Connecting the Cape to the World Spice Market

By Ashley Corbin-Teich / Photography By Ashley Corbin-Teich | June 26, 2017
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Atlantic Spice Company

The aroma of spices with discernable notes of cumin hits when you walk in the door of Atlantic Spice Co. The air is thick with the welcome, but sneeze-inducing mix of fine particles. The other senses are immediately stimulated too with colorful displays of kitchenware, packaged spices, extracts, cookbooks, dishtowels and kitchen gadgets for sale in the 1800-square-foot store. Just off the intersection of Routes 6 and 6A in North Truro, Atlantic Spice is both a retail destination for Cape Cod foodies and a national spice wholesaler that packages and sells spices, herbs, teas and botanicals from all over the world through their e-commerce business.

The company was started in 1994 when friends Mark Irving and Neil Hanscomb teamed up to buy the warehouse (formerly a showroom for Flyer’s Boat Yard) and start an east coast counterpart to Hanscomb’s already established San Francisco Herb Co. The two wholesale herb companies initially shared a catalogue and customer database, with Atlantic Spice Co. taking over the customers east of the Mississippi.

The original product line included spices, loose-leaf teas, herbs, botanicals and potpourri ingredients. The crafting business, once a big customer sector, has since become a smaller part of their market due to its seasonal nature, the waning popularity of potpourri, the increasing interest in food and specialty ingredients, and a conscious business decision to focus primarily on edible products.

Basil, dill, peppermint, spearmint, garlic, paprika, kelp and buckwheat are some domestically-grown products carried by the sellers, while other ingredients such as saffron from Spain, oregano from Greece, marjoram from Egypt, bay leaves from Turkey, nutmeg from the West Indies and celery seed from India are examples of ingredients grown in only limited places due to climate, geography and world politics. Linnet Hultin, who has been with the company since 1994, lists za’atar, sumac and vanilla powder as some of their more exotic offerings, although she notes that these are becoming more mainstream as restaurateurs and home chefs continually explore and offer global cuisines and fusions.

This little Cape Cod business is connected to the world spice market and its long history of trade and commerce and continued fluctuations; a recent cyclone in Madagascar wiped out eighty percent of the world vanilla crop, which, of course, affects price and availability in the market.

In 1995 Atlantic Spice Co. added a second connected warehouse and a mezzanine level, doubling its space to almost 13,000 square feet. The additional workspace enabled them to open the retail store at the front of the warehouse, which Hultin manages. In addition to the wholesale product line, the mainstay of the store, Hultin and her staff source and sell an extensive array of teapots, utensils, ceramics, kitchen gadgets and accessories, coffee and tea brewing supplies, specialty food items, cookbooks and much, much more.

“The staff is constantly researching new trends in cooking, health, entertaining and lifestyle,” Hultin says. “We listen to our customers who bring new ideas with them to the store and the wholesale ordering division. Some of our best new items are customer driven.”

The store also retails many local products that are made with the Atlantic Spice Co.’s own ingredients, such as Cape Abilities seasoned salt blends, Cape Cod Cranberry Harvest savory jellies and jams, Little House of Thyme grain and soup blends, Dr. Frank’N’Swine hot sauces and rubs, and Pamet Bees honey products. Hultin estimates that the average customer spends an hour in the store, which is an easy proposition. They offer Asian cookware and ingredients, and they have the requisite section of Cape Cod foods and treats as well as racks of cards and a small section of botanical lotions, soaps and candles including Cape-made Summer House Soaps and Back Bay Soap, which both also use the company’s ingredients in their products.

The retail store serves as the face for the wholesale business and is open seven days a week, year round with word of mouth bringing in new customers and many reliable regulars including local professionals and home cooks and gift seekers.

“Since its inception, the retail store has steadily grown to almost equal sales in the wholesale division. The breakdown currently stands at 55% wholesale, 45% retail,” Hultin says. “The store also helps generate sales for the wholesale division, with first time shoppers becoming wholesale customers.”

The holiday season and rainy summer days are the store’s busiest times, but even on a weekday in the off-season, the door opens and closes at regular intervals and at least a couple customers seem to be in the store at all times. Some go straight for a specific product, while others linger through the shelves and chat with the knowledgeable and friendly staff. In summer, the store averages 200 sales a day.

Photo 1: Co-owner Mark Irving in the Atlantic Spice warehouse where they receive shipments and pack them into small packages.
Photo 2: Different types of salts have grown in popularity and Atlantic Spice has a wide selection of natural varieties and flavored salts.
Photo 3: Employee Matt Peterson packaging cocoa powder.
Photo 4: The store offers many colorful and eclectic kitchen items.

At the time when the warehouse expanded and the retail store was added, Atlantic Spice Co. also launched their website, now the primary means for ordering, although phone ordering remains an option. About fifty percent of the customer base is made up of individuals, which include home chefs, crafters and health professionals, with the rest of the customers consisting largely of restaurants, food co-ops, breweries and grocery stores. The store employees answer phones and take wholesale orders and do customer service for both sides of the business. Hultin speaks of developing relationships with customers, some of which she has served for over twenty years. She recognizes the voices and area codes of regulars she’s never even met.

Over time Atlantic Spice Co. has acquired clients in the western half of the U.S. and internationally while maintaining their east coast base. They continue to share distributors and an ongoing relationship as sister-business with San Francisco Herb Co. Hanscomb is primarily based on the west coast, but is a lifelong summer resident of the Cape. Irving has lived on Cape Cod since 1972 and he is at the warehouse daily, although, he says, “the company is so small that I don’t have an official job title.” Today they employ 10-12 people year round and hire a few more people to work the retail store in the summer.

Corey Chapman came to Atlantic Spice as an intern from Provincetown High School in 1995. He has grown with the company and is now the warehouse manager responsible for wholesale buying and inventory control. Chapman is also the in-house IT specialist and has rewritten and updated most of the programs and software used by the company, which were originally developed by Hanscomb. Chapman ensures that nothing goes out of stock and nothing stays around for too long. They order six-month supplies of most items and pride themselves on selling fresh products that are sticky and fragrant with natural oils.

The biggest seller is lavender and it is available in culinary grade, buds, bunches and essential oils. Atlantic Spice sells 15,000 pounds of lavender each year, and like some of their other great sellers it is a product with multiple uses. The next biggest sellers are domestic garlic and Saigon cinnamon. The garlic is sold minced, powdered and in granules and the Saigon cinnamon is sold ground, although sticks and chips of other types of cinnamon are on offer.

Photo 1: Employee John Choly fills and packs orders. He is also an artist whose cards are sold in the store.
Photo 2: Every item sold by the wholesale division of Atlantic Spice is also available to buy in the store.

Many of the products come directly from their country of origin, while others come through an importer in Brooklyn or from San Francisco Herb Co., which has more warehouse space. At this point the size and scale of Atlantic Spice Co. has stabilized with an inventory between 450 and 500 items. When they add new items, they typically drop others, but wish to remain a reliable source of the standards that customers depend on them for. The print catalogue is updated yearly, and the full catalogue is also available online. They try to keep up with trends and have added more teas and salts in recent years as sales and interest have grown. And with the rise of microbrews they have catered to those needs with plenty of orange peel and ground coriander.

Atlantic Spice Co. sells ingredients to some Truro neighbors, including South Hollow Spirits and Sweet Escape Ice Cream, as well as many other businesses throughout the Cape and New England, such as Pain d’Avignon, PB Boulangerie, Provincetown Portuguese Bakery, Mass Bay Brewery, Ipswich Ale, Jack’s Abby and Mystic Brewery. They also sell to 95% of the restaurants on the outer Cape. Hultin says they deal directly with many local chefs, which means that, “the staff can make suggestions about new products that might be of particular interest to a specific restaurant, based on their knowledge of the menu,” and chefs come to them with specific requests.

Irving says Truro has been experiencing a revitalization, and neighboring businesses Truro Vineyards, Salty Market and Chequessett Chocolate are also attracting tourists and shoppers to the area. He is excited by young people’s growing interest in food and their entrepreneurial spirit to start their own small businesses and appreciates that Atlantic Spice Co. can directly serve this base. By offering their products in any amount, they are able to fill a middle ground between larger wholesalers and grocery stores, catering specifically to small businesses like pizza places and brewing companies that are able to buy the quantity they need rather than thousands of pounds or just a few ounces.

Irving and his wife Eleanor, who also helps with the company and in the store since retiring from her teaching career, are grateful to have a successful business that allows them to live on Cape Cod. They are also happy to provide year round employment for members of their community. As Chapman notes, the Internet removes barriers of location. Product can be shipped from anywhere and the company has partnered with UPS, which was already making daily deliveries to the outer Cape, and is now able to fill the trucks going back. They also use the U.S. Postal Service for some of their shipping and mailing and employees who live in Provincetown and Orleans make local deliveries.

While the wholesale division seems to work in spite of being located on the Cape, it is the unique location that makes the store thrive. Irving says the catalogue is a “little digest that people take home and they go back to Indiana or Texas or Connecticut, and say ‘we were there on vacation and stopped in this great store and we got some great spices and gift items’ and they tell their family and neighbors and they have a book that reminds them. Cape Cod is great for spreading the word.”

Atlantic Spice
2 Shore Road, North Truro
508-487-6100 /
atlanticspice.com

Shopping in the store on a rainy spring day.
Article from Edible Cape Cod at http://ediblecapecod.ediblecommunities.com/shop/connecting-cape-world-spice-market
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