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Meet Your Makers: Oaktown Spice Shop

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We think every merchant in our Provisions shop is special -- but when we find one with a great story, we'll be featuring them here. Because we want to tell the world about our favorite makers. 

Today: Meet the master behind Oaktown Spice Shop, a longtime inspiration to our Food52 kitchen, and see inside his shop. 

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Picture four siblings dressed for Halloween as a chef, a robot, a rabbit, and Dracula. Which one grows up to own a speciality spice shop? If you guessed chef, you’d be right. Years after his famous Halloween costume, John Beaver founded Oaktown Spice Shop, a small, inviting store in Oakland that spills over with every kind of spice imaginable (and some you’ve probably never dreamed of).

  
Oaktown's Cyprus citron flake sea salt; John Beaver's chef costume, age 5

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His first job was at The Spice House in Milwaukee, where he learned the secrets of spices, their origins, and how to process them. Spices, he says, have a way of seeping into your pores, and he took this expertise and passion to Oakland to fill a need for a speciality spice shop. No other store offered spices of such high quality across the board, housing the basic essentials and far-flung ingredients in one space. 

  
John Beaver at work in his shop; Oaktown's St. Basil's BBQ Rib Rub

Oaktown quickly swelled in popularity; it was written up in food magazines and praised by chefs. And, when you browse the hand-mixed blends, it’s easy to understand why. There’s a certain magic to a spice shop -- you feel a little like you’re wandering into the pages of Aladdin amongst the piles of fragrant, brightly colored spices. Exotic combinations like Shichimi Togarashi (a mix of black and white sesame seeds, poppy seeds, chile flakes, orange zest, Szechuan pepper, and nori seaweed) nest next to the breakfast-inspired Everything Bagel spice. And Oaktown doesn't forget about the essentials, like cinnamon, paprika, coriander, thyme.

More: It would be wise to put your spices in a pie.

Oaktown has a small online presence, but it's the physical shop that's the heart of the operation. It has an old-time feel to it, with its rows of glass bottles, antique metal scales, and salvaged wood tables, a little reminiscent of a small-town general store. 

 

Importers and growers bring new ingredients to Oaktown constantly, like an Ethiopian spice farmer who dropped in on a recent day with a sample of red peppercorns. Beaver, with his trim beard and striped apron, presides over the shop with a genuine enthusiasm for his craft. In the same breath, he’ll tell you how to mix a quick curry at home (blend turmeric with a healthy dose of cayenne and cardamom) and his favorite use for cumin (top a bagel with oily, flavorful cumin seeds and a scattering of Bali sea salt).

Though you might not be close enough to travel to the shop, take inspiration from Oaktown and experiment from afar. Marinate chicken in their Persian lime curry rub and see if you can taste the fenugreek, clove, and ginger. Sprinkle their citron flake sea salt over a salad in place of kosher salt.

We asked Beaver for Thanksgiving advice -- instead of spice know-how or advice on using his poultry brine, he said, “I like to spend the day with family casually cooking and popping in and out of the kitchen for Champagne, snacks -- and there's always a little karaoke.” We sense a new tradition in the making.

Spice shop photos by Jennifer Martine; Halloween photo by Kathy Beaver; video by Civic Productions; all other photos by James Ransom

Tags: provisions, meet your maker, spices