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Smyrna seasoning business makes splash in barbecue capital

Katie Tabeling

Nicole and Ryan Stevenson turned a hobby into a business during the pandemic. Shore Smoke Seasoning can be found at many fairs in Delaware, such as the Delaware State Fair Holiday Shoppes on Nov. 14. | PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN STEVENSON

SMYRNA — Ryan Stevenson never dreamed that social media would open doors for his spice business Shore Smoke Seasonings

But more than a year later from starting his pandemic-era business, Stevenson and his wife are selling spice blends as fast as they can order them. Shore Smoke Seasoning is in four stores in North Carolina at this point, and on track for dozens more retail locations by the end of the year.

“It’s 100% word of mouth, and we haven’t spent a dime on marketing so far,” Stevenson told the Delaware Business Times. “It’s funny because when this whole thing started, I wanted to get off social media because there was so much negativity out there. This was supposed to be a distraction from all that.”

Shore Smoke Seasoning is a longtime hobby turned pandemic business success story. Stevenson worked as a sales director for a cybersecurity firm, but his passion was always cooking. For the last decade, he’s been exploring flavors and seasoning, creating his own rubs for his steaks.

Then when he was craving something new, he turned to making blends for chicken dishes. Down the road, he started dabbling in spices for fish and crawfish, pasta and more, all to the enjoyment of his wife Nicole and their children.

“It got to the point where I’d want tacos, so my next response was, ‘OK, guess I have to make a blend for it now,’” Stevenson said. “Nicole jokes that when people find their gift, that’s it. But really, for every one great seasoning, there’s 250 awful ones that I’ve made”

When Stevenson was home in May 2020, he was looking for something to take his mind off the tumultuous times. So after years of being told he should sell his spice blends, he tried it. He and Nicole first packaged them in little packets and offered samples to their neighbors and others in the Smyrna community, asking for their thoughts.

The Game Day blend — with red and black pepper, cayenne, sugar, garlic and lemon peel — quickly became Shore Smoke Seasoning’s top seller because, as Stevenson said, “it’s good on everything.” But others offer a new twist on familiar spice blends. For example, That’s Amore (Stevenson’s personal favorite) is a take on the Italian seasoning with more garlic, and Paradise Party is a citrus-inspired blend that is infused with sugar cane. Adventurous eaters may risk the Satan Spice, which is made with ghost pepper.

After selling $200 worth of spices at a local fundraiser, Shore Smoke Seasoning slowly was starting to get some notice. Invites for festivals and craft fairs were trickling in. Nicole Stevenson returned to work, but she would come home and put time in with the fledgling business by designing the label and filling spice shakers.

“She was the one giving out samples, and she’d come home after a 40-hour week and put in more time on this. I’ve seen her work on filling shakers at 2:30 in the morning. It’s not just me, Nicole deserves a lot of the credit too,” Stevenson said.

But the company’s big break came on the Fourth of July, when Stevenson and his family were in North Carolina’s Outer Banks and he was approached by David Watkins, who runs the True Smoke BBQ Facebook page, dedicated to barbecue appreciation and recipes.

Shore Smoke Seasoning, based in Smyrna, is projected to be in 50 stores by the end of this year. | PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN STEVENSON

“David thought it was great and he asked me if he could promote us, and if we’d like to sponsor some contests where we’d give away some blends,” Stevenson said. “And I love him every day for it. He’s like my brother at this point.”

 In North Carolina, barbecue is a serious business, as legend has it that scouts sent by Sir Walter Raleigh, the man who first colonized the future state, first noticed natives smoking meat. To this day, there remains a rivalry over Lexington style and Eastern style, and hundreds of other varieties have emerged over the years.

True Smoke BBQ had 10,000 members at the time, and today it’s closing in on 30,000. It’s most famous member is Chris Hatcher, a retired MLB pitcher who invites members to his property for the annual Spring Fling barbecue competition.

Life has changed for Stevenson since last summer. He keeps getting invites to do North Carolina festivals, and in between local events like the Apple Scrapple event in Bridgeville, and other regional ones, he rarely has a weekend free from now until the new year. Shore Smoke Seasoning’s profile keeps getting bigger and bigger.

“We’re just running through products like crazy. I used to just order the spice by the pound, but since we partnered with a co-packer, it’s cheaper for them to handle it,” Stevenson said. “When we have shipments in North Carolina, it’s just cheaper for me to do them at this point and make it a trip.”

Shore Smoke Seasoning is now Stevenson’s full-time job, along with administering the True Smoke BBQ page with Watkins. The spice blends are projected to be in 50 North Carolina stores by the end of the year, and Stevenson is working on getting them in 50 stores in Delaware and another 25 in Maryland.

But for now, the company has recently upgraded its spice shakers from 4.5 ounces to 6 ounces and has rolled out 12 Days of Seasonings boxes for holiday gifts. Stevenson hopes one day to open a store in Delaware but that may not be until 2023. The Stevensons still hit up as many festivals and events they can in Delaware and North Carolina.

“I’ve loved the ride so far, especially the community I’ve found. They’ve got such great energy and lift each other up,” he said. “Long term, I’d love to get Nicole in the business full-time and build it into something for my children to have.”

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