Another blend, Cocoa Joe, is a mixture of espresso beans, powdered cacao nibs, cinnamon, oregano, paprika, pepper and cayenne. Griffin’s Instant Jerk invokes the heady flavors of the islands with ground allspice, turbinado sugar, nutmeg, garlic, cinnamon and dried chili.

Home cooks, Griffin reports, have been happily buying her spices since she first got started.

But she has been surprised to discover how many people nowadays see cooking as a mysterious art.

“A lot of people I meet at farmers markets ask what you do with the spices,” she said. “They just have no cooking foundation. I would give suggestions like using ‘Viva Italia!’ on chicken breasts, and they would ask me how to cook chicken breasts.”

Griffin said Your Spice of Life has a three-pronged customer base reflected in its slogan, “Yummy. Easy. Organic.”

“There are the gourmet cooks and foodies who know what to do with the spices and how to experiment with them,” she said. “Then there are busy professionals with families who don’t have a lot of time to cook; they’ll take plain chicken and make it amazing with the spices. And then there are the health-conscious who want an organic product.”

Griffin said another element of appeal to customers is the health properties of spices.

“They have medicinal properties and have long been used as cures and preventatives,” she explained. “The No. 1 spice health-wise is turmeric. I encourage people to eat it daily, even if just an eighth of a teaspoon per day.”

Turmeric’s boosters, Griffin among them, claim it acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and may even help to prevent cancer.

“It resonates for me personally because I’m a two-time cancer survivor, and turmeric can kill pre-cancerous cells in the body,” Griffin said.

After turmeric, cinnamon is a close second among consumers seeking health benefits from spices, she said, adding that it can help with blood pressure and triglyceride levels.

Griffin has created two blends of cinnamon and turmeric, including “As Sweet as Kate,” which is named for her niece and contains turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and sugar.

Beyond spices and herbs

Griffin started her business by staging home parties that in turn helped to spur word-of-mouth sales. She now sells online and at retail stores from the Berkshires to Saratoga County, including the Hillsdale General Store and The Berry Farm in Chatham.

She said the Hillsdale farmers market, held on Saturday mornings from spring through fall, is probably her favorite venue for selling her spices.

“I sell the spices and also food to go, which people love picking up on the way to Tanglewood,” Griffin said. “Probably 80 percent of what I sell is vegetarian or vegan, made with seasonal produce and my spice blends. I also sell things like marinated chicken breasts and turkey meatballs, and artisanal cheese from the Amazing Real Live Food Co. in Pine Plains.”

With her growing customer base has come an expanded product line, including grinders containing sea salt in varying flavors and blends, such as one with dulse flakes and another that is smoked over alder wood. She also makes fruit crisps with rolled oats and brown sugar.

“My business began as spices,” Griffin said. “Then I realized there are so many other opportunities out there. Everything I make has spices in it -- spiced oatmeal, oatmeal with turmeric, and the crisps are amazing. We have customers who use the crisps as toppings for baked fruit or over bowls of ice cream. We try to make everyone happy."

Between prepping and bottling the spices, developing recipes, maintaining the Web site and social media pages and keeping up with online orders and deliveries to stores, it’s more than a full-time job.

“I usually work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. but don't mind,” Griffin said. “It’s my dream job, my baby.”

For more information about Your Spice of Life, visit www.yourspiceoflife.com or call (518) 810-4042.