By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent
The second week of March, most of Laguna fell silent. In the block of Coast Highway between Oak and Brooks streets, all business ceased, with one lone exception. Spice Merchants, because of its classification as a specialty grocer, opened its doors every business day during the lockdown. Owner Paul Greer showed up to ply his trade, selling 101 different teas, scores of spices and spice blends, olive oils, vinegars, jams, popcorn, tahini, and chocolate.
“It was quiet. Very quiet,” he understated.
Greer boosted his Instagram presence and sent more emails to customers. He followed all retail COVID-19 procedures, instituting curbside and sidewalk pickup for purchases. He shipped and delivered purchases to customers’ doors. This subtle grit allowed Spice Merchants to maintain a small but steady flow of business as the pandemic grinds on.
“In the early part of the pandemic, people were purchasing wellness teas,” he said, “especially elderberry items, which are good for the immune system. People were making syrups and tinctures, concentrated solutions you take by the drop.”
A devotee of natural remedies for a healthy constitution, Greer blends a golden milk mixture of turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and cardamom for his daily morning smoothie.
He opened the store on Ocean Avenue in 2013, moving to the more prominent location next door to the Sandpiper bar in May 2016. He has drawn a mix of local customers and visitors from nearby hotels.
Spice Merchants carries 50 organic, non-GMO spice blends, including meat rubs “that can be used on anything you want, like rice and vegetables, to add flavor.” He makes 25 of the blends himself and will concoct a custom blend upon request. Even with such bespoke flavor-making services, prices are affordable.
“I curate my inventory as a store I would want to shop in, where I feel the pricing is fair and the quality is high. Offering organic goods is important to me,” Greer stated. When he first opened, 15 percent of his products were organically sourced. Today, nearly all of the items on his shelves are organic.
“I felt that my customers wanted that, that it’s important to them,” he said. When looking for an olive oil vendor, Greer’s research revealed that quality and sourcing varies wildly. Low-cost versions often combine oils from various countries, and labels might not tell you much. As his source, he settled on a farm in Mendocino County that labels its extra-virgin olive oil with his store name.
“I read their story and got testers. Their oils are tested regularly for quality and their groves are pesticide-free. It’s single-source, unfiltered, first-press oil,” he said.
Many customers know Greer from the Saturday morning farmer’s market. The market shut down for several weeks and reopened in April with half the vendors on rotation. He was relieved when the market reopened in full swing a month ago.
Some customers were surprised to hear his retail store had been open the entire lockdown period.
“It’s just a matter of just being here and open,” he said.
Barbara is a Laguna Beach resident of 29 years. Her website is mcmurraymarketing.com.