OAKTOWN: The Joys of Spicing in Place

by C.J. Hirschfield

The experience of walking into Oaktown Spice Shop across from Oakland’s Lake Merritt was unique. You’d stop, inhale deeply, and smile. You’d immediately engage with the staff– and other customers– about what spices they’d suggest for various dishes, and just feel thankful that such a special place exists in the neighborhood.

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Now, because of Covid-19, the shop’s retail business is closed, but Oaktown’s hordes of shut-in fans are online ordering like crazy. Because they’re all home; all cooking. A lot. And the shop’s handmade, custom blends for which they’re known, can take even the simplest fare to new heights—and delights.

Leslie Harlib, who previously lived in the Bay Area and was food critic for the Marin Independent Journal, now lives in Hawaii, and orders from Oaktown regularly, saying that it gives her “a huge Crayola Crayon box of 64 colors to enjoy with the natural bounty that grows here.”

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Can you guess what spices these are? Answers below.

Sam Morgante, formerly of Oakland, and now a resident of the Washington, D.C. area, has taken cooking classes for 40 years, and considers himself an “avid gourmet.” The specialized hand blends he orders from Oaktown “makes sure that whatever you’re cooking won’t be boring.”

Oaktown owner John Beaver, who starting working in a Milwaukee specialty spice store when he was in high school, is deeply appreciative of the community’s support. He is confident that the shop (with a second outlet in Albany) “and the people who make it what it is”—will be okay.

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Erica Perez and John Beaver, co-owners of Oaktown Spice Shop.                                                            Photo: Melati Citrawireja, Berkeleyside

With hundreds of products, shifting to an online operation wasn’t easy. Before the pandemic hit, the team–which includes John’s wife Erica– was starting to fine-tune the shops’ shelving, business practices and signage, doing strong retail sales, and supplying a fair number of restaurants. Love the smoked paprika fries at Sidebar, or the Bull Valley Roadhouse’s signature pork stew with guajillo chile? Oaktown.

masksJohn admits that it was never his dream to run a mail-order business. “I have a great staff, and we love to talk to people about food,” he says. Oaktown is fulfilling a bigger number of online orders than ever — as quickly as they can — with a smaller staff. And although they would gladly have everyone on their team working, several have (understandably) chosen to stay home out of concern for their own safety and the safety of the rest of the staff.

But it is the mail-order that’s keeping the operation afloat, with an average of 100-200 orders a day, most of them for multiple spices. The great news is that Oaktown just rolled out a new pickup service, with details here.

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What is so special about Oaktown’s spices? Their fans are not shy about sharing their love. Leslie Harlib says that the house-blend mixes such as Better Than Everything Bagel Spice and Korean BBQ “are so fresh they seem to sing in your nose the minute you open the jar.”

Sam Morgante’s favorites include the Ethiopian Berbere added to lentils, Applewood Smoked Sea Salt for fish, the Japanese 7-spice Shichimi Togarashi for roasted brussels sprouts or broccoli, and Hawaiian Red Alaea Sea Salt for “anything with tomatoes.” Sam used to regularly get his friends from Oakland to purchase and deliver Oaktown spices when they visited.

John agreed to participate in a flash quiz designed to assist folks in knowing which of Oaktown’s spices go best with some of the staples we all find ourselves working with during our stays at home.

For rice? Hot Cajun Blackening Seasoning, Ume-Shiso Furikake.

Beans? Cumin (“a classic”), Smoked Paprika, New World Poultry Seasoning.

Eggs? Grand Lake Shake, Better Than Anything Bagel Spice, Fines Herbes.

The staff members who are working are really hustling, says John — doing overtime and pulling out all the stops at a time when it is extra exhausting to do so. John and his wife Erica are alternating shifts — one of them does two days at the shop, while the other one does two days at home, where they are attempting to educate their 4- and 6-year olds, “with mixed results,” Erica says. She claims it’s a tough call as to which is a harder shift…

spice boxJohn and Erica recently read some notes of appreciation from the Oaktown Spice community to their hardworking staff. Here’s one: “We are transplants from the Bay Area and your boxes are like a splash of home on our doorstep. In times like these it is the comfort we search for and the foods that make home home.”

John can’t say when Oaktown Spice Shop will re-open; he’s committed to being as cautious as he can. But in the meantime, there are many ways to enjoy their spices (and online recipes to guide you), as well as to support them by purchasing digital gift cards and quarantine care packages.

Sci-fi writer Frank Herbert wrote that “He who controls the spice controls the universe.” That’s a little dramatic, but those who use the spice can definitely have a more pleasurable quarantine.

Oaktown Spice Shop Website

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Oaktown Spice Shop owner John Beaver’s 5 Essential Herb and Spice Tips on Kitchn.

For a full meal of recipes highlighting Oaktown Spices check out our Recipe page. You will also find Oaktown’s suggestions for making your movie popcorn extra special.

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C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.

C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”

Adventurously seasoned meals can do the same thing.

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From left to right, these are annatto seeds, goat horn chile flakes, smoked Spanish paprika, Alleppey turmeric, Poivre a la Mode (spice blend), parsley, poppy seeds and cured sumac!

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