'Everybody is cooking more': Meet the spice company in Manor adding flavor to Austin dishes
Ian Kemp was raised on the smell of cinnamon. And clove, chile peppers, cumin and ginger.
His parents, Bill and Beverly Kemp, started a spice company in Manor in 1983 when he was 5 years old.
The younger Kemp had already spent weeks on the road with his “hippie parents” who loved traveling to Mexico and Central America. En route from Nebraska, the Missouri natives passed through Austin enough times that they eventually decided to move here, in part to make that trip shorter.
“We would drive this white whale of a potato truck,” Bill Kemp says. “We put a kitchen and a bed in there, and we’d hop in that thing and spend two or three weeks on the road” buying pottery and exploring the variety of Mexican and Central American cuisines.
Author, gardening expert and tequila researcher Lucinda Hutson advised them on where to go in Mexico to find out more about the ingredients that customers in Austin would, over the next few decades, become increasingly familiar with.
They sold those goods in Austin, sometimes along the Drag near the University of Texas, and they eventually picked up a few spices to sell along with the pottery.
When Ian was just a peppercorn, he would join them on those pottery trips, which eventually became spice trips. “I remember as a kid, the spices were always around,” he says. “They’d unload these trucks with spices in burlap sacks and drums and spend all day unloading the trucks. I remember crawling all around these amazing smells.”
After Bill and Beverly’s pottery business eventually closed, they shifted to selling spices exclusively.
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“We had no idea what we were doing at first,” says Bill Kemp. “We didn’t know where to get 500 pounds of black pepper. This was before the internet.” He went to the library and checked out phone books from New York and New Jersey and found numbers for spice importers from the Northeast.
Pinch-A-Pollo — “little chicken place on Burnet Road,” Bill says — was Southern Style Spice’s first customer. The restaurant sold a Mexican-style chicken seasoned with granulated garlic, cumin, paprika, chile powder, oregano and black pepper, spices that Kemp could buy from spice wholesalers in the Northeast.
"They would write up these spice blends in this little green notebook from the 1970s," he says. "Fajita seasoning, enchilada seasoning. He would make them by hand. He can spit off those recipes now."
Austin had another spice supplier at the time, Sweethardt Herbs, run by Mark Blumenthal, who supplied places like Whole Foods. When Blumenthal got out of the wholesale business to start the American Botanical Council, Kemp picked up the Whole Foods account, hired directly by co-founder John Mackey. “That was a big break for us,” Bill Kemp says.
When stocking the shelves at grocery stores, he’d strike up conversations with chefs or restaurant owners. He would go door to door to restaurants with a price list and a business card. They eventually sold spices to tortilla vendors and through produce providers like Segovia Produce and Hardie's.
“We just picked up business as we went along just by doing what we were doing. ... And Bev never took no for an answer,” he says.
As Austin-born restaurants, including Z’Tejas and Truluck's, expanded to more states, Southern Style Spices expanded, too. They built one warehouse, then another and then another as business grew.
Bill Kemp says they have room for one more warehouse on the 6-acre property near Manor, and they might have to build that extra warehouse after all.
The coronavirus caused restaurant sales to drop, but overall spice sales are up. “The demand is so high. Everybody is cooking more,” Ian Kemp says.
With bulk sections, people can buy a little or a lot, and spices, herbs and salts are “flying off shelves these days.”
Kemp remembers a similar response right after Sept. 11, when he was newly on the payroll. “Employees were scared. People didn’t know what was going on. It’s a moment I’ll never forget,” he says. “It's different, but there are some parallels. We were trying to stay focused on what we know. Stay busy and not panic.”
Ian Kemp took the reins in 2001 after graduating from UT, and the company has continued to evolve in its second generation. Brothers Luke and Trevor also work for Southern Style Spices.
The facility now has multiple blend rooms, as well as bottling lines to pack the products both by hand and by machine. “We’ve grown from spices to chiles, sea salts, all kinds of unique ingredients,” he says.
“Spices are such a strange thing. Everybody takes spices for granted. All the flavor that comes from them, where they come from."
Long before modern medicine, spices were used for medicinal purposes, and the spice trade fueled globalization and colonization. “Countries and economies were built on spices, and wars raged over spices.”
Some spices are harder to find due to climate and other environmental changes, and Ian Kemp says the industry is finding new ways to take care of those plants and the people who rely on them. "There's not a fair trade process for spices, like there is for coffee, but it's becoming more part of the conversation," Ian Kemp says.
Although most of Southern Style Spice’s customers are wholesale, Central Market and H-E-B bulk departments continue to carry their products. The company also co-packs private-label products for other brands. Clients will bring their homemade spice blend recipes to them and they’ll recreate them at scale.
Ian Kemp says that spices are often the last thing that people think of in their kitchens. Many home customers don’t replenish their spices often enough to notice what a difference it makes when they are fresh. “We take for granted what gives food that burst of flavor that you’ve come to expect,” he says.
Bill and Bev, who also raise olive trees and write historical novels, still pop into Southern Style Spices from time to time. Their first employee, Ray Habit, still works there. (Kemp’s college roommate at the University of Missouri was the late Statesman columnist John Kelso.)
Kemp says working for so long in the industry gave him enormous respect for people who run restaurants. “You’ll never meet more hardworking people,” he says. It broke his heart when he saw the original Magnolia Cafe close. Owner Ken Carpenter was one of his first customers.
“I can count on two hands the bounced checks and nasty people over the years. I worked with hundreds and hundreds of people who put in very long hours and cared so much about what they did," Bill Kemp says. "I feel fortunate and lucky.”
Addie Broyles writes about food, food culture and home cooking for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Lucinda Hutson's name. Mark Blumenthal's early spice and herb company was called Sweethardt Herbs.