Spicing up the South Hills

Written by Bob Batz Jr. on


I was whizzing into Downtown on Banksville Road yesterday when a new sign caught my eye:

"Savvy Spices."

This morning I pulled off and parked in front of the little storefront, on the edge of the Pittsburgh city limits surrounded by Dormont, Green Tree and Mt. Lebanon, not far from Banksville Plaza, and met Savvy Spices, "Purveyors of Smart Sensible Seasoning."

I got to meet the actual purveyors, too: Deb and Dave Johnson. 12072012spicepeople Nicest folks. Just opened this mom-and-pop a couple of weeks ago, they said, as they shared with me the short version of their story.

Mr. Johnson, a Pittsburgh native, used to work in the scientific instruments industry and she used to be a high school chemistry teacher. They lived away for years -- Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area -- and were blessed to travel quite a bit. The spectacle of the Istanbul spice market stuck with them. That and their love of cooking and eating led them here, to their own spice store within walking distance of their Mt. Lebanon home.

They specialize in herb and spice blends, including several family favorites that they came up with and used at home, such as Steak a la Dave and Deb's Delish Pizza Topping. They sell 50 blends, made right on the premises, 12072012spiceblendsfrom standards such as Herbes de Provence and Chinese Five Spice to much more exotic ones including the Brazilian Tempero Baiano Blend and Panch Phoron, a Bengali mix of five roasted but unground spices.

They also carry 130 carefully sourced individual spices and herbs, most of which look to sell for better-than-supermarket prices. And they have everything from ajwain ($3.29 for 1 ounce) to whole vanilla bean (three for $8.99), with unusual items including air-dried chopped leeks ($3.99 for .35 ounce) and powdered horseradish ($3.99 for 1.5 ounces).

Mr. Johnson says, "Our focus is on freshness," so they only put out small quantities in small containers -- opaque, quarter- and half-cup metal tins for the individual spices and herbs that not only keep out light, but also are easier to measure from than narrow bottles. 12072012spicessezchuan

Of course, they can sell in much larger quantities if a customer wants that. They're even doing custom blends.

But you probably won't need to ask for one of those, because they have so many of their own concoctions, in large small bottles, from their No. 1-selling Tuscan Spice Blend ($5.89 for 3 ounces, $4.19 for 1.5 ounces) to Wild Game Seasoning to Tailgate Grillin' Spice to Gumbo File.

Many of the blends are low- or no-salt, which more people are seeking.  For those interested in exotic salts, Savvy Spices offers an array of those, too, including a beautifully fragrant smoked salt. Throughout the store are "smelling jars" that allow you to smell before you buy.
For holiday gift-giving, the store and its website offer a range of gift baskets, from the big $96.99 Gourmet Spice Sensations to smaller ones themed to seasons, cuisines and specific foods.

They'll make you a custom "grab bag gift" basket, too, for $9.99: your choice of two small bottles of blends in a little basket. You could throw in a gift card -- for, say, $10 more -- and your gift recipient could get a taste of the place and then go check it out themselves.

The Johnsons plan to keep adding new spices and herbs and blends, and have big plans to grow the website into an information portal with recipes, videos and more; they also plan to eventually offer cooking classes.

Meanwhile, they've already nicely spiced up a busy road to the South Hills.

Savvy Spices, at 3015B Banksville Road (inbound to Downtown side), is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays; it's usually closed Sundays, but will be open for holiday shoppers 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 9 and 16). Phone: 1-800-343-1087.

Bob Batz Jr. photos

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