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Fresh spice blends a recipe for success

A Petaluma entrepreneur with a nose for culturally authentic spice mixes has grown from her farmers’ market roots to open a new retail store in the city’s downtown.

Sonoma Spice Queen, the brainchild of Petaluma resident Wind McAlister, produces and sells a series of spice mixes central to Moroccan, Indian, Italian and other cuisines. The shop opened its doors at 407 C St. last Friday.

Seeking to differentiate herself from larger competitors that source mixes from wholesale suppliers, McAlister said she personally grinds, roasts and combines an all-organic lineup of materials every week in a Petaluma commercial kitchen. Producing in small batches means a quick turnover in inventory and, ultimately, a fresher product for discerning foodies.

“We grind them, we roast them, we blend them,” said McAlister. “You can tell, it smells fresh made.”

McAlister began tinkering with made-from-scratch spice mixes in 2013, after becoming dissatisfied with the options available to the home cook.

“It would say, ‘Thai curry,’ but it wouldn’t have any Thai ingredients,” she recalled.

Impressed with the results, she obtained a license for small-scale production and began selling her mixes at farmers’ markets in Petaluma, Marin County and Solano County last year. Among her most stalwart customers have been those who grew up eating the kind of international cuisine her spice mixes are meant to support, she said.

“People would come back and say, ‘This is better than what my mom makes,’” she said, laughing.

Another emerging customer base have been those with dietary restrictions around salt. McAlister said she adds no salt unless required by a recipe, calling it a “filler” used by larger competitors to artificially boost flavor.

Sales continued to grow, propelled in part by a regional appetite for locally produced, artisan foods. McAlister said she ultimately obtained a commercial license to simplify greater production volumes as her business took off, and has seen what started as the side project of a curious foodie become a full-time job.

At the newly opened shop under an old Victorian-style building, a back room greets visitors with a smattering of instantly recognizable, spice-heavy fragrances from North Africa and Southeast Asia. On one end, those smells turn to the richness of American-style barbecue rubs. At another corner, the woodsy dryness of blended herbs.

McAlister said she personally developed each of her 15 blends, and that her all-organic approach is a differentiator among her competitors.

While not required to list her ingredients, adding them to the packaging creates an important layer of transparency for consumers, she said.

“I think that with the whole organic, local food movement, you have to be true to it. People want to know the story,” she said.

Spice Queen will remain a presence at Petaluma farmers’ markets, but McAlister said she is pulling back from other markets to devote more attention to building the retail shop. She described its location as a perfect compliment to the city’s downtown.

McAlister hired the company’s first employee in October of last year, and is now looking toward expansion into regional grocery stores and beyond, she said.

“We’ll have to start producing more, but it will always be in small batches,” she said.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com.)

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