We met Susan Thompson through Joanne Gellar, a spin instructor – and our Airbnb host – in Blacksburg, Va. After tasting an amazing cinnamon cake prepared by Joanne, we knew we had to talk to the woman behind the spices. Meet Susan Thompson.
It’s been eight years since Susan Thompson started mixing spices. As she tells it, the business came to her. A friend was moving away to California and needed to sell the business. “Susan, this is you,” her husband, Bobby, had said. She loved people, she loved challenges, and her daughter could ride in her carseat for deliveries.
As clear cut as that sounds, it’s hard to deny kismet: Susan was diagnosed with celiac disease just weeks after buying Monticello Tea & Spice Company.
Celiac disease was a welcome diagnosis. It explained her fatigue and so many other symptoms. By changing her diet to remove wheat, rye or barley, symptoms would subside. When she noticed her brother’s weight and the shallow look in his face, she pushed him to find out if he had it too. Now both of them see a doctor who himself has celiac.
Life with celiac goes well beyond the hipster trend of casually “going gluten free” – it requires extreme attention to what you eat and how your food is prepared. At home, Susan needs cooking utensils that are only for her. Outside her house, she has to be vigilant about lurking gluten.
“I started looking at the back of boxes, and it’s everywhere,” said Susan. “And it’s a shame because it doesn’t always need to be. It’s just filler, or sometimes a thickener.”
The exasperation doesn’t stop at the grocery store. Susan went to a chain restaurant in Roanoke with her daughter and chose a blackened chicken salad off the menu, but when she asked her server to make sure there wasn’t any gluten in the seasoning, there it was – wheat. Just one of the million different names gluten hides behind, which includes everything from malt and wheat to caramel color, dextrin or hydrolyzed vegetable protein. It’s a long list, and cosmetics, lotions, even envelope glues, may contain gluten.
Another hidden source of gluten? Spices.
But as far as Susan is concerned, wheat has no business in spices. Susan’s hand-mixed approach has its advantages because purity equals potency. In fact, restaurants that buy her spices only use half as much for the same punch of flavor.
“We are for people like myself who don’t want additives,” said Susan. “It is the product it says it is. If it says pepper, thyme or oregano, that’s what’s in there. I tell my restaurants that anyone with gluten allergies will be safe with my spices.”
As much as the product speaks for itself, Susan’s business has grown because of her own authenticity. She personally delivers to restaurants, where she is known as the spice girl.
Susan’s collaborator, Pat Clemens, has seen the impact first-hand. “When you have a bad day at a restaurant, you want to see the spice girl,” said Pat. “Monticello Spice is more than wonderful product, it’s a wonderful person. They love seeing her.”
Susan has grown the business quite a bit since buying it in 2008, acquiring new customers across the New River Valley and Roanoke areas of Virginia. In addition to Pat’s support, Mary Jane Thompson joined the team for bookkeeping and delivery support. The business could ship product, but Susan’s business is about personal relationships first and foremost – a value she wants to maintain as her business grows.
“We are wholesale, not retail – not yet. We have thought about it, but I have two teens. I love my personal touch with my business, and I want to enjoy my kids while they are still home.”
In the meantime, you’ll find Susan mixing spices. She just opened up a bigger storage area to keep up with demand and accommodate a wall of quart containers of custom spice blends.
“It’s funny to me because my mother used salt and pepper – nothing else,” said Susan. “It’s been fun to learn new things and try them out. After my diagnosis, I had to try a lot of new recipes, and of course I’m using these spices at home.”
Susan has her own burger, Italian, Montreal and Cajun blends ready to go out for delivery to restaurants across the region. She will make a special order for her restaurant clients, but it has to be up to Susan’s standards.
The newest blend at Monticello Tea & Spice Co. is pumpkin spice. A friend called her up after sampling it. The verdict is that it’s a revelation. So fresh because it doesn’t sit on a shelf. No additives, no dyes. What the spice girl says is in there, is in there, and that’s it.