In 2013, Zach Johnston was working in the kitchen of a Breckenridge restaurant with $50 to his name.
“My mom told me to go get a real job because working in a kitchen wasn’t one,” he recalled.
But Johnston couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. His job allowed a lot of freedom to explore new ingredients and create specials, and he was loving the experimentation. Realizing that it was difficult to get good herbs in the mountains, he became enamored with spice blends. When he saw that more and more chefs were asking him to create custom blends for them, he realized he could turn this hobby into a career.
The Spice Guy
In just three years, Johnston turned that passion and $50 into The Spice Guy — a spice company that supplies raw spices, herbs and blends to home chefs and more than 400 restaurants in Colorado.
More than 250 of those partnerships are with some of Denver’s favorite spots. Big names like Work & Class, Fish ’N Beer, Breckenridge Brewery, Brazen, The Nickel, Osteria Marco, Bones and more are using Johnston’s spices for marinades, seasonings, dredges and others. At last month’s chicken contest Chicken Fight, more than half of the 40+ restaurants were using blends from The Spice Guy in their fried chicken dredge.
Kevin Grossi — Owner and Executive Chef of The Regional in Avanti F&B — has worked closely with Johnston since the beginning of The Spice Guy, often turning to him for new experiments or events.
“I think Zach is important to a lot of these restaurants because he still acts like a chef, but he’s running a spice business,” Grossi explained. “He’s willing to foster or execute any idea with you. He’s new school in the way that he works with you a lot more personally. It takes a huge weight off our shoulders.”
Johnston’s adventurous, tell-it-like-it-is attitude lends itself well to maintaining relationships with so many restaurants across the state. Sometimes he makes blends to order, other times people trust him to ‘work his magic.’ In his own words — and printed boldly on his website — The Spice Guy keeps it real. “We’re all natural. No preservatives. No bullshit.”
Among its 10-person team, The Spice Guy employees do everything in-house, from sales and marketing, to accounting and fulfillment.
“I want to do it fresh,” he said. “I grind things weekly and you get that batch that Saturday. But the most fun thing about this job is this idea of being a global importer and exporter,” he said. “We get spices from all over the world.”
The Spice Guy’s more than 40,000 pounds of spices per week really do come from all over — from peppercorns from Vietnam, to tellicherry from India.
“I’ve personally visited every chili farm that we source from in Mexico except for one,” he explained. “We’re getting off the beaten path. I mean sometimes we’re flying into Cancun, but it’s not like we’re going to Senor Frogs to look for these spices.
The Spice Guy’s selection is as diverse as the places from which they came — like The Summit County Steak & Veg, The Bacon Bourbon Pow, Sriracha Pow, a Lebanese Za’atar or the Citrus Pucker Pepper.
“People think that spices are automatically going to be spicy, but I look at spices as something bigger — as any ingredient that can add flavor your food,” Johnston explained. “I’ve always focused on this flavor journey with spice blends. It shouldn’t hit you all at once. There should be something at the front, something in the middle and something at the end.”
With the business-to-business side down pat, Johnston is expanding The Spice Guy’s reach to the everyday home cook. The team is doing this by creating “The GHOSTpack” — a monthly spice subscription box with a mix of fan-favorites and seasonal blends that Johnston creates exclusively for subscribers. For $15 per month, subscribers receive three spice blends and recipes to help them get cooking.
“We’re not going to be your mom’s spice company, though,” he said. “We want to connect with that 25 to 35 year-old group — the ones that may not cook often but are willing to forgive themselves and learn how to do it well easily.”
That mission is made apparent by the bright yellow box with the words, “We partner with the world’s best farmers to hustle the highest quality ingredients. In short, we sell the best shit on earth.”
You can order The GHOSTpack online or catch The Spice Guy team at various flea markets every week for the next 20 weeks — The Denver Flea, South Pearl St. Farmers Market, Aspen Food & Wine and more. For more information, click here.
All photos courtesy of The Spice Guy.