Friday, September 24, 2010

RIP Bill Penzey, Sr.

Bill Penzey, founder of The Spice House and the Penzey Spices business, passed away at the age of 78 due to an apparent heart attack:
Spices became a sort of metaphor for his life. Ever the philosopher, Penzey could taste the ancient tangents of thought like a thread of saffron on the tongue. Work was meditation for Penzey, who found plenty of both as he ground and mixed his spice blends, always by hand.

"Bill believed spices were calling us," Ruth Penzey, his wife, once said. "Certainly they called him. He has had a love affair with spices, and he just couldn't know enough about them."

William T. Penzey Sr. died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday evening as he walked home from their little Wauwatosa shop. He was 78.

He became the patriarch and inspiration for the Penzey family spice businesses. His son and daughters continue the family tradition. In separate corporate enterprises, the next generation now runs the downtown Milwaukee location started by their parents and has expanded to new stores in Wisconsin and beyond, and into online sales.

Bill and Ruth opened their transition-into-retirement store at 1244 N. Glenview Ave. in Wauwatosa.

There Penzey did what he called "spice work." The emphasis, as his wife explained, was less on running a business and more on sharing knowledge of the spice trade and philosophy. The smaller operation also allowed them to close, even for a month at a time, if they wanted to.

The former Ruth Ann Burns became his partner in life and in business. They married in 1957.

That same year, they began the William T. Penzey Coffee Co., a coffee and tea store, at N. 33rd and W. Galena streets. Within the next decade, it became The Spice House, specializing in spices and herbs.

I remember when I was but a wee lad, my folks would take me with them on their regular trips to The Spice House. It was one of the few times that I actually enjoyed going shopping with them because as soon as you entered their store, you were transported to a whole new world just by your sense of smell.

While my folks and the Penzeys were chatting away, I would entertain myself by either going from jar to jar to drink up the scents of the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the rosemary and all the other herbs and spices. Sometimes I would just stand there and absorb the aroma of all the spices mixed together, wishing there was some way to capture that smell and bottle it to be savored on later occasions.

As I grew up, my mom taught me how to cook. Most of the dishes she taught me were basic meals, but whether plain country cooking or something more elegant, she always told me that the best way to make it delicious, healthier and less expensive was to use fresh spices and seasonings like you could get at Penzey's.

After I got married, I thought I'd be frugal and just buy some cheap off the grocery store variety of spices. I did that once. I haven't bought one spice or seasoning or herb that did not have the Penzey label on it in over ten years.

If you haven't already, give them a try. They got stores everywhere. You won't be sorry.


  1. As an ex-pat from Milwaukee I will miss my pilgrimage to the shop to chat with Bill and Ruth when I visit. I've never had a better shopping experience anywhere in the world. Bill's joy was so infectious and the attention, care and as you say transportative environment shall be unforgettable. What a great life and legacy to appreciate.

  2. I had the opportunity as a young man to work for Mr. Penzey. He taught me so much. One of the biggest lessons that was taught, was the more effort and heart you put into your work the better it would become. I remember mixing spices in the back of the shop and he told me to mix the spices with 111 turns, then 222 turns, and finally 333 turns. At first I was like why, then I realized it made me focus, and put more effort into everything I did.. Mr. Penzey you are a great man and you taught me so much. Your passing is a great loss to the community, but rest assured you inspired everyone you interacted with.

    Rest In Peace,

    SSgt Patrick J Huwiler
    United States Marine Corps