Made in Topeka: Moburts
“It’s the sensory experience. You see it in the containers. You can smell it,” said Al Struttman, who launched the business with his wife, Mary Jo.
A TASTE FOR BUSINESS The idea for Moburts grew from the couple’s own love of food and spices. Mary Jo comes from a family of 16 children and Al’s father was an Army chef who continued in the restaurant business. The clincher came when they were invited to lunch at the home of a friend’s mother, who was Thai and served up an array of traditional dishes.
“It blew me away with the flavors. It was just an experience,” Al said.
Afterward, the mother offered to teach Mary Jo her recipes and tricks, and their love of spices heated up.
“Then you learn there are spice stores that are better than grocery stores, and we made a day out of going spice shopping,” Mary Jo said. “We learned to appreciate (all the options). It’s an adventure. You smell stuff and you taste stuff.”
They frequented spice stores in the Kansas City area. It was on one of those trips—as they paid the tolls and filled the gas tank—that the couple got to talking. They wanted their own business. Friends were placing spice orders for them to fill on their trips. Could this be a venture they could pursue in Topeka?
From the practical side, the answer was yes. Mary Jo works for BNSF in accounting, and Al, at the time, worked in purchasing for Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
"She put the money to it and I had the sourcing background,” Al said. “(Hill’s) founded their company on quality nutrition. I wanted a product people would come back for, not a one-time sale.”
PLANTING A SEED The timing was right. Hill’s had been downsizing, so, with 23 years tenure at the company, Al took a buyout and Moburts was born. The couple sought products and got their feet wet by setting up shop at the weekly Topeka Farmer’s Market.
“The Farmer’s Market was a good way to see what was the response to our product, to see if we could make a go of it (before we had) the expense of a building,” Mary Jo said.
“The second year, everyone was saying, ‘We need our spices in the winter time. What are we supposed to do?’” Al said.
UNIQUE BLEND The answer was to open a true brick and mortar location. Moburts opened at 723 SW Gage in the fall of 2013. While much of the inventory is quality spices, smoked seasonings, herbinfused oils and flavored vinegars imported from suppliers, it is the approximately 50 hand-crafted blends that earn Moburts its made-in-Topeka flavor.
“Once you’re conscious of your spices, you start thinking about what’s in it,” Al said.
They started by making their own taco seasoning, then continued experimenting. They say they spend two to three hours a week trying different combinations. Some come from their own brainstorming, others are suggested by customers. Mary Jo’s rosemary garlic is a consistent favorite. Their spaghetti picante blend came from a couple who had visited Tuscany and described the flavor. If you want to add sweet sizzle to your bacon, coat it in a concoction called Bacon Candy.
“We’ll make a batch of (a new blend) and give it to customers to try and give us feedback,” Mary Jo said.
Al says one of his favorites came from a customer’s suggestion of an espresso rub for meat.
“Neither of us are coffee drinkers. I’ve never had espresso on my steak,” Al recalls thinking before heading to his work space to see what he could combine. “I went home and tried it and thought, ‘Goodness, I DO like coffee - just not in water!’ Now we call it Al’s Top Shelf.”
Moburts offerings are all MSG-free and they offer milder and salt-free options. In addition to finding a niche with foodies and people cooking for their children and families, the Struttmans also discovered an unexpected market— competitive barbecuers. They estimate eight teams make regular visits to the store.
“Barbecue people really want good spices,” Al said. “It makes a difference. They’re fresher, more flavorful and they score better in their competitions.”
EXTRA SERVINGS Less than two years after opening, the Struttmans’ taste of success has them looking to expand. They would love to support fellow small business owners by joining the downtown South Kansas Ave. revitalization, and could possibly relocate there as soon as this fall.
“I want to make it a unique foodie experience,” Al said. “People want classes. They want training. They want to learn how to use all these wonderful things.”
Fostering that culinary creativity would be the icing on the cake for a couple whose been able to pepper their passion into a new career.
“It is so rewarding when somebody comes back to your shop after they’ve had one of your products and says that was the best,” Al said.