You don’t have to ask what makes The Spice House a special place to “buy local.” The answer hits you right in the nose when you walk in the door of the store, located in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.
All spice shops envelop you in powerful aromas. But the effect is even stronger at The Spice House, because all of the products they sell are ground and blended on-site.
“A man goes down to the basement with a big bag of Ceylon cinnamon bark or Vietnamese cinnamon bark, grinds 100 pounds, comes out of the basement, and after about three or four hours is as best-smelling as a man will ever be. Next week, we do it again,” said Patty Penzey Erd.
Patty and her husband Tom Erd co-own The Spice House store in Old Town, along with suburban stores in Evanston and Geneva.
The Spice House regularly offers dozens of gift boxes containing varieties of spices. Not surprisingly, demand for them spikes around the holidays.
“It’s super labor-intensive, and because we’re strictly about freshness, we cannot be building all these boxes during the summer, any slow season. We have to wait until right now to make them and get them fresh,” Patty said.
The store also seeks to appeal to Chicago’s neighborhood consciousness by selling blends tailored to the ethnic identities of various communities, such as Greektown, Taylor Street, Pullman, Hyde Park, Bronzeville and Ukrainian Village.
Patty grew up in the business, which was started in Milwaukee in 1957 by her parents, Bill and Ruth Penzey. If that last name sounds familiar, you must be a seasoned cook.
The Erds purchased the original Spice House in Milwaukee from her parents upon their retirement in 1992, then moved to Evanston to open their first Chicagoland store five years later. They opened the Chicago Old Town store in 2001.
Meanwhile, her brother Bill Penzey Jr. stayed in Wisconsin and perpetuated both the family spice tradition and name there with Penzey’s Spices, which has built a national mail-order and retail store presence.
Even when her folks started the business 55 years ago, most shoppers could buy spices marketed by big commercial processors at their supermarkets. The Spice House has succeeded, Erd said, because of its dedication to product freshness and because customer service is a high priority.
“I’m very fortunate that the majority of my staff are culinary school graduates... We try really hard to get good, knowledgeable foodie people for our staff,” said Patty.
Patty explained the elder Penzeys originally sold spices, tea, coffee and nuts, but narrowed it down to spices when customers complained that their teas were too permeated with spice flavors and aromas.
When asked whether they couldn’t have gotten ahead of the curve on the Indian spiced tea called chai, Patty laughed and said, “Or maybe if they had picked coffee, we’d be Starbucks or Seattle’s Best. But we’re happy with our choices. It’s a fun, fun way to make a living.”
The Spice House
1512 North Wells Street (near West North Avenue), Chicago 60610
By car: Street parking
By train: CTA Red Line to Clark/Division stop (1/2 mile walk to store)
By bus: CTA 151, 36, 22 lines
Written by Bob Benenson, a Chicago freelance journalist now specializing in stories about food, drink and sustainability. Bob’s blog, Cooler on the Lake Shore, can be found at