Spice of life: New space, possibilities for Cape Fear Spice Merchants
After nearly 10 years in business at 20 Market St., owner Gary Coleman was able to expand Cape Fear Spice Merchants into an adjacent storefront at 6 S. Front St. (Photo by Logan Burke)
Back in 2014, Gary Coleman was 44 years old and had just retired from his job as a regional food specialist. His job took him all over the country, where he’d train state and county food inspectors, giving them food sanitation courses and training on the food code.
Coleman calls Wilmington home, but throughout his travels as a regional food specialist, he noticed it lacked one thing – a place to buy specialty teas and spices.
When retirement came, Coleman knew he wasn’t ready to fully retire quite yet and wanted to pursue a second act and career. So, he opted to open and facilitate his own tea and spice shop, operating under the name Cape Fear Spice Merchants.
“Basically, with leaving the government and still (being) fairly young, I didn’t really want to go into a full retirement at 44,” Coleman said. “With all of the traveling around, what Wilmington didn’t have was a tea and spice shop.”
Today, his quaint shop on Market Street in downtown Wilmington boasts a variety of fresh and vibrant tea blends; hard-to-find spices, including about 120 in-house blends; and an assortment of olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Coleman’s shop also features a line of sauces, including hot sauce, jam, jelly and pickles. Patrons can also buy prepared tea by the cup, which they can sip as they shop or grab to go.
When he was making the blueprint for his shop nearly 10 years ago, Coleman knew he wanted to “provide the best selection of teas and spices and have the freshest products available on the market.”
“We didn’t really have that here in Wilmington beforehand, and then I also discovered a love for California olive oils and vinegars and so we incorporated that into the store,” Coleman said.
Earlier in 2023, Cape Fear Spice Merchants made big moves when it grew into a second adjoining space on South Front Street where Finkelstein’s once resided. Its original location on 20 Market St. continues to operate as it normally has, and the 6 S. Front St. location operates as an extension of its Market Street location.
An interior hallway connects the two spaces, which each offer its own inventory. The new footprint sells flavored oil and vinegar, pasta and kitchen utensils, while his original space is stocked with teas and spice blends. South Front Street also has a display kitchen, where staff can demonstrate inventory to customers.
“What’s next with the store is to be able to expand what we’re doing,” Coleman said. “We were able to open up our olive oils to be able to carry more variety and different flavors we haven’t had in the past, and to be able to experiment with what people like as far as going off the traditional flavored olive oils like lemon and the lime and things like that.”
Coleman has even been able to venture into new items infused with bourbon and smoky tomato flavors now that he has more retail space, along with an expanded line of teas, bitters and cocktail mixes.
Coleman hopes the store’s new amenities can help customers adopt a healthier lifestyle without sacrificing the rich flavors of foods and drinks they love. One commonly cited culprit for change among Coleman’s customers is alcohol. “We have teas and the different mixers that we can mix up and help advise people to give them recipes on how to take a tea and make it into a mocktail,” he said.
As for his secret for cooking healthy meals at home, the answer is simple, “The model has been you can flavor your food with spices rather than fats.”
One of the shop’s bestsellers can also help in that department: The bacon-flavored olive oil is just as it sounds, with all the flavor of cured pork without the meat.
“You’re getting the taste of having something cooked in bacon without having the cholesterol involved,” Coleman said.
As for its other bestselling products, Cape Fear Spice Merchants is most known for its teas and spices, particularly the Cape Fear Steak Rub, built from a Worcestershire base with a bit of salt, paprika and different spices. Another popular blend is its Tuscan blend, which features salt and different spices you’d find in the Tuscany region of Italy. When it comes to teas, the most popular choice is Moonlight Earl Grey, a riff on the traditional Earl Grey that comes off smooth and slightly creamy without having to add cream.
A big focus for Coleman and his team is the small exhibition kitchen in the new space, suitable for visiting chefs or product demonstrations from the Cape Fear Spice Merchants team. So far, the space has featured demonstrations of how to use the shop’s inventory to make easy soups and mocktails, and Coleman also plans to invite a few local chefs who have expressed interest to the exhibition kitchen.
“That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing with the new space,” he said. “Just really being able to feature some products that have been hidden away. We were in a really cramped situation because we’d grown so much, and so this basically just gives us a way to properly display things we have and let people know what we have.”