Spicy business 

Don Rafal is the Spice Guy. He has a galaxy of spices and condiments on the shelves of Rafal Spice, his Eastern Market store, and keeps them cataloged, more or less, in his head.

Just ask.

Mustards? “Powdered mustards — two powdered, the yellow for the milder and black for the hotter, plus umpteen prepared mustards.”

Chilis? “I know each shelf has 12 jars on it. So we have at least 1 1/2 shelves of whole and most of the whole ones in the ground version and a few of them in the crushed version as well.”

Hot sauces? “I did once count 120 different hot sauces — and that’s a year ago, and we keep adding and deleting.”

Total items? “Thousands, and no, no one has ever counted.”

Don is a portly man, nearly 49, of medium height, with thinned gray hair and a sunny disposition, who grew up knowing that all this could — and probably would — be his.

He sits in the cramped office at the back of the store, talking about his life in the spice business and watching the one long aisle of a store that is a cook’s heaven.

On Saturdays, it’s a crowded heaven, a cross section of Detroit on parade, “from minks to rags” as he puts it, buyers from the top restaurants and lay cooks out for that special item at a bulk price.

This weekday, after the noon rush, he points to his officially retired father, Marty, 79, working the floor. Marty Rafal began the store 40 years ago, not with a grand vision, but at least a little foresight.

Rafal Spice originally sold lots of other things: tobacco, pantyhose, patent medicines, dream books, candles, incense.

But there were always a few spices, and as a sideline he sold sausage seasonings to mom-and-pop stores. “There was one on every block, and they all had homemade sausages,” says Don.

Competition eventually undercut much of the business. You couldn’t compete with F&M on toothpaste, for instance. So Marty “sort of brought in more and more spices; as he brought in more, the word got out.”

Teas grew from a few to more than 200. Coffee exploded: “A salesman begged us to take in five coffees, three regular, a decaf and a flavor.” Probably 100 coffee kegs now crowd a section of the store floor. (For the record, Don prefers Cuban roast and Nicaraguan rain forest. He’ll sell you any flavor of coffee you like, but he’d rather go thirsty than drink flavored blends.)

Don knows his future is figuring what customers want, and having it or getting it quickly. That might mean figuring that a Chaldean customer out for “helba” is looking for “fennel.” Or keeping “grains of paradise” on the shelves for years until it gets some press — “and all of a sudden, boom.” Or tracking down white truffle oil and hand-harvested sea salt when they make Emeril’s and Martha Stewart’s shows.

And of late, Don is trying his hand with two partners — Randall and Ryan Fogelman — as Detroit Spice Co., putting out their own products, thus far including a steak rub, a jerk and a barbecue sauce.

Don admits to no grand vision of spice trends to come, just an ear to the ground. “You try to stay on it,” he says.

Rafal Spice, 2521 Russell, in Eastern Market is open 7 a.m.-
4 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Call 313-259-6373.
W. Kim Heron


Alas, Casa de Espana (6138 Michigan, Detroit) is closing its firehouse doors at the end of the month. But they’re going out with a bang, having festivities including live flamenco shows every Friday and Saturday night until Sept. 30. Call 313-895-4040 for more info. … Fuel up at the new Coffee Beanery at 3999 Centerpoint Parkway in Pontiac anytime in September, when 10 percent of the café’s proceeds will go to the Food Bank of Oakland County. Got a food tip? Write to Eaters Digest care of the MT, or e-mail letters@metrotimes.com

More by W. Kim Heron

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