Thursday, October 8, 2009

Urban Accents: Adding sweetness & spice to Chicago


So you go to the grocery store, check out what's on sale and make your selections. You hit the checkout lane, go home and put away the groceries and life goes on. Do you ever stop to think about the people behind the food products you buy? Who are they? What did it take to get their products on the shelf, into your cart and in your kitchen? These are questions that I think about often when I grocery shop.

If you follow my blog, you may already know that I'm a fan of Chicago based products and small businesses and do my best to support them. I'll take friends to Chicago neighborhoods, meet the owners behind some great food products and listen to their stories... because they all have one. Don't we all?

This past weekend I hosted my monthly Neighborhood Culinary tour of the Ravenswood Corridor in Chicago. Our tour happened to be aligned with the Ravenswood ArtWalk festival where local artists come out to share their work with the neighborhood. While many were enjoying the artwork, my friends and I explored the culinary artistry happening at Urban Accents and to learn the story behind their products.


You may recall me mentioning Urban Accents awhile back, when I featured them for our weekly foodie freebie giveaways in February of this year. I highlighted Urban Accents back then because they were local and their products are truly wonderful. Months later, I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Knibbs, president and founder of Urban Accents and introducing him and his products to members of What's Cookin, Chicago.


Tom is a lover of spice and seasonings but was frustrated with what he could find on grocery shelves. As a result, he started experimenting with spice blends in the basement of his Chicago home. Before he knew it, Urban Accents was born and founded in 1996. But just having spices to sell doesn't mean business will boom. Tom's professional experience as a packaging sales manager allowed him to understand the need for a specific image to convey the attention to detail and quality in his spices. The goal of the company is to bring premium, all natural and visually appealing herbs and seasoning to the contemporary home cook.


When we arrived at Urban Accents headquarters, we were greeted by Tom. He shared with us a bit of his background and how Urban Accents came about. In his entrepreneurial journey in the specialty food business, he worked with Tom and Patty Erd of The Spice House, another local spice company. From the Erds, Tom learned more about spices and began paying attention to consumer trends as it relates to buying, flavor profiles, packaging, etc.

A lot of work goes into a food specialty business, especially spices. There's a lot of research involved when it comes to developing flavors and blends, not to mention the applications of each. Urban Accents has such attention to detail to ensure every type of product they offer is of high quality and maintains a consistency, regardless of where and when you buy their products. Urban Accents are probably products you've already tried too. You can find them at most specialty grocery and gourmet food stores such as Whole Foods, Treasure Island, Fox & Obel... or even at Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table and Crate&Barrel. Their products are either labeled as Urban Accents, Art of Spice or are private labels of specific stores.


Tom's spice operation began to grow over the years and he soon had over 125 different products to offer. Many might assume Tom's culinary offerings are purely spices, but there is quite a bit of variety! Some of those products include:



Urban Accents blended spices offer flavorful and easy to use combinations. They're all natural and made in small batches to ensure the best flavor. What's nice about Urban Accent is they package the spices in 5 different 'flavor families," making it easier to mix, match and see different flavor profiles. The spices are categorized in these flavor families: American Adventures (rusty orange labels), Global Exotics (gold labels), Latin Heat (deep red labels), Old World Classics (deep blue labels), and Pan Asian (nutty brown labels).




Urban Accents seasoned sea salts are combinations of Mediterranean sea salts infused with world flavors. They can be used during cooking in recipes or as a finishing salt to enhance the flavor of any dish. The each come with an aluminum scoop for easy use too!




With the holidays coming up, Urban Accents makes creating a fall feast easy. They've put together a line of products specifically for the fall to add flair to your cranberry relish, stuffing, gravy and event brining your turkey.




Urban Accents has a collection of exotic rice where each varies in texture, color and taste. The rice are packaged in a reclosable container to protect its freshness.



Urban Accents also offers a collection of premium varietal popcorn, seasonings and a grapeseed oil spritzer, all perfect for delicious snacking!




Although summer is over, you can still enjoy kabobs during tailgate season! Urban Accents makes kabob making easy with their all-in-one Kabob Kits. Each kit includes 8 quality bamboo skewers and a flavor-packed, all natural seasoning blend for up to 10 kabobs. All you need to do is soak the skewers, mix the seasoning blend with oil and brush onto your favorite kabob combos.




Sometimes, even the most creative and best cooks need a quick, easy meal. Urban Accents created their Gotta Cook Tonight Seasonings line for folks to make a global inspired meal at home with little effort. Each seasoning package even lists a short shopping list and a recipe using it so a delicious meal is easier than ever!




Drink mixes
Urban Accents offers quite a few different drink mixes from flavored lemonades to cocktail mixes and rimming sugars to even holiday drinks and cocoas. With so many offerings, you're bound to find a drink mix that suits your tastes any time of year.



With all the fabulous products offered (and many more aside from what I've featured), you'd think Tom has an army of employees. Believe it or not, there are less than 20 employees that make up Urban Accents. Some of the employees team up to create labels for each of the their products... and with so many product offers, that means a lot of labels!


There are also some employees that head up the production side. You won't find big, modern machinery to fill those spice jars and package up the other items. In fact, all the spices are filled, labeled and packed by the hands of Tom's employees - all eight of them who work in this part of the business, plus a handful more during peak production times! Take a peek and see where the spices are packed...


After our tour of the Urban Accents facility, Tom and his staff treated us to a sampling of their products. We were completely spoiled with plenty of food and drinks. Here are some of the products we got to try:

Whole Royal Mulling Spice
This mulling spice was a perfect way to warm up on a fall afternoon. The delicious aroma of sweet spices and the natural sweetness of apple cider definitely hit the spot. To use, just add cider or wine to this tantalizing combination of lemon, orange, cinnamon, cranberry, vanilla and spices for a warm and toasty fall/winter treat!



Tom and his staff sure know how to party! He prepared this spicy bloody Mary shooter for us (with and without vodka - although a majority of us opted for the vodka, ha!) This drink mix combines over 30 ingredients and all you need to do is just add to tomato juice... don't forget the vodka!



This hands down is one of my favorite products from Urban Accents.... so much so, I bought 2 bottles! This blend of Shiitakes, porcinis and truffle powder combined form a smooth and full flavored addition to roasts, sauces, marinades, veggies and side dishes. The way we sampled it was in a dip with artichokes and cream cheese. I loved the dip so much that I made it the next day for dinner. I'll be posting the recipe later today, so stay tuned for that! I plan on using this for a mushroom gravy in the future as well.




If you've ever made mole from scratch, it takes quite a bit of time to reach that deep, complex flavor it's known for. Urban Accents makes it easy and you can still achieve that rich mole flavor in a fraction of time with their 'Gotta Cook Tonight' seasoning. Have a delicious Southwestern meal with this seasoning blend that contains natural cocoa flavor, crushed chili peppers and a list of essential spices for a main dish that delivers an authentic “sweet-heat” flavor to boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We sampled this product with pork and it was fantastic! It really tastes like it was cooking for hours...



These days its perfect weather for chili. Urban Accent's Rio Grande Chili Blend balances a smoky mesquite flavor with chili powder to create a tangy blend. We didn't have chili but we did have some mini sloppy joes using this seasoning and I really liked the flavor it gave. Not too spicy and that smoky flavor really shines through!



I haven't worked too much with seasoned or finishing salts (I still have a small collection of fancy salts I have yet to play with in my cupboad) but I can say that this Mango Masala Seasoned Salt is really delicious. We tried it used in a snack mix of cashews, golden raisins, and toasted seasame seeds. This seasoning salt really had some flavor packed in with a nice hint of curry and a sweetness of mango. In fact, this specific seasoning salt received the 2009 Sofi Silver Finalist Award Winning Product Named by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. That's a big deal in the food retailer world so congrats to Urban Accents!


It was such a great opportunity to hear Tom's story and see how his business has evolved from mixing spices in his basement to running a multi-million business in twelve years! We were very impressed with the entire tour and so grateful for the time he spent to show us around. Tom and his amazing staff even sent us off with goodie bags of some of their products. I know I've already started using some of their products and will be featuring them here on my blog.

Do check out their site and check them out at your local store. Urban Accents currently has a chili contest going on right now through December 1st and winners in three categories will receive some generous gift certificates. To help you out, Urban Accents is featuring 2 of their chili blends at 50% off!

A special thanks to Tom and his staff for their hospitality and generosity towards What's Cookin, Chicago. We had a great time and we look forward to getting together again for another event featuring your products!