Worth the trip: Penzeys Spices

Penzeys Spices in downtown Overland Park features a wide selection of unique spices. John Sherrell of Kansas City takes a sniff of Turkish Oregano.

The store, located in downtown Overland Park, offers 275 spices and seasonings, each one displayed with a “sniff jar” for shoppers to smell before they buy.

“Bill Penzey started the company about 40 years ago in his parents’ basement,” says Rebecca Shelton, store manager. “They owned the Spice House in Chicago. He began as a mail-order company and then started opening stores later. There are 47 now; we were store number 13. Ten of the stores opened in the last year, so the growth has been exceptional.”

Seasoned cooks familiar with the company’s catalogs come from far and wide to browse the extensive inventory and find new culinary accompaniments.

Spices and seasonings are arranged A-Z, starting with adobo seasoning, a spicy, salt-free Mexican blend, and ending with zatar, a traditional blend of the Middle East.

There are 13 varieties of chili peppers, six chili powders, nine kinds of cinnamon and four forms of vanilla.

“We have customers come in here and literally spend hours looking at spices,” Shelton says. “They stop to smell the sniff jars, and we have recipes to pull off. It’s just a leisurely time, and there’s so much to see and smell. You kind of get lost in the experience.”

The company imports spices from all over the world, then grinds, blends and packages all of their products in their factory in Milwaukee.

“They do everything in cycles,” Shelton says. “The pepper was probably ground only six weeks ago. It’s so fresh, the flavor really comes out.”

The spices are said to last one to two years provided they’re kept away from heat, like in a cabinet, drawer or in the freezer.

Each spice or seasoning is sold in a variety of sizes, including jars in 1/4- and 1/2-cup sizes and 4-ounce, 8-ounce and 1-pound bags. Allspice, for instance, is priced at $2.35 for a 1/4-cup jar. Cinnamon sugar, a best-seller, is $3.29.

In a corner of the shop is the gift box department, where shoppers can choose from pre-packaged kits, specialized for bakers, salad or pepper lovers, or starter sets for newlyweds. A do-it-yourself box allows you to make your own assortment of four or eight bottles.

If you’ve never heard of Penzey’s, you’re not alone. The company doesn’t advertise, relying on word-of-mouth to build its business.

“That’s how Bill Penzey wants it,” Shelton says. “He just wants everyday cooks talking to their friends and family, or giving them a spice and saying, ‘Hey, try this,’ thinking once you try the cinnamon, for instance, you’ll want to get your own.”

It’s a strategy that appears to be working, judging by the customers sticking their noses in the “sniff jars” and swooning appreciatively.

“As people wander around, they’ll open a jar and smell it and they’ll go, ‘Ooooh, aaaaah. Oh, I love this! I have to have this!’ We hear that all day long.”

But, be warned: Although the prices are reasonable, a visit to Penzeys can put a dent in your pocketbook.

Shelton says, “There have been a couple times when people were completely starting out fresh. They had bought a couple jars here and liked it so much, they completely cleaned out their cabinets, came back and bought basketfuls of spices. And it’s also hard for some people to leave. They’ll buy one jar at the counter and then on their way out, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I have to have this, too,’ and they’ll go back. The record is four times back to the counter before they get out the door.”