Sometimes the perfect recipe is right before our eyes. Take two ex-cops, mix in a joint love of cooking, add a pinch of spice and touch of tea, blend together generously and you have the ideal yin and yang of a wonderful partnership.
Perfect example: Sarah Chartier & Kirstin Ruehlen, the Cagney & Lacey of The Spice & Tea Exchange of Vail. But as opposed to the fictionalized characters from the ’80’s, these former officersfrom the Northern Colorado Drug Task Force are as real as winter snow, and so is their shared desire to bring the very best spices and teas from around the world directly to the Vail Valley. Kirstin had retired in 2012 after 15 years as a Ft. Collins narcotics detective, with Sarah being the same until 2015 on the Loveland force. In between the two retirement parties,Kirstin’s mom introduced her to her very favorite Dallas area store–The Spice & Tea Exchange–and immediately fell in love with the idea of opening one in their hometown of Ft. Collins. A few weeks later, over a glass of wine with her best friend, the one she worked with, shared a love of all things food with, and had spent years discussing their “Plan B” together with (a phrase cops use referencing life after retirement from the force), Sarah eagerly came on board, and by September of 2014 they opened their first store. Success blossomed quickly, and when they approached the founder about expanding with perhaps a satellite location in Estes Park, the response was, “If you’re going to do it, do it right… do it in Vail!” And presto, by May of 2016 the tea- loving duo had done exactly that.
But like most magical tales that come true, there’s always a little bit more to the story when one looks behind the curtain. Sarah grew up in Wisconsin, Kirstin in California, yet both attended Colorado State University, which of course means they both fell in love with skiing the wide- open slopes of the Rocky Mountains. And where, you might ask, did they both love to ski more than anywhere else? Why, Vail, of course. Thus the Vail store seemed like the natural next step.
With literally hundreds and hundreds of spices and teas to choose from, it was quite amazing to learn both stores have a singular bestselling item: Ginger Turmeric Herbal Tea. An ancient combination of flavors, the blending of turmeric and ginger “give depth and structure to this intense, yet balanced, herbal tea.” And the locals love it! “It’s a wellness tea,” says Sarah, and goes along perfectly with the rest that is called the Wellness Collection–“eight healthy teas chosen for their healthy ingredients, healing possibilities, and nourishing properties.” But of course, Vail being… well, Vail, there is one particular spice that rarely sells in Ft. Collins but is constantly on fire in Vail: Harissa Seasoning.
“A staple in North African cuisine, this fiery-hot seasoning is used to add depth to a variety of foods. It can also be mixed with olive oil to create a Harissa chili (pepper paste, and along with using on meats, it can be added to hummus, dips, stews, etc.” In fact, it’s incredible when used to marinate grilled shrimp or roasted chicken, according to Sarah. All stereotypes have a basis in truth, so yes, much more of the international flavors sell in Vail, matching our year-round international clientele. No big surprise there.
What was surprising, however, was how two former officers of the law made such a seamless transition from the unsavory world of drugs and crime to the wonderfully sweet universe of Spice & Tea.
After years of working odd hours together, sometimes with only three hours of sleep and large pots of coffee, they came to really know each other in ways many partnerships can only dream of.
“We already knew the best and the worst of each other going in,” says Sarah. “We couldn’t be more opposite. Where I’m all about the books, the inventory and merchandising, she does the marketing and the networking with customers… it works really well to be able to play off each other in our business relationship.”
And speaking of coffee, when asked how many customers come in each day asking for a cup of Joe, Sarah’s reply says it all. “A handful each and every day, but once they inhale the full aroma of the store itself, a quick reminder of the caffeine levels in some of our teas is all it takes for someone to become a steady, loyal customer for all things Spice & Tea!” I could not have said it better myself.