On a bright Saturday morning, mere minutes after the store opens its doors, a half dozen shoppers were already pushing carts through the aisles of House of Spices.
With the fragrance of incense in the air and the sound of a Bollywood movie soundtrack playing on a TV over the counters, the shoppers passed through the long, amply stocked aisles full of spice powders like turmeric, garam masala and arrowroot.
They browsed the displays of sesame seeds and Patak’s hot lime relish, vegetable kebab mixes and various curries, and chose from whole walls given over to enormous bags of rice – long-grain scented jasmine, enriched parboiled and sona masoori – and another of teas and incense sticks of tea rose, coconut, vanilla and other scents.
Customers are drawn to House of Spices, one of the largest Indian grocery stores in Central Florida, by more than spices and herbs they won’t find anywhere else, or packaged favorites like palak paneer and duma loo in the frozen section. They also come to shop for low-cost fresh vegetables.
“Their prices are very reasonable, and everything is fresh,” said Afroja Parvin, who was stocking her cart in the produce section. “This is like India – it’s beans and peppers and Indian vegetables you can’t find in American stores.”
Parvin, originally from Bangladesh and now living in Orlando, where she cooks every day for her family after work, pointed to the pouch of frozen green peas in her cart. They are very different from green peas sold in American stores, she said. And then there’s the fresh dudhi taking up most of her cart – a big white squash that looks like a club and that sells for 69-cents a pound.
“I work a lot, and when I’m off, I come here and stock up for a week,” Parvin said.
While the store has benefited from Central Florida’s Indian-American population boom, it’s popular with visitors and families of many backgrounds, cashiers say.
British and Chinese families and tourists visiting in the winter months love the store for its curries. Americans who tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” have flocked into the store after episodes on the health benefits of various Indian foods, spices, herbs and concoctions like neem oil, traditionally used to treat skin problems, inflammations and other conditions. The store also carries rice with low-GI (glycemic index) values, which is popular with diabetics, and a wide variety of popular oils, including coconut oil from Sri Lanka.
Retail stores throughout the state that buy from House of Spices’ warehouse also ramp up their orders for certain products after “Dr. Oz” episodes air.
“They will call me at the warehouse and say, ‘Hey, do you have this? People are asking,’ “said Ruchi Jain, manager of the House of Spices Florida warehouse in Orlando, one of nine throughout the country.
House of Spices has one franchise store in Tampa, but the Orlando store is its flagship, at 6,000 square feet, soon to expand to 11,000 square feet. It is part of a national distribution company started in New York around 1970 by G.L. Soni, who found himself unable to locate his beloved Indian ingredients and foods while completing an engineering degree. Customers now drive to the Orlando store from as far away as Miami and Jacksonville, while others place orders to be shipped to their homes all over the country through the store’s website.
Certain days of the week and times of the year see a surge in business. Sundays are a big day after families leave the nearby Swaminarayan Temple. And in October and November – just before huge holidays like Diwali and Navratri – the lines stretch from the four cashier stations past the frozen goods and beyond the produce section to the back wall.
On weekends, families love to come in and buy whole trays of the fresh, homemade samosas –mouth-watering deep-fried dough pockets filled with potatoes and peas, accompanied by a sweet, delicious tamarind and date sauce. Or the dhokla – scrumptious and spicy snack squares made from lentils, ginger, chickpea flour and turmeric, and topped with green chilies and coconut shavings. Or the sweet treat of jalebi, deep fried and dipped in saffron sugar syrup.
In addition to the freshly made goods, other popular items include the huge tubs of snacks – also fresh and homemade – to the right of the counters. The farali chivda – made of fried potatoes, cashews, raisins, peanuts, spices and sugar – that sells for $4.99 a pound is very popular during important fasts.
On this particular Saturday, most of the shoppers spent a lot of time back by the vegetables.
“I like to have fresh produce,” said Nita Solanki, going through the boxes of okra as her husband leaned against their fast-filling cart. Originally from Bombay, she cooks every day for her vegetarian family and loves having a store nearby with Indian lentils and plenty of fresh vegetables at low prices for the dishes she prepares. The bonus: “They are very friendly and very nice to the customer.”
IF YOU GO: The House of Spices flagship store is located at 1137 Doss Avenue in Orlando, just off South Orange Blossom Trail and north of Sand Lake Road in the Laxmi Plaza shared with Bombay Café and Indian clothing and video stores. For more information, call 407-857-8805 or visit www.houseofspiceretail.com. You can also join them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/House-of-Spices-Orlando-FL/679857862041454.