SAFETY HARBOR — The blend of spicy aromas hits your nose as soon as you open the storefront door.
Located at 318 Main St. in Safety Harbor, Spice of the Harbor is a 700-square-foot store that specializes in spice rubs, hot sauces, barbecue sauces, seasonings, local honey, mixers, oils, jellies and jams.
Opened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic on Nov. 5, store owners Todd and Heather Anderson are looking to grow as Pinellas County’s business economy starts to rebound.
Commercial sign makers for more than two decades, the Andersons suddenly found themselves out of work a year ago, the victims of business downsizing.
The duo briefly entertained starting their own sign shop. But they quickly realized they wanted to do something new and different.
“We wanted to do something that we love; something that we can come into work and enjoy and talk about it,” Anderson said.
You could say spices started circulating in Todd Anderson’s blood at an early age. Starting with family summer vacations as a young boy, he says he was invariably drawn to seek out local spice shops.
“I always ended up in a spice shop, if they had one in town,” Anderson says. “It was something about it.”
In time, Anderson cultivated his own backyard peppers.
“I realized I was getting into the fundamental horticultural side of it, learning all that,” Anderson said. “Then, I started taking the peppers and making my own sauces.”
The Andersons’ dream of operating their own spice shop became a reality when they moved to Safety Harbor and located a retail spot open on Main Street.
Spice stores in Pinellas County aren’t exactly as plentiful as corner convenience stores, with only four shops spread out in Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, St. Petersburg and Gulfport.
But why open a spice shop in Safety Harbor?
Besides living three miles down the road, the Andersons say the city has the perfect tight-knit community of residents and retailers for a small self-owned business.
“This residential community here is so strong about supporting local,” he said. “I don’t have customers coming in price checking. They don’t care about spending twice as much as they would at Publix. They say, ‘I want to buy it from you, not a supermarket.’”
The Andersons have found a tightly woven downtown business district where store owners know and help each other.
“We play nice with all the other retail owners,” Anderson said. “We kind of play off each other’s strengths.”
For example, Bassano Cheesecake on Main Street has collaborated with the spice shop, injecting certain ingredients into experimental cheesecake recipes.
“We brought one of our hot sauces — a blueberry reaper — and asked them, ‘Please make a cheesecake with this hot sauce,’” Anderson said. “The taste was to die for.”
Anderson acknowledges that opening a new store in the midst of the pandemic was daunting. A sampling cart for customers to taste-test had to be initially shelved in the midst of masks and 6-foot spacing.
“I always saw tasting tables in successful spice shops; it was the one thing I was counting on for pushing products,” Anderson said. “But with COVID and having to wear a mask, I was getting feedback from customers of, ‘How am I supposed to sample anything with a mask on?”
Besides facing COVID, Anderson said the store’s biggest challenge has been his own learning curve about products the store sells.
“That was the one of hardest things in the beginning,” Anderson said. “Since I didn’t know every product, I probably lost a lot of sales in gift-giving at Christmas time.”
Today, talking five minutes to Todd Anderson gives you the distinct impression he both likes and knows the products he sells.
“I love talking about all this stuff,” said Anderson, pointing to shelves of spices and sauces. “Especially since I’ve learned more since we first opened; I am reading bottles every day. I can’t wait for Christmas this year — I’m like, bring it on.”
Since opening, the store inventory has grown from 600 to 869 items.
In retail parlance, a spice shop is typically categorized as a “specialty store.” However, Anderson says his inventory offers a wide array of product guaranteed to appeal to every type food palate.
“Between gator toes, alligator jerky, homemade honey, spice rubs, barbeque sauces, dippings, jams, jellies — there’s something in here for everybody,” Anderson said.
Helping customers try a new plate of stimulating tastes and flavors is what gets the Spice of the Harbor owners up in the morning, Anderson said.
“That’s where we come in,” Anderson said. “We cater to palates of people who say, ‘Nah, we’re done with the stuff in the box from the grocery store. I want something with a pop and a different flavor.’”
To sample what prospective customers’ taste buds might like, the Andersons periodically take a sauce bottle down to Safety Harbor sports bar Tiki Tavern to test out flavors.
“I get a profile from a lot of different people, telling me, ‘Hey, this is what I like about it and this is what I don’t like about it,’ and then I got out and sell it,’” Anderson said.
Like most businesses, Spice of the Harbor relies on online sales to move its merchandise.
“We get orders from Oregon, Seattle, New York,” Anderson said.
The store also gets a daily local advertising boost when the Andersons drive their custom golf cart to and from work.
“Everybody knows now,” Anderson said. “With the flags flying, it gets a lot of attention.”
This summer, the Andersons are looking forward to Safety Harbor’s Chamber of Commerce reviving its schedule of outdoor events to help promote the city’s downtown retail business.
Now open eight months and with customer sample tastings resumed, Spice of the Harbor owners feel like they’ve finally settled into a retail store rhythm.
“We don’t feel any stress when we come here,” Anderson said. “The longer we go, the more comfortable we feel. Now we can interact with (customers) and actually tell them what it is that they’ll be tasting.”