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Spice & Tea Exchange blends risk and reward with move into high end malls

After tasting six types of table salt during a recent cruise, Donna Moffatt was among the first to hit a new spices hangout for foodies at International Plaza in Tampa.

"You know their spice blends are fresh because they grind them right in front of you," said Moffat, a Lutz homemaker.

Such retail theater is part of the show at Spice & Tea Exchange, a Florida startup that's grown to 15 stores.

The main stage is a wall boasting 28 types of salts, 150 custom-blended meat and fish rubs, 13 flavored sugars and 22 green or black teas. They're all lined up in easy-open apothecary jars waiting for a sniff.

"It's the smells that sell, the tastes that bring people back," franchise owner Paulette Callender said.

Custom spice blends, which go for a hefty $4.89 an ounce, are augmented by other flavors such as shallots, citrus zests and hot peppers that are dehydrated, then ground. Big sellers are Vik's Garlic Fix, Pirates Bite and a Bloody Mary Mix.

It's all the creation of Clay Freeman, a former travel executive from Tarpon Springs who used to kill down time on the road at spice markets worldwide.

He and a group of investors opened their first spice store in St. Augustine's historic district in 2003, then spread to other tourist gathering spots like the Sponge Docks in Tarpon and John's Pass Village in Madeira Beach.

Now they are trying high end malls and retail districts in Boca Raton, Sarasota's St. Armands Key and, soon, Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

Spice stores are a logical follow-up to hot sauce stores that flourished in the 1990s. They're another retail venture tied to the influence of cable TV chefs and the rise in hobbyists cooking at home. A rival is Penzeys Spices, a Wisconsin chain with three Florida stores.

So far, the average Spice & Tea Exchange customer drops $20 a visit and franchised stores generate $300,000 to $600,000 a year in sales. That could be tight when paying top mall rent, but the company hopes the higher foot traffic can push sales closer to $1 million.

Toys "R" everywhere

Surprised by their success last Christmas putting 90 "popup" stores in major malls, Toys "R" Us is renting temporary space for 600 of its smaller Express stores this time.

That's enough for the big box toy store chain to put an outpost in every major mall in the country for the holiday season.

Locally, the six full-size Toys "R" Us stores are being augmented by Express stores in International Plaza, WestShore Plaza and the Shops at Wiregrass.

Holiday cheer

Guarded optimism about a modest uptick in holiday sales this year may mean more seasonal hiring.

This year, 22 percent of big retailers plan to hire 5 percent or more seasonal help than last year, according to a survey by the Hay Group, a Philadelphia strategic planning consultant. And only 17 percent plan to reduce staffing, far below the 40 percent who cut seasonal payroll in 2009. Also, 13 percent this time put off the staffing decision until closer to the season.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Spice & Tea Exchange blends risk and reward with move into high end malls 09/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 13, 2010 9:27pm]

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