What a dull food world we would live in if not for herbs and spices. Seasonings make food interesting, tasty, palatable, appetizing, hot, savory, sweet or sour. Erma Bombeck said: “Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I’m taking with me when I go.”
While Susan Thompson didn’t grow up with spiced food ~ “my mother still doesn’t cook with spices” ~ she developed her own cooking style – with spices – after marrying Bobby Thompson in 1994. “We both like to cook, and we each have an interest in spices,” she states. So, it’s not a huge leap that a well-organized, stay-at-home mom with personality and a knack for entrepreneurship is in the spice business.
“I wasn’t looking for a business. It found us,” she recalls. “About six years ago, Amy Gunnels, founder of Monticello Tea & Spice, then in Blacksburg, was preparing to sell her business, and she suggested that I would be the perfect person to buy it.” Knowing it was a home-based business, and she could take along her young daughter – not yet in school – on deliveries was enticing. Susan and Bobby got some small business advice from the Radford University Small Business Development Center and studied the numbers for the long-term. Susan shadowed Amy for about three months, while preparing a dedicated space in their Giles County home. In September of 2007, Monticello Tea & Spice made the move, and Susan was in business.
Like most small business owners, she does everything from take orders and fill them to delivery and billing, with help from extended family and a few others. She spends a lot of time each week on the phone calling customers, asking what they need, when, what size package and so on. And there’s an occasional weekend delivery for something which unexpectedly runs out or inadvertently did not get ordered in time.
Bobby helps often with getting orders prepared and loaded into her Honda Pilot. They looked at vans and a variety of delivery trucks and stayed with the Pilot. “The seats fold down, and it’s four-wheel drive, which we need sometimes in rural areas,” says Bobby. “Some days, we get it so loaded, there’s just barely room for Susan in the driver’s seat.” The Thompson kids help occasionally. At 14, her son, Logan, is a bit too busy with teenage interests. Afton, 10, already enjoys it. “When they need a summer job, perhaps they can work right here,” Susan says with a sense of satisfaction.
In addition to spices, Monticello Tea & Spice carries dried fruits, tea and a variety of nuts. “We get the spices from a New York importer; pecans from a small business in Georgia; tea from Stash Tea in Oregon and fruits and nuts from a couple companies on the East Coast. As a small business, I do my best to patronize other small businesses.”
The company only wholesales and supplies products to more than 40 regional restaurants, all of which Susan delivers personally, some bi-weekly, others monthly or less frequent. Her customer base goes as far as Lynchburg, with Roanoke restaurants as well as many in the New River Valley. Preston’s, the Palisades, Kabuki, Macado’s, Zeppoli’s, The Bank Food & Drink, Lucie Monroe’s, The Cellar, Mikey’s 7th, Wikiteria and several more purchase seasonings, tea, dried fruits and nuts from Monticello Tea & Spice.
Bobby and Susan have created almost every blend they carry, including Cajun, BBQ, blackened, Italian, taco and more, with natural ingredients. “Having Celiac disease, I am especially conscious of nutrition and additives. Everything we carry is natural and the blends have no fillers, nothing artificial,” Susan relates. “All the extracts are pure, and all the spices are fresh.” Every order is filled at the time it is taken, not before. “We pride ourselves at Monticello Tea & Spice on having the freshest and best spices restaurants can buy.”
Since the business had name recognition among its customers, Susan did not consider changing it. “Besides, Monticello means ‘little mountain,’ and we live in the little mountains of Giles County, so it fits,” she explains. They follow all the U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements for storage and handling, and they measure and weigh everything to the tenth of an ounce.
“I love it,” Susan smiles. “I love the people, the business, the spices, all the products. It’s perfect for me, just like Amy thought it would be.”
By Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Laura’s Focus Photography