A “people person” is how Sue Kelly, 56, owner of Old Time Spice & Tea Merchants describes herself.
Kelly has been in the grocery business ever since she was 16 years old, and slowly built herself up to management.
In an interview via phone, Kelly mentioned feeling very comfortable working in the grocery side of work.
Watching cooking videos by Rachel Ray from the Food Network was what she believed was “her sign” to start her own local spice and tea merchants shop in Temecula.
“I remember one time listening to Rachel Ray, she was doing a cooking show, and at the end she would always say, you can find this at your local spice merchants, and I thought Temecula is a very foodie place and we don’t have any spice merchants. Then I thought, I need to be the local spice merchant,” Kelly explained.
Old Town Spice & Tea Merchants opened in Old Town Temecula in November 2007.
What is Old Town Spice & Tea Merchants?
Old Town Spice & Tea Merchants is a small local business in Old Town Temecula that sells any spice and tea leaf you can think of.
Small but “very inviting” is how Kelly described her shop. She also described her employees as “very welcoming” and “helpful.”
“When you open the door, you walk into a century overload because of all the spices and teas, it’s a pleasant welcome,” Kelly said.
Carol Post has been working with Kelly for 10 years.
“I love it, its like my second home. I love teas, I love spices, I love to cook. I also like the interaction with the customers, it’s fun to be able to help people who do not know anything about spices and teas,” Post said.
“My clone,” is how Post described her manager.
“We’re very much alike, she is very easy going, open to ideas, and very fun,” Post added.
Where are the teas and spices produced?
Kelly described the environment at the shop while customers are shopping as “happy.” She mentioned that they are very happy and excited to try the different varieties of teas and spices in store.
Kelly explained that the teas and spices seen throughout the shop come from a wide range of vendors that work with actual companies located in China, India and Japan, the largest being in Germany.
“We have picked and chose through different genders, so our quality is the best that we can get,” she said.
Having over 300 spices and spice blends and over 140 leaf teas in store, some of the bestsellers in the store ever since the shop opened have been their famous “Raspberry Chipotle Blend” as well as “Coffee BBQ.”
“We’ve really built a very good reputation with our products, we’re really proud of that,” Kelly added.
COVID-19’s impact on Spice and Tea Merchant shops
When the COVID-19 pandemic began and lockdowns were enforced early March 2020, Kelly’s shop was forced to close from the start of the lockdown until June 2020. She was then given permission by the City of Temecula to open her business to the public again.
However, she decided to wait after a month of having permission to open back up just to be cautious and to follow safety guidelines.
“We wanted to provide a safe environment for our customers, as well as our staff. If one of us got COVID we have to shut down for two weeks. We wanted to make sure we had everything in line,” she said.
“We were down for the year probably 10 to 15% down, when normally we are up every year 10%. I am very fortunate and lucky to say that because a lot of people around us closed, and I mean, I’ll take that 10% down,” Kelly explained.
In the article by The Washington Post, when the COVID-19 pandemic began the sales of spices went up. According to the article, many people had decided to try out new hobbies such as cooking during “stress times,” which led to a shortage of 10% produce, but sales went up by 35%.
However, an article published by the Codex Alimentarius International Food Standers states that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the spice sectors have faced various challenges. Raw material shortages, marketing issues and continuing operation on the industry floor are some of the challenges caused by the pandemic.
Although COVID-19 caused Kelly’s shop to temporarily close, she mentioned that during the time the shop was closed her safety net to keep her business running was her online website.
“The thing that kept us in business was we had already developed our website which had already been going on for about three or four years, we have really great customers, and the website was the only thing that kept us going. I really encourage anyone to get a website as a backup plan,” Kelly said.
New curbside pick-up service
Kelly was very grateful that the City of Temecula provided her shop with a “curbside parking lot” in front of her store.
She mentioned that curbside pick-up helps customers feel comfortable with shopping during COVID-19.
“The City of Temecula was very kind that when everyone shut down they gave us curbside parking, although Old Town is known for not having parking lots, they were kind enough to give us curbside parking right in front of our store that our customers could utilize, and customers were really, really happy about it,” she said.
Kelly added that another one of her challenges due to COVID-19 has been the people who decide to not wear masks while shopping.
“They’ll walk in without a mask, and that’s the part that we don’t like. We don’t want to get mad at people, nobody wants to get mad. We don’t like wearing masks either but we have to. That would be one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced,” she said.
Achievements and success throughout the years
Kelly explained that one of her biggest achievements with the shop has been collaborating with other local restaurants around Temecula.
TOAST and 1909 are some of their biggest local restaurant buyers that work with a lot of teas and spices from Old Town Spice and Merchants.
“They work their magic with our spices and teas, it’s amazing,” Kelly said.
Besides the challenges, Kelly mentioned that one of her biggest motivations to keep the business growing and going is the fun she has at work. She mentioned that her and her employees are very passionate about the job.
“I am thankful every day I get to wake up and come into my shop and meet a lot of new people. I also work with a lot of amazing people, I think I am pretty, pretty lucky,” Kelly said.