Geneva family's spice empire grows

Walk into the shop at 577 S. Third St. in downtown Geneva and the smell hits you right away.

"This is wonderful," a customer exclaimed on a recent day as she browsed through the shop.

The smell of cinnamon, sea salts and some 309 other spices greets customers as they walk through The Spice Shop. The downtown Geneva shop, which opened in November, specializes in giving customers fresh spices.

Need cinnamon? The shop has seven different variations, from whole cinnamon sticks to Ceylon "true" cinnamon. Sea salt? It carries 12 different varieties like Hawaiian sea salt and Portuguese salt cream.

And what's more, spices are ground fresh in the shop's back room.

"Whatever we grind here, gets sold here," says co-owner John Cirpinski.

The downtown Geneva shop is the company's fifth store. There are shops in Evanston, two in Milwaukee and another in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood.

The company started in 1957 with William and Ruth Penzey selling coffee, tea and spices. Because everything was stored together, customers often returned the coffee and tea saying it tasted like the spices. So the couple decided to focus on the one thing that wasn't being returned -- spices.

Today, Penzey's daughter and son-in-law continue to run The Spice House. Other family members have gone into business for themselves with their own spice shops under different names.

With all of them, however, one thing remains the same, the quest for fresh spices.

"It all boils down to quality … the quality of the product and service," said Tom Erd, who runs the company with his wife, Patty.

He said while they pay a bit more for "the good stuff," it boils down to a penny or two per ounce for the customer.

In addition to fresh spices, Erd and other shop owners point to the service a customer gets when they walk into the shop. Receipts are hand written, everything is weighed for them and a customer can buy as little as an ounce if that's all they need. And if a customer has a question on a spice or what type of spice to use, someone in the shop has the answer.

"You can talk food and have your tough questions answered," said Patty Erd, noting that many of their employees have some type of culinary experience.

Patty, who began working in her parents shop at a young age, said she enjoys being a part of people's home-cooked meals, which she and her husband describe as "an expression of love."

"It's a really wonderful feeling that when people go home and cook we get to be a part of that whole process," she said.

The co-owners of the Geneva shop, Kevin Bozis and Cirpinski, both former chefs, hope to continue adding to their line of spices. And Cirpinski hopes to eventually expand their database of recipes to help customers create meals with their spices.

The Spice House in Geneva can be reached at (630) 262-1777. For information on the chain, go online at

Winter store hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The shop will celebrate its grand opening April 3.

Tasty ideas

Kevin Bozis and John Cirpinski, co-owners of The Spice House in downtown Geneva, offer tips for spicing up dinner:

• For steak, try The Spice House blends Milwaukee Avenue Steak Seasoning or Chicago Steak.

• For chicken, try the Moroccan Spice, Trinidad Lemon Garlic or Greektown blends.

• Cajun seasoning or barbecue rubs go well on chicken and pork.

• A popular spice among customers at the Geneva shop has been the Vulcan Fire Salt, which has a bit of a kick and goes great on almost anything, including popcorn.

• Only buy as much spice as you'll use in a year because spices lose flavor after a year.

Kevin Bozis' The Spice House in Geneva grinds and prepares spices at the downtown shop. They are then hand packaged for sale. Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer
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