'We bought every tin in the USA': Asheville's Spicewalla makes Oprah's 'Favorite Things'

Mackensy Lunsford
The Citizen-Times

ASHEVILLE — What do Chai Pani owner Meherwan Irani and Lady Gaga have in common? Though Irani's singing prowess is not publicly known, his locally crafted Spicewalla spices occupy rarified air with Gaga's holiday makeup set: a place on Oprah's Favorite Things 2019 list.

There are 79 gifts on the esteemed annual list, hand-selected by superstar Oprah Winfrey and her team. This year, the "perfect presents of 2019" cover everything from fuzzy slippers to a $2,000 bluetooth-enabled exercise bike. 

Among those gifts is a $95 18-tin "essentials" set from Spicewalla, a local spice business that shipped out its first wholesale order in September 2017, and didn't even begin selling retail spice tins until about a year ago.

"We weren't even thinking about consumer sales when we first opened Spicewalla," said Irani, calling in from Tennessee. He was trying not to cry, mostly because he was chopping onions for a demo for a dozen regional food distribution salesmen.

Clearly he never stops. "And now Oprah," he laughed. 

Spicewalla's "Kitchen Essentials Kit" is on Oprah's Favorite Things 2019 list.

'The USA is sold out of tins'

A year ago, Spicewalla, which imports, roasts and grinds premium spices at Asheville's RAMP Studios, didn't make a container smaller than a half gallon, expecting mostly wholesale business to salesmen whose clients work in restaurant kitchens.

Hopeful customers who stopped by the spice factory to secure a bit of cracked Indian coriander or roasted cumin often left with samples in ziplock baggies, Irani laughed. "But last year around the holidays, we said let's just try packaging for retail."

And now, Oprah.

Meherwan Irani and James Grogan are behind the new Spicewalla spice factory.

Michael Files, creative director director for the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, said the team first got wind they'd been shortlisted for the holiday guide in summer, and didn't know they'd made the final cut until about six weeks ago. 

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With the freshness a big part of the spice magic, there was no stockpiling to do, no getting ready for the onslaught of holiday orders until the news was official.

The reaction was mainly elation. But there's also the feeling that comes when presented with the logistical challenges that follow when Oprah, with her 42.7 million Twitter followers, tells the public to buy your stuff.

"We were going to get slaughtered, and there's nothing we could do," Irani laughed. "We bought every tin available in the United States of America. That's not an exaggeration — the USA is sold out of tins."

The team found a tin middleman in China, who air freighted the heavily tariffed spice containers at painful cost. 

"This is what we have to do," Irani said. "This is almost like cost be damned — Oprah selected us, and we gotta be ready for that."

"We can't let spice-crazed Oprah fans not have their spices," Files said. 

At one point, the team was told the tins might not arrive until December, Irani recalled. "And then they just magically appeared early, and we all looked at each other and said, 'Oprah really is the queen.'"

'This is an Asheville story'

For now, Spicewalla spices are available through Amazon and on the store's website, though there might be some shortages heading into the holidays. But the company tripled its packing staff in anticipation of the increased sales, with a night shift packing spices into the wee hours. 

On the evening of Nov. 8, the day the news of Oprah's decision broke, Files said the team planned to celebrate over pizza. "Though it might be more of a group cry."

Spicewalla's "Kitchen Essentials Kit" is on Oprah's Favorite Things 2019 list.

But pushing a small local spice business to fill such great national demand "is a testament to the power of having a great team," Irani said. 

"And we're so happy this is happening in Asheville," he added. "This is an Asheville story, and we feel like the fact that the tin says 'Made with love in Asheville' is a big part of it."