Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Seasonal Business: Calicutts brings craft spice blends to Harrisburg

The clean lines, bright whites and warm wood decor of Calicutts Spice Co.’s Lemoyne shop provide the perfect backdrop for the colorful wares: the bright yellow of a curry, a shockingly red paprika and a gentle green Israeli thyme and sumac blend.

Each has been sourced then hand toasted, ground and packed into neat jars by proprietor Robert Orth. Orth’s journey to spice connoisseur began in 2011, while he was pursuing his Ph.D. in a totally unrelated field.

“I was really into smoking meats, and a big part of that is the spice rubs you use,” Orth, 30, said. “I’d gotten really into it, and then coming off the first semester of my Ph.D. program, I had a full month with nothing to do. That’s when I started making my own spice blends at home and began to think it could turn into a business.”

Orth quickly grew dissatisfied with the ground spices he found commercially available and looked into sourcing his own, unground, spices directly from the people growing them.

“You go to a grocery store, and some of these spices are like $12 or $14,” Orth said. “You could easily spend close to $100 to make your own blend, and then everything is bland. You don’t know when it was made or where it came from. At the end of the day, I didn’t have anything I considered quality, so I started getting whole spices.”

Screenshot 2016-10-31 10.41.58

Better, Fresher

Orth, the consummate academic (he also works as a research professor at a nearby university), uses tangible evidence to prove his points, pouring large, green cardamom pods from a jar onto a table in the shop’s back room.  

“This is how we get it from our farmer in India; the outer green hull has no flavor,” Orth explained. “Most of the commercial cardamom crop is grown in Guatemala and sprayed with tons of pesticides. When it’s harvested, the major producers will just toss the whole thing in the grinder. So, when you buy cardamom in the grocery store, you’re getting mostly hull.”

At Calicutts, things are done much differently. Orth takes the time to remove each seed from the pod, grinding fresh cardamom with a scent and flavor profile that is vastly different from what one expects of the common spice. That’s the way everything is done here—by hand, in small batches, and, Orth hopes, better than anywhere else.

“Our goal for existing is to take something that people have known and do a better job of making it better, fresher and more flavorful,” he said.

Even the name of his business—which began on in 2012 before expanding to the storefront in the summer of 2015—is an homage to a time and place when, Orth says, the business of spice was a simpler thing.

“We say we’re an artisan-crafted spice company because we want to take it back to the days of Calicut, India,” he said. “In the 15th century, it was nicknamed ‘the birthplace of spices.’ It was the major trading port that moved spices from the eastern world to the west, and everyone was coming to that city because of it. I wanted to be like that again, where people are coming because we’re doing it right.”

Orth aims to do right by his customers—the visitors to the shop and the many local restaurants and vendors who use his products—and by the farmers around the world who grow them. Though most modern spice trade happens through a supply chain of brokers, importers, wholesalers and distributors, Orth makes an effort to cut out the middleman, lowering own prices and benefitting both his customers and suppliers.

“Most of the time, we’re able to work directly with the farmers,” he said. “That’s completely abnormal in the industry, but it means we can say, ‘OK, we want 20 pounds of coriander,’ and, when they send it to us, we have a single-origin spice. We know about the growing methods and standards, and we can pay that farmer a fair wage.”

Done Right

Orth says much of his business is education, and he is certainly eager to educate, sharing historical anecdotes and little-known spice facts (for instance, New York exists because of nutmeg, and you’ve probably never had real cinnamon). A visit to his shop can easily last more than an hour and can be an almost overwhelming sensory experience. This, despite shelves that seem under-stocked, which is entirely intentional.

“Everything in the shop is made within a week to two weeks,” he said. “We wait until something is sold out, and then we grind more. We’re doing three to six jars at a time for ground spices and 12 to 24 jars for blends, so when we say, ‘small batch,’ we mean it.”

Those blends are what started Calicutts, and they remain Orth’s bestsellers. It’s easy to see why. There’s something for everyone, from the rotund Cardamom Coffee blend, which features Little Amps Coffee Roasters’ Yirgacheffe, to the super-popular and versatile Chipotle Honey. Orth likes to mix it up, too, with seasonal offerings like Autumn Harvest, a rich blend of cinnamons, nutmeg, cloves and direct-from-Vermont maple flakes.

Orth keeps his price points low—most jars start around $8—but customers may find they actually get more mileage out of his sustainably sourced, hand-ground spices than from pricier grocery story offerings.

“Because everything is so fresh, it’s potent,” Orth said. “We tell people they can cut back on what they’d normally use. Sometimes, you can halve the amount of a spice called for in a recipe. It’s superior quality, it’s affordable and it’s done right.”

Calicutts Spice Co. is located at 226 S. 3rd St., Lemoyne. For more information, visit

Author: Kate Morgan

Continue Reading