His business card reads “Flavor Specialist” but it isn’t just Rob Bragenzer’s taste buds that are gaining influence over local foodies and culinary consumers. Since opening Spice-Topia last month in downtown Ventura with his life/business partner Dan Nelson, Bragenzer’s entire aesthetic — from his vivid color palette and his loyalty to fair-trade and organic brands to his favorite artisan salts and infused sugars — is attracting customers in droves and adding some necessary zest to downtown Ventura’s shopping district.
Bragenzer’s heart for food dates back to his early teen years when he prepared German cuisine in Michigan, but it was a few years ago while vacationing in Turkey that he became inspired to peddle herbs and spices. Absolutely taken with the abundant displays of colorful spices in the country’s open-air markets, Bragenzer couldn’t help but daydream about the possibilities of offering something similar back home.
Opening a retail store didn’t seem realistic at the time, and he was doing just fine working in the nuclear power industry, but during a particularly reflective period for Bragenzer, Nelson suggested he leave his corporate job to follow his bliss, and so it began. Having absolutely no experience in retail or food sales, he took a job at We Olive, just a few blocks from where Spice-Topia is now located, to get his feet wet. When it came time to conceptualize his own store, he considered playing it safe by starting with an online business but Nelson told him, “You’re too much of a people person,” not to open a brick and mortar shop. Quite serendipitously, a beautiful location became available in the heart of downtown Ventura’s cultural district, and the two immediately went to work filling it with all things delicious to the senses.
During the store’s grand opening, friends of the couple (Nelson is a well-loved teacher at Ventura High School) and curious passers-by poured in to smell, taste and touch (in that order) Bragenzer’s handpicked epicurean delights, and that spirit of celebration and community has become a driving force at Spice-Topia. Regular events at the store showcase particular products and always include delicious samples in addition to the complimentary daily tea tastings. “We’re all about events,” says Bragenzer, “We’re all about the experience.”
Indeed, customers are encouraged to immerse themselves in the scents and sights at Spice-Topia — and with 19 artisan salts, 24 infused sea salts, 16 infused sugars, 135 spices, 14 coffees and 85 teas, it can be a tad overwhelming. Fortunately, Bragenzer, Nelson or one of the “Spice Girls” (including chocolatier Alison Smith, whose truffles are sublime) is always on hand to explain the best way to navigate the store’s offerings. Large canisters of herbs and spices are stored on shelves for visual appeal, but beneath them are sample jars for the smelling. Bulk spices, sugars and teas are sold by the ounce.
While curries and crème brûlées are a couple of the more obvious reasons for perusing the vast selection of international flavors, the uses are limited only by imagination. From smoky, savory rubs to vanilla- and espresso- infused sugars or aromatic fruit-flavored teas there is seemingly nothing that can’t be found and put to use. Bragenzer says customers are always coming up with interesting, unique ways to incorporate different flavors into their cooking and baking, and there is a section on the store’s website for people to share their recipes.
Then there are the wares: Tea presses, tea pots, tea brewing systems, tea sets (tea is Nelson’s area of expertise, as well as graphic design and the photography seen throughout the store), pepper mills, salt storage, mortars and pestles, Chantal bakeware, assorted kitchen gadgets and even the dreaded (by some chefs) garlic press are all for sale at Spice-Topia. And former customers of Toby’s (a kitchen store in midtown Ventura that closed several years ago) are rejoicing.
Some of the more popular items include the raspberry green tea, Van Dorn Espresso Rub, Applewood smoked salt, Spanish rosemary-infused salt and vanilla-infused sugar. Gift packs can be customized and Bragenzer has put together an array of spices specifically for traditional holiday foods.
To spend time in Spice-Topia is not only to smell and taste exciting new flavors or comforting nostalgic ones, it’s also to share the pleasure of good food and fine living with new friends; everyone who works there is a foodie and their enthusiasm is contagious. During a recent visit, Smith offered me a truffle while she dug up a tribute to Julia Child on YouTube. Not surprisingly, Child is regarded as royalty by the store’s staff and this particular video can be found on the Spice-Topia website under “Inspiration” (along with a photo of a spice market in Turkey). “What makes a great chef?” Child posits. “Training and technique, of course, plus a great love of food, and a generous personality,” she says. And it becomes apparent why, in a difficult economy, a little specialty store is thriving amid a slew of businesses that are closing. As much as Bragenzer and company love what they’re doing, they want you to love what they’re doing even more. As Julia says, “That’s what good cooking is all about.”
Spice-Topia will host a Harmony Cellars winter wine tasting during the Winter Wine Walk on Saturday, Dec. 1, at 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.spice-topia.com.