Spice & Tea Exchange:No Time to Retire
Open the door and walk into the Spice & Tea Exchange on Haywood Street downtown Asheville. First the delicious fragrances will stop you: sweet, spicy, savory, all mouth-watering.
Then the rich colors entice you further into the space where Jill and Bob Long have created a shop stocked with 80 culinary blends; herbal, green and black loose-leaf teas; flavored salts and sugars; even a whole pepper and paprika wall, including both Spanish and Hungarian varieties.
And they’ve done this at an age when most people are slowing down, beginning to consider their retirement plans. A few years back, the couple, who are avid motorcyclists, were in Daytona for bike week. They journeyed the short distance to St. Augustine and, as Bob tells it, “happened upon a spice shop.
It was one of those things where I looked around and thought, this would work in Asheville.” The owner offered them a brochure, telling them the company was beginning to franchise. Bob, who was getting a bit burned out on his day job as an engineer in Nuclear Medicine, sent them an email and received the response that they were very interested in getting into western North Carolina.
Jill interjects with a laugh that “this was in 2009; friends looked hard at us and asked, ‘what are you doing, opening a shop in the middle of a recession?’” But the timing was right and there was availability downtown or in Biltmore Village. Haywood Street was an upscale location and the former Ariel Gallery space was empty.
“We really liked this space; a friend whose accountant has an office in the upper level had heard that in summer the sidewalks were jammed with tourists. The space was too big for us, but the landlord said he’d been thinking of dividing the space in half.” With that issue solved, they knew it was the location for them.
The beauty of being part of a larger organization is that they don’t have to order large amounts of any one spice so what they have in store is always fresh. The company has 32 people who research the products available to the franchisee, from teas to salts to sugars.
And, the company buys organic and Fair Trade whenever possible. Jill stresses that “90% of the custom blends we have are handmade here in the store. We buy the fruit locally, peel, dehydrate and grind it.” Several of their blends contain fresh zest like the aromatic Carolina Sunshine that is based on lemon, orange and lime zest.
“When we opened, we were the ninth store in the company (there will be about 80 stores by the end of this year). Although it is a franchise, we are independently owned and operated.” Both of them often work alongside their employees—they typically have four except during the holidays. Bob retired from his day job in 2015 and Jill is still in private practice as a mental health therapist.
“I see clients several days per week and sometimes in between clients I run down here to help out. For a while at the beginning of the business I was working Monday through Saturday, in the shop two days and seeing clients the other days… that left only Sunday for everything else!”
In the meanwhile, they had opened two more shops, one in Gatlinburg, TN (before the big fire in 2016) and the other in Greenville, SC. Bob explains, “we finally sold both. It was just too much travel up and down the road. You have to hire and train employees, trying to find those who would run it like you would. It’s not easy to supervise them remotely.” Also, they have a motor home and like to travel. Besides, he’s retired, right! Not to mention that Bob has five grown children and seven grandkids from age three to 22 living in Asheville and Charlotte. Lots to keep them busy.
Finding balance is something they are aware of and working on with their employees. Jill asserts that “our employees are our biggest asset. They are family.” Since the shop is open every day, they juggle the schedule so that everyone has two consecutive days off each week. While the couple know the importance of connecting consistently with the business, which includes doing the bookkeeping in order to stay in touch with what’s happening, they also know the importance of connecting with the larger business community.
They belong to the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and the Asheville Downtown Association; they recently joined Explore Asheville, the local convention and visitors’ bureau; and contribute to a number of local fundraising endeavors such as Marvelous Mom with TV station WLOS, and various silent auctions as a way to give back to the community.
What’s next for this busy couple? In the shop, while they have always carried items such as Ginger-Turmeric tea, they are stressing the wellness concept of their teas and spices more specifically now. On a personal level they plan to find time to travel in their motor home and Jill is considering how to create ways to balance her client hours with the needs of the business and daily life.