From palette to palate

An artist-turned-spice merchant seeks bliss by barbecue

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Wayne’s Smoke Shack uses spices from Savory Spice Shop.
Susan France

When Mike Johnston was growing up in Chicago there were herbs and spices in his mother’s kitchen. “My Mom was a good home cook. She made things like pot roast. When it came to spices, she had the typical little metal cans from McCormick’s. We moved with those same spices over and over again,” Johnston said with a grin.

Johnston attended an arts high school and was trained as a painter and ceramicist. He took a winding path to become Colorado’s top retail herb and seasoning merchant. Johnston and his wife, Janet, moved to Colorado in 2004 to open Savory Spice Shop in Denver. Now there are 34 Savory Spice Shops across the country, including the third store in Boulder.

For this Q&A, Johnston and I caucused over a paper-lined tray adorned with exceptionally smoked brisket, pork shoulder, pork belly, sausages and ribs at Wayne’s Smoke Shack in Superior. I had heard rumors but nothing prepared me for the profound smoky lusciousness I sampled there. I forgot to try the sauces. This temple of Texas-style barbecue is so authentic it closes early virtually every day because they run out of meat.

“Spices and herbs can take you on taste trips that you can’t afford to take,” said Mike Johnston, co-founder of Savory Spice Shops.
“Spices and herbs can take you on taste trips that you can’t afford to take,” said Mike Johnston, co-founder of Savory Spice Shops.

Q: When did you learn how to cook?

A: Once I was out on my own I realized I needed to know more. I figured out that I could attract a lot more women if I cooked.

Q: What drove you to barbecue?

A: I’ve always been attracted to big flavors and I like food with authentic seasonings.  Last year I took a 43-day road trip through 11 states to 88 barbecue joints. When I left my cholesterol level was 127, and I ran every day on the road. It was 157 when I got back. It’s a rare treat now when I get to try ribs (like Wayne’s).

Q: Any barbecue tips to pass along?

A: First, barbecue is low, slow and cooks with smoke. Grilling is quick and hot. The one thing all the barbecue masters mentioned was: Stop lifting the lid to take photos and post them on Instagram! The heat and smoke leaks out and it takes time to build up again. The other thing is to always let meat rest for a while after you take it out of the smoker and allow it to re-absorb the juices.

Q: How did you get into the spice business?

A: I was a fine artist, mainly acrylics, and it wasn’t paying the bills. One day my wife told me to get out and get a job. I found an $8-an-hour job grinding spices for a company. There was a creative aspect to it, making the blends. It’s like art where you mix colors on a palette to get the right shade. We moved to Denver and opened Savory Spice in the Highlands neighborhood. We needed a second store in Littleton because we were working with each other all day, every day in a small space.

Q: Where do the new spice blends come from?

A: A lot of them come from shopper requests. A guy came into the store and asked if we had any Spanish curry. I’d never heard of it but that’s how we found our Southern Spain Pinchito blend that has a Moroccan influence.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I tasted a lot of fried hand pies on my road trip, but most of them were like empanadas with a dry crust. I found one great Amish crust, and I’ve just about duplicated it. I’ve tried apple filling, peach and a cherry-plum mixture. You fry them for about five minutes in about an inch of oil. I also bake regular pies in my grill. When I get interested in something I tend to dive into it deeply.   

Q: Is the Boulder Savory Spice Shop different?

A: Boulder shoppers really take advantage of how we sell seasonings. We do have filled jars and bags for sale but we specialize in deli-style service — ‘I want a little bit of this herb, this spice, this blend and that salt.’ Spices are best when you get small amounts of it more frequently to keep it fresh. 

Q: Any coming attractions?

A: We are introducing our first prepared food product, a line of eight bottled barbecue sauces, in August including Alabama white barbecue sauce and an old-fashioned root beer barbecue sauce.

Q: Does your Mom get fresh spices now?

A: My Mom and Dad moved to Colorado a decade ago and work for us in the mail order department. My Mom is 69 and now she’s into international cooking. She’s not afraid of spices. She’s always ‘borrowing’ herbs to try … or give away.

Food News Update

The 15,000-square-foot Boulder Food Park is set to open around July 4 at 2775 Valmont Road with a changing roster of food trucks and vendors. … We wish a happy 20th anniversary to Boulder-born Snarf’s Sandwiches. … Alfalfa’s Market will open a third store in Edgewater in 2017 to join its Boulder and Louisville markets.  … At the opening of the Union Station Farmers’ Market operated by the Boulder County Farmers’ Market I grabbed a copy of the 2016 Colorado Farm Fresh directory to hundreds of farmers’ markets, farm stands, ranches, wineries and festivals across the state. The printed version is available at libraries, chambers of commerce and online at coloradoagriculture.com/farmfresh. It’s also an app.

Taste of the Week

My favorite dunkables — essential components of a coffee moment, are the orejas that Jose Nieto bakes at Sabor A Mexico Panaderia, 2839 28th St., Boulder along with a wealth of Mexican cookies, cakes and breads. Also called palmiers or elephant ears, orejas are crunchily coated with sugar crystals. The panaderia also sells festive candy-filled Betty Boop and Donald Trump piñatas.  

Words to Chew On

“It’s the triumph of cool over taste. … In any color and by any name, I know and hate kale when I see it — and these days I see it everywhere: like scorched bits of burned paper atop pizzas, muffled into pesto as a dusty, bitter blanket over pasta and risotto, studded like flecks of parchment into brownies and cookies, muddying up the cool elegance of ice creams and sorbets.” — Mimi Sheraton.

John Lehndorff is the former chief judge of the National Pie Championships. He hosts Radio Nibbles, 8:25 a.m. Thursdays, on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org). Comments to nibbles@boulderweekly.com.