Zach Johnston — The Spice Guy — Scores as 2018 Entrepreneur Of The Year Finalist
CMC Alum's launch is now one of Colorado Business Journal's Top 50 Companies to Look Out For in 2019
When a professional chef asks CMC alum Zach Johnston for a blend of herbs and spices to achieve a certain flavor or texture, Johnston will go to the ends of the Earth to deliver.
As the founder and owner of The Spice Guy, Johnston sources sustainably-grown herbs and spices from farmers in the U.S., Central America and Asia to concoct flavoring blends that tantalize the taste buds.
If The Spice Guy doesn’t already have a source for a needed ingredient, Johnston and his team put out the word to friends worldwide, and to friends of friends.
“ ‘No’ is never the answer,” Johnston said. “We have made friends on Facebook with people in Australia and Germany, asking them to send products to us that we couldn’t otherwise get.”
The result is a wide array of Spice Guy blends, along with pure herbs, spices and salts, that The Spice Guy ships to more than 400 restaurants in Colorado, across the U.S. and abroad.
And diners who love the Citrus Pucker Pepper, Frisco Rib Rub or Buffalo Bill’s Black Gold flavoring used at a Summit County restaurant, where The Spice Guy has cornered 85 percent of the restaurant market, can buy home kitchen quantities through The Spice Guy’s website.
The Spice Guy has been featured in; national television shows such as Top Chef, BBQ Pitmasters, the Brothers Green and, many print publications. The gift boxes of hand-crafted blends were named "best gift for foodies" by both 5280 and 303 Magazine.
The spices dubbed "certified dope" have landed themselves in commercial and residential kitchens across the country including the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.
In 2018, Zach was a finalist for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the business was named a Top 50 company to look out for in 2019 by Colorado Business Journal
Johnston was in the first graduating class for the bachelor’s degree in business program at CMC Breckenridge, in 2013. Pushing toward that milepost, he carried 22 hours in his final semester, completing his coursework while traveling in Europe and Japan with a church group, doing outreach through snowboarding.
At 18, Johnston had moved to Keystone from Toledo, Ohio, to pursue competitive snowboarding. Two seasons in, he shattered his pelvis in a bad fall. He enrolled with CMC right away, with a focus on business.
“I remember sitting in an accounting class, and the instructor asked us what we wanted to do. I said I just wanted to sell things. My dad sold paint and my mom sold houses. I just had to figure out something that people need,” he said.
He’d been supporting himself since high school with restaurant jobs. All through college he worked at Chimayo Mexican Grill in Dillon, where he discovered the nuanced role of chili peppers in food flavoring. “That’s where it all starts,” Johnston said.
Using his life savings of $53, Johnston started buying herbs and spices and creating custom blends for chefs at other restaurants. He had found what people needed: herb and spice blends bursting with savory flavor.
What started as a very small business with just a few local customers has exploded into a national brand. By 2017, The Spice Guy grew to be a $1 million-a-year business with nine employees and a warehouse in Commerce City that handles 40,000 pounds of spices per month.
Johnston and his wife, Randi, recently traveled to Nicaragua to expand their network of growers and suppliers, connecting with farmers growing coffee and turmeric in rich volcanic soils. With four years of Spanish at CMC, he can parlay directly with Spanish-speaking growers.
Likewise, Johnston’s connections with instructors in CMC’s Business Department, particularly Al Bacher and Robert “Rapid” Cartelli, showed him the path to being a successful and happy entrepreneur.
“Al had made it in life already, and he was totally open to any question. I wanted to know, when he was trying to make it, what was it like? He told me he often didn’t see his kids for days while he was away on a business trip, but he was out there ensuring that they could go to college,” Johnston said.
“For Rapid, he was teaching to give back to this community and this generation,” Johnston said. “That spoke to me pretty heavily. I realized I want to be in that position myself, as soon as possible.”
The Spice Guy is based in Aurora, CO, and is online at TheSpiceGuyCO.com.