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Project Penzeys

November 5, 2012

Sometimes you hear rumors and have no idea of knowing whether or not they are true. I can’t even remember where I heard this or from whom, but it came across my radar over the past several weeks, and it’s been bothering me.

The gist of the rumor was that the new Penzey’s at Crossgates isn’t getting the kind of traffic and sales they had projected.

Now if that’s true, this fantastic store is in trouble. And if that is indeed the case, I would want to do everything in my limited power to help them out. So I had an idea, and the best part about the idea is that even if the rumor is not true, this scheme will still make you a better cook. Plus, I think my old friend Raf would totally approve.

I’m going to do it, and I hope you’ll join me too.

Almost every single person I’ve ever met has spices in their spice cabinet/rack/drawer that are ridiculously old. And even though we know that spices lose potency over time, we come up with elaborate stories about why we should keep these spices on hand.

But we are our own worst enemies here. We hold onto super old bottles of curry powder because we say to ourselves, “Well, I may want to make curried chicken salad with walnuts, raisins and apples one day.” Except that’s never going to happen. And if it did, it wouldn’t taste as good as it could because we would be using curry powder that’s over five years old. And if we really did want to make the dish, it wouldn’t be that hard to run out and get a new jar.

Whatever happened to waste not want not?

You know what? Those old spices have already been wasted. Some things you can hold onto for long periods of time. Like that Rickey Henderson Topps rookie card. Ground spices, not so much. Whole spices are a little more forgiving, but even they don’t last for a decade.

There are a panoply of reasons why these jars linger around. Sometimes it’s because your cooking style has changed, or a dish has fallen out of favor. I remember picking up some dried savory thinking I’d be making a bunch of Germanic bean dishes. Turns out the kids hate savory. So it sits, and I can’t bear to throw it away.

Other things, like the cloves, I continue to use. Except I use them just a few at a time. You have no idea how slowly a jar empties when you only use on average four whole cloves a month (if that). To give you a hint, it’s not a big jar and we’ve been using it for about a decade.

Some spices have emotional attachments. Like the ones given to you by someone special at a pivotal point in their lives. I still have spices from my little sister before she went to spend a year in Argentina. They were old when she handed them off to me. And that was well over two years ago.

None of these ancient spices are doing anyone any good. So here’s the plan: it’s time to cull the herd.

For some a massive spice purging is just too much. I know I couldn’t do it. So instead I’m going to go a week at a time. Each week, I’m going to select something from the spice drawer or cabinet that’s embarrassingly old.

Replacing all the old spices doesn’t make sense, because many have found their way into this ignoble position by falling out of use. But tossing all the spices I don’t use is a little too severe because I do like having options of making new dishes on the fly without having to make an impromptu trip to the market.

So I’m going to alternate.
- This first week, I’ll select a spice to replace with a fresh version of the same thing.
- Next week, one jar just gets unceremoniously tossed.
- Repeat as needed.

The trick now will be to write the date on the jar when each new spice came into your home. Hopefully that will help you keep track of the passage of time. It’s tough. Life gets distracting, and time slips away.

Like for example I can’t believe tomorrow is already election day.

My first two selections are the oldest in my drawer by an order of magnitude. Whole cloves and whole mustard seed. The cloves will get replaced. The mustard seeds will not. Sorry, mustard seeds. I’m the only one in the house who likes mustard, most of my Indian cooking these days comes from spice blends anyhow, and I have no plans to do any pickling in the near future. Maybe one day we’ll meet again.

See, that wasn’t so hard. Hopefully you’ll join me in this effort of decluttering the spice drawer of things we don’t need. And at the same time helping to boost the sales of the local Penzey’s.

If you happen to bump into me and I’m carrying something else besides a fresh jar of whole cloves, please slap me. Sometimes it’s hard to stick to a plan. Especially when you a food lover in a spice store.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. MsAmy permalink
    November 5, 2012 11:21 am

    So true! I have a jar of ground cloves from 1993 (I am embarrassing myself here) that I have been using once a year to make pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. It still smells strong, but there was no comparison when I purchased a new jar at Penzeys last year and opened it up. It made such a difference! I have slowly been replacing my old spices, but just can’t bring myself to throw them out. It’s just as you said! Penzeys problem here is its location. I have only been there once because I almost never go to Crossgates. Stuyvesant Plaza would have been a better choice for them. I spend part of the year in Florida, and I am in the local Penzeys there very frequently, as it is walkable from my condo and right in the middle of a vibrant downtown, around the corner from Whole Foods.

    • November 5, 2012 12:01 pm

      Myself, I’d say that the best location would’ve been in Clifton Park — not that I’m selfish, but that it’s halfway between shoppers in Albany and shoppers in Saratoga, so they might draw more people from a broader area.

  2. November 5, 2012 11:26 am

    This is a tough one. I think I still have one or two spice jars that we inherited from my great-grandfather when he passed away in 1976. My spice rack is filled with memorabilia – from a Turkish grinder that my in-laws brought back from Turkey in the early ’90s to a bag of masala that we picked up in Nepal this summer – that I would be hard pressed to toss.

  3. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    November 5, 2012 11:34 am

    Good advice. But don’t you think the lower-than-expected sales suggest that the Albany area is just not “spicy” enough? The raspberry-and-mozzarella and teeny wienies crowd just don’t go to Penzey’s!

  4. Elyse permalink
    November 5, 2012 11:53 am

    I love Penzey’s but hate that I have to go to the mall to shop there!

    • November 5, 2012 12:44 pm

      Poor Penzey’s. I agree with everyone that the location is seriously the issue here. The people who care enough about quality spices don’t want to schlep all the way to Crossgates. I try to buy all my spices/extracts/etc. there, but I probably only make it out there every 4-5 months at most.

      It would be nice if maybe good businesses started coming east of the river, but that’s a whole ‘nother whine for another day..

      • November 5, 2012 12:44 pm

        (not sure how this ended up as a reply – sorry!)

  5. November 5, 2012 12:00 pm

    That sucks, if true. I remember going in there and while back and saying something like that to the clerk, like “well, I buy stuff here whenever I can, ’cause I want to keep this place in business,” and he was like “nah, I wouldn’t worry about that, business is just fine.”

  6. November 5, 2012 12:06 pm

    Location, location, location.
    Crossgates sucks. I try to avoid it completely.
    I was baffled when I heard they were opening there and I’m still baffled today.
    Stuvesant Plaza, Broadway in Saratoga, those are places I could see a store like that.
    Not Crossgates which is one of the scummiest malls I’ve been to.

  7. November 5, 2012 12:13 pm

    One issue is that they don’t advertise. The other is that some of their staff just don’t care, I had to interrupt a salesperson personal cell call so I could checkout and I was given attitude. Yes you can smell their spices/herbs in sample jars but how about using them in cooking demos. Most other Penzey’s, Madison, WI, Boston, MA, Raleigh, NC, Phoenix, AZ, shops I’ve been to are not in high rent locations like Crossgates. I think they need to move, like the vacant Friendly’s next to Trader Joes.

  8. November 5, 2012 12:29 pm

    I agree with others here, Crossgates was the wrong choice. In fact, the ONLY reason I’ve gone to Crossgates in the last year was for Penzey’s but it’s inconvenient as all get out. Despite the fact that I live very nearby, I avoid that mall at all costs. Stuyvesant Plaza would have been a WONDERFUL location. Even Colonie Center would have been better for them considering they’re putting Whole Foods there and it’s close to Trader Joe’s.

    **If Penzey’s doesn’t make it in Albany, it’s not that they’re in the wrong market, it’s that they’re in the wrong location in this area.** Frankly, that’s all there is to it. They’re next to Johnny Rockets and across from laser tag and a sports store. I’m not sure what they expected.

    I’ve been trying to put off new spice purchases until I have a list long enough to justify going to Penzeys, but dang it, sometimes I just HAVE to have more cumin and TJ’s or Hannaford is going to be more convenient than a special trip to Xgates. While I am there, I do try to anticipate my winter chili powder needs and stock up, but it’s tough when you go through spices quickly.

    • November 5, 2012 12:58 pm

      Agreed! It’s definitely the location. Love the Store and would go more often if it was located somewhere else!

    • November 6, 2012 4:35 am

      I’ve been to a number of Penzey’s over the years, and they seem to work especially well in outdoor locations, be it on the Strip in Pittsburgh or in an outdoor, higher-end shopping center. They also seem to often be located adjacent to either a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

      I wonder in a way if Penzey’s is regretting opening when they did, before news of Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods broke. Also, I guess this speaks to the unfortunate way in which things have developed in this region for these types of stores–the delayed, gradual build-up seems to have made it impossible for the kinds of coherent shopping developments like I’ve seen in other cities, and now you’re seeing some of the consequences of that.

  9. November 5, 2012 12:38 pm

    If you have old cloves & cinnamon or similar sweet spices get rid of them in a scent pot during the holidays- or make up a few with some cheesecloth & give them away. Put old Oregano in bags to pack in the clothes drawers. Use that old curry powder with the left over turkey you’re going to have during the holidays.

  10. November 5, 2012 1:03 pm

    You are going to laugh … I did this already. I scouted Penzey’s, went home, made a list while I tossed, an then replaced. I am already low on chili powder, but everything else is well stocked. I may get more Turkish seasoning because it is just so damn versatile and delicious in everything. Also, we have no Allspice. What?! :)

    I agree with the Crossgates comments. Stuyvesant really would be ideal. If it was in CP I would never, ever go there. Ever. I avoid CP at all costs at all times. I think that’s where all things happy go to die. But I know that’s a minority opinion. (Sorry, KB!!!)

    • Bob W. permalink
      November 5, 2012 1:38 pm

      Heh…we did the same not too long ago. Our spice cabinet could double as a Penzeys satellite location at this point.

      In complete agreement with all those who don’t care for the location. Like WrigsMac, we’re close to Crossgates, but I never go there unless I need something from Penzey’s or Best Buy.

  11. christine permalink
    November 5, 2012 1:59 pm

    Who invented the concept of the mall anyway? I detest shopping in all malls and I can count the number of times I’ve gone to Crossgates on one hand. It’s just so much easier to park in front of a store, amble a few steps and then- you’re in!

  12. November 5, 2012 5:06 pm

    Hey, there is an open space on Central ave…in the former Mcgearsy’s travel spot…The building is owned by the Carbonic sales and service folks…459-3067 and I’m sure it is big enough for that type of operation….and I’m also sure it would be a LOT cheaper than crossgates mall. Just a thought…and even though it’s not supposd to be retail…I think I may still work and be a good fit…AND I wouldn’t complain one bit about a cool spice shop 2 doors down from me >;) !!!
    just an FYI you might pass along.

  13. November 5, 2012 5:32 pm

    I have to say, I was seriously underwhelmed when I visited Penzey’s a few weeks after it had opened. I went to get smoked paprika, so it was great that they had it in stock. What wasn’t so great was the bland, weak flavor of it. I usually get my spices from India Bazaar or Parivar, both on Central Ave., so I was hoping to have a third option with things that the Asian/Indian markets don’t carry.

    • November 6, 2012 4:30 am

      Surprising to hear about the bland flavor. I’m pretty sure I’ve had their smoked paprika before and it’s been pretty bold–and in general, I can’t recall any of their spices being weak at all (until I let them age for years on my shelves).

  14. November 5, 2012 5:54 pm

    I adore Penzey’s but I detest going to Crossgates.. now that I’ve been in there a few times (and dropped at least $100 each time) and smelled everything, I would rather buy online and pay shipping than deal with Crossgates.

    I swear, I kept thinking it was coming to Colonie Center..which would have been awesome.

    For the record: Mural of Flavor is my go to spice blend for eggs. It’s yum.

  15. November 6, 2012 1:12 pm

    Well, about the location – I would have been much happier had they located somewhere close to downtown. Given that I don’t care to drive unless I have to, it would have been nice had they picked a Lark Street spot or somewhere folks can get to without a laborious adventure on a bus. I could write a more extensive rant about how Albany’s downtown has been sacrificed to the interests of the suburbs (and the city has lost its tax base to Colonie and other places in the process), but I’ll just say that given the realities of this area I agree with those who suggest that Penzey’s should have been in Stuyvesant Plaza, where they’d have been close to the Meat Store and other specialty places. A compromise I could have lived with.

    But I like your idea about spice and herb replacement. I actually tossed some ancient bay leaves and thyme a few weeks ago and supplanted them with new supplies from, yes, Penzey’s. And your post has spurred me to examine the cupboards this morning and look for other candidates for the garbage bins. Much as I hate going to malls, it looks like I’ll be returning to Penzey’s a bit sooner than I’d anticipated.

    • November 6, 2012 7:15 pm

      If it was downtown, a lot of people wouldn’t come because it’s harder to navigate and park there. I tend to avoid places that don’t have easy parking (ideally a good-sized lot).

      The only problem with Stuyvesant Plaza, from my point of view, is that I have no other reason to go there, so it would be a special trip. But at least it’s close to the Northway and has parking, so there’s that. (Still seems like if you’re going to pick only one place in the Capital District, CP’s a better choice, though, so you’d get the Saratoga shoppers, too.)

  16. November 6, 2012 7:11 pm

    I really don’t get the Crossgates hate… it’s a bit of a haul, but when I need to buy clothes, it’s where I always end up, ’cause it’s got the most good stores and the biggest versions of them in the area. (I ended up there the other day, actually, looking for shoes… and I hit Penzey’s while I was there.)

    • November 7, 2012 3:10 pm

      I don’t hate Crossgates – I go there on occasion, especially for Penzey’s. The problem I have with it, I suppose, is the one I have with all malls – they’ve largely sucked the life out of once-thriving downtown commercial strips.

      And I find that there’s not much of what I want when I go to Crossgates. There’s a Macy’s and a JCPenney – no Bloomie’s, no Saks, not even a Nordstrom – none of the stores you would expect in the region’s supposedly premier mall. Hell, even New Jersey has those stores in spades in its malls. Crossgates just feels a bit downtrodden and outdated. Again, doesn’t mean I hate it, just means I think the region could use a bit of retail updating.

    • Rachael permalink
      November 14, 2012 12:46 pm

      I like Crossgates, and go there frequently. Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Banana Republic, J. Crew — I can’t get any of those stores elsewhere in Albany, I’d have to drive a much greater distance. Yeah, I’d love a Nordstrom. The Macy’s there legit stinks, and there’s no bookstore, so I also go to Colonie Center, but I go to Crossgates probably 2-3 times per month, and almost always include a trip to Penzey’s — so I’m doing what I can to keep them in business. I feel like each time I’ve been in there, I’ve seen more people than the previous visit. Fingers crossed.

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