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Dynamic duos: Mike and Janet Johnston

Their love of food blossomed into a spicy empire


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(Editor's note: This is one of ColoradoBiz's “dynamic duos” of Colorado business, who reflect on their working relationships, what brought them together and where they’re going.)

Mike and Janet Johnston

Savory Spice Shop

In 2004, husband-wife duo Mike and Janet Johnston took their love of food and built a brick-and-mortar retail space to spice it up. Opening their Platte Street Savory Spice Shop in 2004 with great resolve, they offered a wide variety of blends, ground fresh in weekly batches.

Their efforts were well-received and they moved forward, crafting close to 200 seasoning blends, growing to seven Colorado stores, 32 locations in all, and more than 100 employees, including Mike’s parents. This year, they’re expanding their focus to include e-commerce, baking and BBQ and talking about plan-making for the future.

Before there were spices

Janet: I worked at a consulting firm in new media marketing in Chicago in my early 20s.

Mike: I was a fine artist, a painter. It was more miss than hit.

The meeting

Janet: The old-fashioned way. In a bar. He was the bad boy. But of course, I was totally attracted.

The start of spices

Mike: She told me to get a job or get out. We lived in Chicago. I got a job for $8 an hour as a spice grinder and I liked it. It was creative and manual labor.

And then?

Mike: I worked for the spice company for about three years, and realized we could do this on our own. I asked Janet to marry me, start a business and move to Colorado all in one breath.

Janet: That’s so him – all or nothing.

Building a business

Mike: It didn’t officially open until September 2004.

Janet: We wanted to process all of our spices ourselves and we needed storage. We knew we wanted it to be really hands-on. We were building a brand.

Joining forces

Janet: Two years into opening Savory Spice Shop we opened in Littleton in 2006 and we figured out Denver could support us. I had been working remotely for the consulting firm and it was time to cut the cord.

Divide and conquer

Mike: I did the creative stuff. Recipe development. I researched the process. Grinds and blends.
Janet: In the beginning, our roles were defined for us based on our skill sets. I built the website, managed the e-commerce, created our labels.

Smooth sailing

Janet: We’re lucky we’re not divorced. We were lucky to be so busy.

Mike: It was spices 24-7. It’s much easier to get along when the business you started together is successful.

Evolving market

Mike: People want to know where their food comes from. They like the idea of knowing the freshness of their products.

Biggest surprises along the way

Janet: We had a six-episode Food Network show called “Spice and Easy.” They were literally in our home. [But]we knew it was not the direction we wanted to go. It isn’t my bag and it was not healthy for our relationship.

Advice for business

Janet: The biggest thing – DIY as much as you can. Give whatever you can to achieve a quality product and really good customer service.

Advice for partnership

Janet: You’ve got to put yourself before the business. Be able to celebrate each other. The hardest thing about working with my spouse is taking the emotion of out business.

Looking forward

Janet: We don’t have kids. We’re not going to hand this business down and I don’t see Savory lasting forever under our guidance. When we started franchising, we did it because we wanted to give other people the same opportunity we have, to sell something we truly believe in.
Mike: We have to make a plan. We’re not trying to scare anybody about an exit. We went from being entrepreneurs to business people. Whether you’re going to sell or not, you need to have an exit strategy. I think when you build a business, you’re trying to build a life.

When you’re not working

Janet: We’d like to have more travel. We have been able to do some. We went to France for sea salts and Jamaica for allspice. We went to Grenada recently for nutmeg.

Him

Janet: He doesn’t stop. People call him the machine. And he’s so talented with food.

Her

Mike: She’s just a workhorse. She’s nostalgic and loyal and has a hard time letting go. She’s a really good businessperson who doesn’t give herself enough credit. She’s very smart and I lean on her for a lot of different things.

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Gigi Sukin

Gigi Sukin is digital editor at ColoradoBiz. She can be reached at gsukin@cobizmag.com.

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