Business Briefing: Spice shop shakes up couple's wedding plans

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 8, 2023
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Perfectly Seasoned co-owners Phuong Mai, left, and his fiancé Matthew Green stand next to a display of spices at their Noe Valley store. Photo: Art Bodner
Perfectly Seasoned co-owners Phuong Mai, left, and his fiancé Matthew Green stand next to a display of spices at their Noe Valley store. Photo: Art Bodner

Four days shy of Christmas in 2021, Matthew Green and Phuong Mai got engaged and began making wedding plans. Together nearly six years, the San Francisco couple had expected to set a date sometime in 2023.

But life has a tendency of throwing a wrench into one's plans, and so it was for the fiancés. Their decision last April to get into the spice and seasonings trade has put their marriage on hold for the time being.

"We thought we would get married in the spring of this year, but the shop has pushed back our plans," said Mai.

That shop is Perfectly Seasoned, which Mai and Green opened for business on December 17 last year, right in time for the crucial holiday shopping season. It is located at 4017 24th Street in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood.

While the couple live in the city's Excelsior district, they felt it wasn't conveniently located or had the foot traffic they were seeking to ensure the spice business would succeed. They had looked at storefronts in the Castro LGBTQ district but didn't fall in love with any of the retail spaces that were for lease there, recalled Mai.

With Noe Valley in the heart of the city and easy to reach via public transit, the couple turned their attention there and secured a storefront last May.

"I knew Noe Valley would be the spot," said Mai, who grew up in San Jose.

It also helps that the neighborhood's year-round, weekly Saturday farmers market and Whole Foods location draw home chefs to the commercial corridor. Plus, the block they opened on is home to the popular Noe Valley Bakery, another foodie draw.

"We knew there would be good foot traffic here," said Mai. "Saturdays we do see a big uptick in traffic from people down the street, if not from the farmers market then from shoppers at Whole Foods."

The idea for opening a spice shop was sparked during a trip the men took last April to Des Moines, where Mai's in-laws reside. They had popped into such a store in the Iowa capital's downtown and purchased a number of items with which to return home.

"We were showing our friends all the great things we had gotten from this other shop during a birthday party we hosted for Matthew. The next day Matthew said to me if I want to open a spice shop, you can," recalled Mai, who had left his job in publishing in the fall of 2019.

He had gotten a job at the Devil's Teeth Baking Company in the city's Outer Richmond district as a baker. It wasn't his first foray into the food business, as roughly 15 years ago Mai worked at a family-owned Pho restaurant in Fremont as a waiter.

Owning his own spice shop also tied into his personal culinary pursuits.

"I am a big home cook. I love cooking up things at home," said Mai, 38, who started preparing meals at home while attending UC Santa Cruz, from which he graduated in 2006 with a sociology degree.

His research last year into the spice trade turned into a business plan. It also revealed that there are few options in the Bay Area when it comes to stores dedicated to selling spices directly to consumers. Spice Ace, hailed as San Francisco's best spice shop, had shuttered in early 2019.

"There is the Spice & Tea Exchange at Fisherman's Wharf. But what resident in San Francisco goes all the way down there to shop?" asked Mai.

While Green helps out at the shop on weekends as a co-owner and co-manager of it, he works full time during the week at Pacific Eye Associates, a multi-specialty ophthalmology practice in the Haight. Coincidentally, the ground floor retail space the couple leases for the spice store had been the longtime home of an optometrist who ended up moving to a new location nearby.

Complete makeover

The couple gave the storefront a complete makeover. Gone are the walls that had formed consultation rooms and the creaky floor, replaced with a light-filled unobstructed interior showroom and brand new wooden floor.

Mai is the main proprietor for the spice store. He carries more obscure spices and seasoning blends, such as Grains of Paradise, ($9.69 for 1.8 oz. or $13.79 for 2.6 oz.) a pepper that has notes of coriander and nutmeg, said Mai.

"People are grinding it up like regular pepper," he explained.

He also carries Long Pepper, which Mai said has a muskier aroma and flavor than traditional black peppercorns. (A 1 oz. jar is $5.99; 1.8 oz. is $7.99.)

One of his most popular items is of his own creation, Egg Seasoning ($8.49 for 1.8 oz.; $5.89 for 1.1 oz.). Mai combines smoked paprika, Parmesan, whey, buttermilk solids, sodium phosphate, salt, onion powder, sesame seed, chervil, poppy seed, salt, and black pepper to make it.

"It is similar to a pork seasoning and a steak seasoning," explained Mai, who recommends using it not only on egg dishes. "People can put it on eggs, potatoes, popcorn, anything they can dream of."

Green had encouraged him to stock it.

"I asked him if I should do an egg seasoning. I had never heard of it before and wanted something that wasn't meat based. Matthew said, 'Sure, people will go for it,'" recalled Mai.

Other unique spices on sale are Gumbo Filé Powder, ($7.29 for 1.4 oz.; $5.09 for 0.8 oz.) made from sassafras and used to thicken sauces, and Gochugaru, ($7.99 for 1.7 oz.; $5.59 for 1.1 oz.) a mild, sweet Korean pepper used in kimchi.

For the summer Mai plans to have different grilling spice blends and meat rubs for sale. He makes everything on site and intends to roll out different products depending on the season. For example, he will bring back mulled spices in the fall.

"I also take suggestions all the time on things we don't carry," he said. "Some things work out, some don't. If it sells well, we will keep it; if not, at least we made a customer happy."

The store is open daily at 10 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and at 4 p.m. Sundays.

To learn more about the products for sale, and to sign up for email alerts about new spices and seasonings added to the list, visit the store's website.

Got a tip on LGBTQ business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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