Step into Peter Bahlawanian’s spice and tea shop, Spice Station, in NDG and you will be instantly greeted by sunset-orange coloured walls and rows upon rows of jars. The atmosphere is both calming and welcoming, with Bahlawanian sitting perched on a stool at the back of the shop, ready to give tips or swap recipes with a customer.
“I opened this shop two years ago,” said Bahlawanian, indicating the spice jars. “I have four shops in total: two in Montreal and two in Los Angeles. We do everything here: custom-blends, tisanes, salts, peppers, powders, sugars, culinary herbs, you name it.”
For Bahlawanian, the art of his craft lies in the allure of the aromas. “I have a great nose, and in this business you need a great nose. I travel a lot, picking up spices that I like here and there. Today, I have about 65 vendors from all around the world.”
It all began with passion.
“Learning about spices was a hobby of mine, but one day I decided my career was too stressful and I wanted a more laid-back, zen profession,” said the owner.
Once he gave up his job as a film producer in Los Angeles, Bahlawanian returned to his hometown of Montreal and began exploring the world of spices and tea.
“I am Armenian and I grew up with my two grandmothers living in my house. One day one grandmother would cook, the other day the other would put on the kitchen apron,” said Bahlawanian. “As for tea, I have always drunk it. My father used to work for the tea company Red Rose, and I guess I just love tea. It is a natural passion of mine.”
Bahlawanian takes the food industry seriously.
“I have only three employees at this shop and I take the time to train them really well. My employees are foodies, people who like to investigate and try new recipes out.”
Among the most interesting spices, Bahlawanian sells Biryani powders, beet powders, Himalayan pink salt, sweet onion chili sugar, paella spices, lime fresco salt, spicy rum junk and an assortment of tisanes such as witches’ brew.
“We cater to all kinds of cooks here. We have specialty spices for the cooks who know what to do, but we also have custom-made blends for cooks who are unsure about marrying certain powders. For those kinds of cooks, for example, we have a blend called Pasta Basta. You simply add a few tablespoons of this to your sauce, made of say onions, garlic and tomatoes, and there you have it,” said Bahlawanian. “We also have harissa, a Moroccan-based blend which is perfect for rice and couscous dishes.”
When asked which shop fares best out of all four, Bahlawanian paused before replying: “I would say that Montreal is actually more competitive than Los Angeles. In Montreal, the foodie industry is way more advanced. With the exception of New York, the United States has only high-end restaurants and no real specialty spice shops. But things are slowly changing even in the United States. With the Internet and TV food shows on the rise, more and more people are trying out recipes at home.”
Although Bahlawanian experienced bad luck in his opening year, the business is now thriving.
“The next-door restaurant, called Lucille’s, had a fire only one month after I opened up the shop. The entire corner was shut off, and this drove customers away from the business. But then things picked up when the corner re-opened,” explained Bahlawanian.
When asked about his secret to success, Bahlawanian smiled. “I have a motto: no advertisement. That’s right. I believe in a grass-roots business, where I bring something unique to the community and word gets around. Back in Los Angeles, I got so much free press that I didn’t even need to worry about advertising: we were covered by the Food and Wine magazine, Oprah Magazine, the LA Magazine, The LA Times, The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, etc.,” listed Bahlawanian.
Bahlawanian enjoys the NDG environment as a working milieu. “I always knew I wanted to open up a shop on Monkland Avenue because it is a market street and because it is a strong community. I strongly value that: a community,” said Bahlawanian.
To discover more about the Spice Station visit 5610, Monkland Avenue in NDG.