Note by the author:
This interview with Claire Cheney from Curio Spice Co. will be the first
in a series of a spotlight on woman owned & operated businesses.
Curio Spice Co. is a tiny spice shop owned by Claire Cheney on Mass Ave in Cambridge. Just down the road from Davis & Porter Squares, it has a sanctuary-esque feeling. An avid traveler and collector of curiosities, Cheney has a way of blending both spices and ambiance. Old fashioned looking instruments, animal skulls, and a copy of the Drunken Botanist frame her spice blend and salt offerings. Curated to be an aromatic experience, each shelf has a row of clear jars so you can see and smell the spices. It’s one thing to talk the talk of being a small sustainable business but she really does walk the walk – 99% of the spices on her shelves are fair trade, organic, and/or from small sustainable farms.
Cheney grew up in Massachusetts and spent an impressionable part of her childhood in a shipbuilding town on the coast of Maine. She credits her first solo-abroad trip to Ghana as one event that spurred her interest in botany. She says, “People don’t have access to western style doctors, so there’s a lot of tribal medicine and using the plants in their environment, and I was curious about that.”
Curiouser and curiouser….
She went on to study at Oberlin, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, where she majored in creative writing and environmental studies. As far as her studies contribution to her business acumen, Cheney attributes more the critical thinking and creative skills she acquired at school with bringing her success than her actual degree. She jokes, “I sometimes will mix it up and say I was a creative studies major, cause it sometimes felt like that. Very, very interdisciplinary.”
At Oberlin, she worked as the Local Foods Coordinator at an 800-person food and living co-op. That meant she traveled to Amish farms in Ohio to source vegetables and eggs direct from the farms. Being a woman, the farmers would not make eye contact when she spoke to them, and would only speak to the male she was working with. Also impactful was her senior thesis on wild foods, which started as a project on the wild blueberry industry in Maine, but expanded wildly. She talks about interviewing Alice Waters as part of her project, who is a proponent of the slow food movement, food activist, and all around badass; as I would talk about meeting Beyonce (but with less hyperventilating). She credits her project as being very beneficial to defining her passion for local, organic, and sustainable food practices. You can tell she’s brought her interests full circle: she informs me of her newest spice blend offering named Herbes de Romance contains wild oregano from her folk’s farm up in Maine.
Cheney’s current business model is fashioned around becoming a certified B Corp, short for benefit corporation. A benefit corporation has a mission statement that goes beyond just profit. Other businesses that have achieved B Corp status include Kickstarter, and Cheney’s friends at the company Susty Party, who sell compostable party supplies. To be certified, you need to create a set of achievable goals to fulfill your mission, which vary depending on the business. Curio Spice Co.’s mission is rooted in environmental responsibility and gender equality.
Cheney points out, “it’s a little bit tricky for consumers, because there’s so much language on packaging. Whether it’s organic, now it’s non-GMO, there’s fair trade, then there’s words like sustainable and natural.” As more and more people are becoming aware, “natural” is often used to make a packaged food seem less processed – that doesn’t mean it’s true. While for-profit corporations only have a responsibility to how they can achieve financial success, B Corps also consider environmental and social factors.
If you look closely at the label, you can see the silhouette of a bear. That, according to Cheney, is because bears are super sniffers. After a little bit of my own research, I discovered bears have a sense of smell seven times greater than that of a bloodhound. That, together with Cheney’s affinity for perfumes gives an inkling as to how much sourcing spices direct has to with picking up scents. “It’s a similar process to spice blending, using your nose and finding cool combinations. I’ve studied some natural perfume and it’s helped develop my sensory abilities.”
Cheney has put those sensory abilities she’s gained to work; she seems to always be going on spice hunting trips, her latest of which being a vanilla quest in Madagascar which you can read about in her new blog post. Her social media accounts certainly capture her passion for spices and are a wonderful way to feel like you’re on an adventure right alongside her. As she says, “I think it makes people enjoy the food more when you have the story behind it.”
As for her spice blends, they are very exact, “down to the gram,” Cheney assures me. Her scales also have to be certified by the city because of weights and measures regulations. When I was considering Curio, and wondering about, of all the things I could ask Cheney, about her cool products and amazing travels, the phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts” by Aristotle came briefly to mind. When I asked Cheney if she agreed with that assessment, she said, “That’s what’s cool about blending – and you could say the same about cooking. When you combine certain things and it creates a balance, it transcends all the individual ingredients.”
Some of Claire Cheney’s favorite flavor combinations:
Southeast Asian: lemongrass, makrut lime, and long pepper
Greek & Mediterranean: Oregano, saffron, lemon, and thyme
Find Curio Spices at American Provisions in the spice section.
All photos and article by Hillary Anderson.