The world map on the wall in Hank Kaestner's office is riddled with little red pins -- the footprints of a spice buyer. From the volcanic hillsides of Indonesia, where cinnamon grows, to the clove forests of Zanzibar and the pepper plantations of Brazil, Kaestner has trotted across the globe for one of the world's largest spice merchants, McCormick & Co. of suburban Baltimore.
Kaestner's is a demanding job that puts him in touch with back-country peasants, foreign exporters and their agents, global steamship lines, New York spice dealers, food-science technicians and corporate executives. It is not a job for just anyone.
"Traveling sounds like a lot of fun, but it's not always," says Kaestner. "On the last trip to Sulawesi an island east of Borneo , we were eating fruit bat for dinner and the original chili dog -- dog meat marinated with chili peppers."
Endowed with an iron stomach and knowledge of a half-dozen languages, the 39-year-old Kaestner has been traveling for McCormick for 15 years. His goal: to get information that will enable the company to buy spices for the best price.
Kaestner is a mover and shaker in the Baltimore spice trade, a business that recalls a storied past when peppercorns and cinnamon quills traveled in tiny ships borne on monsoon winds. But while McCormick may be the more generally recognizable name, it is Baltimore Spice Co. -- and the spices it imports at the city's harbor -- that makes Baltimore the second-largest East Coast spice port behind New York, which is where McCormick says it imports most of its products.
Baltimore Spice is distinguished from McCormick by its industrial business: With the exception of its well-known Old Bay Seasoning, it sells spices only in large, industrial-size quantities. Baltimore Spice also is a "seasoning house," which means it invents spice blends for food manufacturers. The fact that the company guardedly stores about 20,000 secret spice recipes developed for particular food companies in a computer is only one indication of how the spice trade has changed.
Where Magellan once used the stars to find a westerly route to the Spice Islands, Kaestner might use AT&T long lines to purchase cinnamon from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. And the uses for spices have shifted from the home kitchen to mass production as an industrialized society consumes more processed foods and meals away from home.
Kaestner must keep track of political developments such as civil uprisings or changes in tariffs that may staunch the flow of a commodity. He charts climatic changes and seasonal shifts in demand that can affect the price or availability of the 40 or so spices he purchases.
"We have to know the cigarette industry in Indonesia in order to know the price and availability of cloves in the U.S. market," he says.
The reasoning behind the cigarette-clove connection illustrates the new complexity of the spice business. More than three-quarters of the world's cloves go into Indonesian cigarettes, which are 20 percent cloves and 80 percent tobacco. In the past few years, Indonesian clove producers, trying to undersell their clove-growing competitors in Madagascar and Zanzibar, boosted domestic production, Kaestner says. The result was a glut of cloves and a big drop in world prices. This year the Indonesian crop is down, however, and prices are rising.
"That's the sort of thing we have to keep track of," Kaestner says.
The company for which Kaestner travels the globe has since its creation undergone a transformation not unlike that of the spice business itself. Since its founding by Willoughby McCormick in 1898, the spice-making company has grown into a food-processing and real estate conglomerate that ranked 365th on Fortune magazine's list of the top 500 U.S. companies in 1983. Its earnings for the first half of 1984 totaled $34.1 million ($2.72 per share), which included $22.2 million from sales by its real estate subsidiary. That compares to $9.9 million (80 cents per share) in earnings in the first half of 1983. And McCormick was recently listed in a book that profiled the best companies to work for in the United States
Baltimore Spice, founded in 1939 by German immigrant Gustav Brunn, has grown up, too, to industrial proportions. The private company is run by son Ralph Brunn. It has several factories around the country and more than 50 warehouses.
For the spice buyer, purchasing and gathering information are make up a juggling game in which timing is all-important. "Normally we don't physically buy the goods and have them shipped as we come back from a trip," Kaestner says. " . . . Exporters think if the McCormick buyer is coming . . . we must be wanting to buy something. So they jack up the prices while I am there . . . after we get back the prices drop off because the McCormick buyer left without buying." Then he buys.
Historically, middlemen dealers gathered information from source countries and used it to speculate in spices, buying and selling to big spice users like McCormick and Baltimore Spice. The big companies -- called grinders because they grind the raw material -- could not get reliable information themselves, needed the raw goods and so were dependent on the dealers.
In today's changed era, however, the big grinders send their own spice buyers, like Kaestner, around the world to collect information. They maintain direct contact with exporters -- by telephone.
"In the olden days, the importers and dealers essentially loved to take advantage of the grinder customers whenever they could," said Peter Furth, a New York dealer with the importing firm of Louis Furth Inc. "If they knew McCormick was going to be in the market for pepper, celery seed or cassia, it would be amazing how the market could go up four, five, six cents."
Once a deal has been struck with a buyer, the exporter contracts with a steamship line to ship the spices to New York and Baltimore. The shipment may go to Jakarta, Singapore, Hong Kong or Toyko, then to be placed in truck-sized containers for direct shipment through the Panama Canal to New York, Baltimore or, if the buyer is on the West Coast, to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
After inspections by U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration, the spices are trucked to the grinder, where they are fumigated before unloading to prevent any kind of infestation from entering the plant.
Finally, the spice is cleaned, ground and packed into large containers for industrial users or small tins for the retail market. Once sold, the particular spice completes its journey from foreign source to stomach, leaving its mark on an American market said by industry sources to be worth $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year.
In the last 10 years, the use of spices in the manufactured foods sector has outstripped their use in the traditional kitchen. This is true, for instance, of cinnamon, which may be mixed into all kinds of processed baking goods, soda pops, sauces and pickling mixes. And it is true of dozens of other spices that figure prominently into processed foods.
In another example, more mustard goes into a ballpark hot dog before it is made than afterwards, no matter how lustily the baseball fan swabs on the French's. That is because ground mustard seed -- when mixed with the emulsified meats that make up a hot dog -- adds flavor, acts as an emuslifying agent and makes it easier for a machine to remove the cellulose "skin" that is used in the manufacturing process, according to Ralph Brunn of Baltimore Spice.
Spices once used in relatively small quantities by ethnic groups cooking at home now are transforming the industrial and fast-food markets. Italian- and Mexican-style foods sold in restaurant chains and in supermarkets have brought a surge in demand for spices like oregano, basil, chilis and cumin seed. Pizza Hut, the world's largest pizza chain, says it used 1 million pounds of spices last year in its restaurants.
Sesame seed, whose use as a source of cooking oil declined sharply in postwar America, has boomed since McDonalds started putting sesame seeds on its hamburger buns. "If McDonalds took sesame seed off its quarter-pounder," said Tom Burns, executive vice president of the American Spice Trade Association, "the sesame market would go to hell."
Whether in liquid or powder form, there is more to using spices than just pouring them in -- as any cook knows. In the manufactured food business, someone must create the right blend of spices for mass application.
Not only does a taco sauce have to taste distinctive, it must maintain its taste batch after batch. A separate industry concerns itself with this problem, and Baltimore Spice is a big player in that market.
"They want to be able to give their customer one thing in Topeka and the exact same thing in Biloxi, Miss.," said Doug Wurtzel, a spokesman for Griffith Laboratories of Alsip, Ill., a major seasoning house that helped McDonalds concoct its recipe for Chicken McNuggets sauces.
Ralph Brunn describes how a meat processor looking for a new spice blend to make his lunchmeat different from his competitor's might visit Baltimore Spice's "sausage kitchen," where miniature meat blenders and choppers allow the company to experiment with taste on a small scale.
In spite of its modern-day transformation, the spice business retains a certain romanticism for its players. For traders like Kaestner, spices are more than a job; they're an avocation as well.
For instance, Kaestner often travels for pleasure to the sites described in old spice lore. In the state of Veracruz, Mexico, he has examined the ceremonial grounds of the Totonaca Indians, who harvested vanilla and traded it to the Aztecs, who in turn introduced the spice to Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conquistador credited with bringing vanilla to Europe.
Spice trading, Kaestner likes to say, is "the second-oldest profession."