Penzeys Opens in Rockville

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Which type of cinnamon do you prefer: mild Ceylonese, medium-strength Chinese or robust Vietnamese? For more than 200 herbs, spices, extracts and seasoning blends there is Penzeys, a Wisconsin-based spice retailer with a successful catalogue division and a near-cult following. And now that the company has opened a Washington area retail store (1048 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-738-8707), customers here can sniff before they buy.

"That's what spices are all about," says company spokeswoman Carmen Proulx. "We call it smell-o-vision."

It was Bill and Ruth Penzey who began selling spices, coffee and tea in Milwaukee in 1957. But it was their son Bill Jr. who set up his own mail-order spice business in 1988 in Oak Creek, Wis., and later opened retail stores. The Rockville store, which opened a few weeks ago, is the company's 33rd, its location chosen by a vote of its mail-order customers. A Penzeys in downtown Falls Church is slated to open by early July.

The company's biggest sellers are the spice blends. We've tried Galena Street (paprika, nutmeg, sage and cayenne pepper), which is excellent on pork tenderloin; Barbecue of the Americas (allspice, thyme, ginger and cinnamon), great on ribs; and Chicago Steak Seasoning (black pepper, lemon zest and hickory smoke), full of zing.

To keep the stock fresh, the herbs and spices are rotated every three weeks, according to Proulx. And there are times, she says, when some of the blends are out of stock.

"All you need is someone on a cooking show to say, 'You have to try their Zatar,' " says Proulx, referring to a Middle Eastern blend of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds and salt. "And the next thing you know, you're wiped out."

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