Aurora, Colorado

CEO Zach Johnston brings a modern edge to the marketing of his company’s spice blends, while also running a thriving restaurant supply and co-packing business.

“We supply specialty ingredients to restaurants, food manufacturers, and home consumers — whatever spices or specialty dry goods they might need,” says Johnston.

In terms of those specialty ingredients — which include herbs, spices, chiles, salts and peppers — The Spice Guy counts around 1,100 in its inventory.

Photos Jonathan Castner

There’s black pepper from India and Vietnam. Green chile powder from Hatch, New Mexico. Turmeric and ginger from Nicaragua. There’s also Calabrian pepper flakes from Italy that “makes the most incredible charcuterie that you’ve ever had.” And Aleppo and urfa biber chiles from Syria; in the midst of armed conflict in that country, Johnston decided to spotlight “the opposite of what the news was showcasing,” given how Syria’s “an incredibly beautiful and rich region.”

Given how much traveling he and his business partner have done to source fresh ingredients — including thyme from France — Johnston whimsically calls himself a “thyme traveler.” In order to obtain fresh Mexican chiles, the company leases two farms in Mexico: one in the state of Oaxaca and another in Baja California. However, in keeping with the company’s “sustainably sourced” buying practices, Johnston says his company won’t purchase any ingredients from China or Brazil, due to what he refers to as “slave practices that are in place in those countries.”

Today, The Spice Guy supplies 1,600 restaurant accounts nationwide from its 10,000-square-foot facility in Aurora — complete with five-, 10- and 25-cubic foot blenders — and another location in Toledo, Ohio. The company’s website lists several noted restaurants and food makers that it’s worked with; presently, Johnston adds Bin 707 Foodbar and Tacoparty in Grand Junction and My Neighbor Felix in Denver to that list.

How does Johnston “keep it fresh,” so to speak? He explains, “We do purchasing three times a week, so we keep everything on a pretty tight schedule, as far as when we’re taking it from distributors and taking it from farms. And all that’s on purpose. It would be a lot easier to buy a container’s worth of something and just let it hang out here, but our goal has always been we want to give you the freshest product at the first opportunity that we can.”

Johnston started his business while still working as a line cook at a restaurant in Breckenridge, where he did the purchasing of the herbs and spices for the establishment. When his supplier told him there was going to be a new minimum order amount that far exceeded the restaurant’s needs, he took additional orders from other local food businesses. After a $50 investment on his part, he was soon in the black — and off and running in his new business pursuit.

Until COVID-19 hit, The Spice Guy was averaging 160 percent annual growth. However, while his business supplying restaurants might have experienced some hits, the pandemic precipitated an increase in the co-packing segment of Johnston’s business. Today, The Spice Guy manufactures products for around 400 different brands — and it’s prepared to offer its R&D, blending, and design services to whoever needs it.

“We specialize in doing startup co-packing jobs for people,” says Johnston. “One thing the co-packing industry isn’t known for is customer service and ease of use. So, we’ve taken a lot of the knowledge we’ve gained over the course of running the business for almost a decade now, setting up the best user interface experience for someone finding [us] online.”

Due to the extra business he’s picked up during the pandemic, Johnston says, “I have a distinct feeling that, when this is all said and done, and a little more normalized, we’re going to be a bigger, badder company because of it.”

Johnston also runs an e-commerce store that employs a “bigger, badder” approach to the marketing of its spice blends — including slogans like “Fresh-to-Death Flavor” and “No Bullshit.” Another expression in his arsenal: “We’re not your mom’s spice company.” Johnston targets a younger clientele, some of whom are buying their first smokers and grills. “There’s a huge sector of this market that isn’t being marketed to,” he says.

For example, take the ad copy for one of his spice blends: “Our Madras-style Blurry Curry makes drunken nights WAY more delicious. . . . Combine this good sh*t with coconut milk, carrots, onions, and chicken for a (nearly) hands-off rice topper.”

Another blend is called Midnight Toker — and, as a result of Food & Wine magazine having just sung the praises of that particular blend when CompanyWeek first reached him, Johnston says, “We have processed what would normally be three months of orders in 48 hours.” He expects the company’s total sales to reach $2.5 million this year.

Some customers have told Johnston how “they’ve gone from zero to a hero on the grill, all of a sudden, because they’ve found their secret ingredient” by employing one of his products, such as, Perfect Burger, Frisco Rib Rub, or Korean Red Rub. “I love seeing people happy with what we’ve made them,” he says.

Challenges: “Keeping up with growth without taking on investors,” says Johnston. “I think that all goes back to our attitude of we’re going to do it ourselves.”

Opportunities: Johnston says, “I think this co-packing is actually going to pan out to be one of the better decisions we ever made in terms of opportunity.”

Needs: Growing in a sustainable fashion that allows employees to work hard, yet still enjoy “a good life outside work.” Johnston says, “We end up putting quite a few hours [in], and it’s because we love what we’re doing. So the need is probably always going to be balance in some respect.”