I fell in love with Penzeys Spices the first time I walked into their Pittsburgh store, many years and ten grandchildren ago. What an enormous array of herbs, spices, and extracts of excellent quality, as well as their own superb spice blends! I couldn't say enough wonderful things about Penzeys, in person and here on this blog.

You may or may not have noticed that I don't do that anymore. My interactions with the company have left a bad taste in my mouth, and when your business is selling food ... that's not a good situation.

Once upon a time I stocked up on Penzeys products whenever we visited our daughter in Pittsburgh. I put myself on their mailing list, and in between times would sometimes place an order through the mail. But imagine my joy when Central Florida finally got its own Penzeys store! We generally visited once a month, to take advantage of the free spice coupons in the catalog, and of course we almost always made other purchases as well.

Ah, the catalog. In each one, Bill Penzey wrote an enjoyable little column about spices, food, cooking, and family. I used to like reading that, almost as much as I enjoyed the food & family stories contributed by customers. But gradually, that changed. Politics started to infuse the catalog, first in Bill's column and then in the customer stories he chose to include.

Well, I don't usually discriminate against great products based on the political opinions of the company. I continued to drool over the catalog, skipping Bill's column. When I did read it, I was usually sorry I had. We continued our monthly visits to the store, where even the employees rolled their eyes at the political turn the company was taking.

And then Penzeys closed our store.

I understand that companies must make difficult economic decisions and sometimes stores must be closed. I'm okay with that, even if it makes me sad. Their lease was up, and rents are high in the area they had chosen to open their store. What my anger flowed from was the implication on their sign that they would soon be opening a new store in the area, though I certainly was looking forward to that.

You see, in his political writings Bill Penzey consistently positions himself and his company as the defenders of the common people, the little guys, the poor and needy ... you get the picture. He's always denouncing people and businesses that make decisions based on what he perceives as selfishness and greed. Yet he decided to close a store and reopen elsewhere just to get his company out from under an expensive lease, leaving his employees—the little guys, the poor and needy common people—high and dry. They could not afford to wait for the opening of a theoretical new store: they needed jobs. Given all Bill Penzey has said about what other people should do with their money and in their own businesses, I would have expected his company to bite the bullet, forgo some profit, and at the least not close the existing store until a new one, nearby but in a less expensive neighborhood, was ready to provide jobs for their displaced employees.

They did not. That moves the scenario from necessary business decision straight to hypocrisy. And as it turned out, it has been four years since they closed, and there is still no sign of a Penzeys store any closer than Jacksonville.

On top of that, despite my many attempts at communication—before and after this event; whether contribution, compliment, or complaint; by e-mail or postal mail—I never heard back from Penzeys. It was worse than writing to a politician and expecting communication!

Since then, Bill Penzey's political rants (which now come to me by e-mail rather than printed catalog) have gone over-the-edge extreme. The hypocrisy, the hate-preached-as-love, would almost be funny—if it weren't so sad.

The following incident did make me laugh, at least until I started wondering what tax advantage the company might be angling for. Last Friday, the mailman delivered a box of excitement: my most recent Penzeys order. Penzeys packages often come with a freebie or two tucked in, such as sample-sized envelopes of herbs or spices (my favorite) or something advertising the store or one of Bill Penzey's pet causes.  Here's one of the latter that came this time:

It's a sticker, no big deal except for the waste when it ends up in the landfill. What makes it bizarre is how it appeared on the packing slip, which you can see below, with some prices I've circled in red.

For this sticker, which I didn't order, they charged me $6.95, then "discounted" the price at the end. What kind of pricing is this? Who in his right mind would pay $6.95 for a sticker, let alone one not even worth sending to grandchildren? And what's the point? Some sort of shady accounting practice or tax benefit?

Amusing in a different way are the accolades Bill Penzey gives himself by first (1) making an extreme political statement, then (2) offering an extraordinarily good sale, 'way too good to pass up, then (3) bragging that his customers clearly endorse his political beliefs—just look at the spike in sales!

But do you know what? I still buy his spices. Not nearly as much, not nearly as often. As I said, the company now leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But the taste of the spices is still wonderful. I don't believe boycotts to be generally useful, and in most cases I choose businesses by quality and price without asking about politics.

Penzeys' reputation for quality is no doubt why they feel they can get away with repeatedly and consistently alienating half their customer base. It puts me in mind of what a math professor friend said about Harvard University years ago: The quality of education at the school has gone down significantly; students are no longer getting what a "Harvard education" used to mean. Harvard is living on its reputation. And that will be slow to die, because the Harvard reputation will still give Harvard graduates' résumés a great advantage over others. More importantly, it will continue to attract the best students, which will give them both the "iron sharpens iron" benefit and an unbeatable network of connections for the future. You can't live forever on reputation alone, but if you have once been great, you can fool yourself and others for a long time.

I believe Bill Penzey is fooling himself. As long as Penzeys' spices are perceived as superior—and many of them really are—even the spurned, denigrated, vilified half of his customer base will not flee en masse. But many—like some students who forgo applying to Harvard—may decide that the difference is not worth the cost. The love and the loyalty are gone.

Update 10/16/19:  Note that this post has garnered enough comments to spill over past the first page.  Click on the Next link to see the more recent ones.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Edit
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I don't spend my money at businesses that oppose LGBT rights or health insurance coverage of birth control for their employees, and I make it a point to patronize Nike, and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream for supporting the Black Lives Matter cause and Colin Kaepernick. It's time for me to buy some spices from Penzeys!

Posted by Diane Villafane on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 at 6:25 am

When I buy Ben and Jerry's ice cream, which I hardly ever do—see last week's sermon—it's because they have an excellent product (especially Cherry Garcia!). Or at least they used to; I wouldn't know now, because I've hardly patronized them at all since they sold out.

Seriously? You'd buy from Penzeys sight unseen just because I think they're hypocritical? What makes you think we'll agree on spice quality? Maybe it's more like music than politics. :) But by all means, find out for yourself, here's the link. I particularly recommend Tuscan Sunset, Ruth Ann's Muskego Ave Chicken/Fish Seasoning, Chili 9000, and their Fajita Seasoning. It's also a great place to get rarer spices, such as true (Ceylon) cinnamon, granulated shallots, and spices/blends for cuisines of many different cultures. Their double strength vanilla is absolutely awesome, but has been absolutely unaffordable for years. Their almond extract is the best I've found so far, so when they offer a good sale I treat myself. Enjoy!

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 at 7:09 am

Note that it was not Penzeys' politics that sent me over the edge, but their failure to abide by their own stated principles.

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 at 7:44 am

Here's an article that echoes your sentiment, with the option of a different purveyor of fine spices: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/bill-penzey-spices-trump/

Posted by Stephan on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at 5:06 pm

Wow! I was going to respond that I'm not looking for a new spice source, but am more often making do with grocery store spices. But then I followed the link. Spices from the original Penzeys (Bill Penzey's sister, who inherited the business from their father), without the side order of vituperation!

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at 6:03 pm

No politics, but an ad for the Spice House did appear on Facebook the next time I checked in....

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at 6:50 pm

No longer purchasing from Penzey's. Bill has gone over the edge with his rants and political opinions, etc. Just not able to spend $$ in the stores anymore, cannot support the bad behavior and generalization on others who do not share his viewpoints and more. I am truly spice saddened!!!

I choose JOY over being basted and bashed while creating savory or sweet food for others.

Hope he can find JOY amidst his hot mess of a kitchen.

Posted by Sunflower on Monday, September 09, 2019 at 1:53 pm

I quit going because of the email propaganda. I live in Jacksonville. FYI - the store here is now closed.

Posted by Sandy on Monday, September 09, 2019 at 2:11 pm

Thanks for your comments, Sunflower and Sandy. I'm sorry to hear that the Jacksonville store has closed—I think Bill Penzey just doesn't like Florida.

Check out my post about The Spice House, where you can find Penzey-quality spices with no politics!

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, September 09, 2019 at 3:04 pm

I quit using Penzeys spices soon after the last election. Bill Penzey apparently didn't and doesn't care or appreciate all his customers. He actually said he didn't need Republicans as customers. As a wise business owner, I would think you would need all customers. I, as well, enjoyed the spices, but I also choose to be a customer only and not have political (or any other) views thrown at me. I found other sources iif sources for less money.

Posted by Bonnie on Tuesday, October 08, 2019 at 9:18 am

I'm actually rather impressed that Bill Penzey's business has not gone under. What other company can afford to be so abusive to half its customer base? If they really lost the business of all Republicans, Conservatives, and conservative Democrats, I suspect they would be hurting, big time. But most of us try to keep our politics and our shopping separate. Still, the only business they've had from me for years has been during super sales, and now that I've found The Spice House, it will be little to none.

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, October 08, 2019 at 10:09 am

I am also on Florida and used to patronize Penzey’s. I love The Greek Spice Mix, but I don’t love it that much. Bill is a bully along the lines of the owners of Ravelry, the knitting group which did the same thing, on there, rolled left in droves. They gave no warning to their vendors who lost tons of income. I shop at The Spice House now. If I vote the sticker I would have written in on the bottom for Trump#2020 and mailed it back with a note that said [section deleted]. I’ve had enough of these liberal bullies and won’t be silent any more. At 66, I won’t allow them to call me a racist, bully me, or try to destroy my country any more. We can’t be the silent majority anymore. It’s time to be as loud and nasty as they are and hit them where it hurts, in their pocketbooks.

Posted by Elsie on Friday, October 11, 2019 at 8:18 am

I beg your pardon, Elsie, but this blog is pretty fussy about language, so I've censored a small part of your comment.

I agree that choosing not to shop where we feel bullied and unwelcome by the shopkeeper just makes sense. However, I don't think that "loud and nasty" is an effective strategy: they will only see it as confirmation of their low opinion of those who disagree with them.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, October 11, 2019 at 10:02 am

This little post seems to be generating more comments than usual. That's good, I think, but it means I need to be a little clearer about blog standards.

Discussion is great, differing points of view are interesting, dissension is fine. Profanity and vituperation are not. Whatever part of the political spectrum you count as your own neighborhood, insulting and abusive language does not help your cause. Why give your opponent the opportunity to congratulate himself on his assessment of your character?

I apologize to anyone who posts a comment that doesn't make it intact through the moderation process. We value your opinion, just not the particular way you chose to express it.

Posted by SursumCorda on Friday, October 11, 2019 at 1:44 pm

When Hillary Clinton was running for Senate in New York State, there was a small local restaurant in the Syracuse area that announced "the Clintons are not welcome at our restaurant." I was pleased when a similar place in Oswego announced "EVERYONE is welcome at our restaurant."

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Saturday, October 12, 2019 at 1:21 pm

I agree with Diane Villafane. No chick fil a, hobby lobby,land o lakes or papa johns's for me. Penzey's, keep up the good work!

Posted by Christina Myles on Sunday, October 13, 2019 at 3:48 am

That's the kind of story I like to hear, Kathy. Sometimes I think small businesses are our best hope for civility in society: they know their livelihood depends on making their customers feel welcome, and get lots of practice being nice even when they don't feel like it.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, October 13, 2019 at 9:01 am

Christina, I understand the impulse, having myself avoided the Nestlé company's products for decades. (When I could, that is—they're everywhere.) My cynical side, however, tells me that such boycotts deprive me of good products, feed my self-righteous tendencies, and don't discourage the company.

On the other hand, if I hadn't tried to avoid Nestlé, I might never have discovered how good Ghirardelli and Guittard chocolate is, and that Publix's Chocolate Trinity ice cream is far better than Edy's Double Fudge Brownie. I may think Penzeys' policies are hypocritical, but I've never denied that their spices are wonderful.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, October 13, 2019 at 9:15 am

The comments had me look at your sticker question again. While I don't know why they chose $6.95 as a good price for a sticker that's clearly not worth more than a 1/4 cup jar of orange peel, I have a guess as to why they don't just invoice it as $0.00.

Our ERP system does not allow an item to be ordered or billed if its price is set at $0.00. If Penzeys's ERP follows the same philosophy, it would have been impossible for the company to include the sticker on the packing slip for $0.00. They could have left it off the packing slip, but that would have likely led to most boxes being packed without the stickers. Hence the workaround: bill it, so it gets packed and the sticker stock can be monitored, then back it out, so the price is right.

Again, why $6.95... perhaps they can deduct the total sticker cost from their taxes, because it's for a get-out-the-vote cause, or maybe they sourced it carbon-compensated from an artisanal sticker craftsman.

Posted by Stephan on Sunday, October 13, 2019 at 4:27 pm

Possibly, Stephan. But they often include free items, and this is the first time I've seen one without a $0.00 price. Maybe they have a new accounting system, but I'm betting on the tax benefit.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, October 14, 2019 at 8:58 am
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