Des Moines' Allspice Remains Despite Loss of Owner

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It's hard to imagine how a life can just go on without its heart — how a family keeps going, how a business stays on the rails. When the tick-tock of even the smallest universe's timekeeper goes quiet, what is left?

Jennifer and Greta Rhoads and their little corner of the world, Allspice, are working that out, day by day, while figuring out how to cope with the sudden silence where Alex Rhoads — husband, father and business owner — used to be.

When 46-year-old Alex died unexpectedly of heart failure one Saturday morning in March, his wife and 10-year-old daughter were not only left with their own bruised hearts, but with Allspice, Alex's dream-come-true retail ode to food and cooking. Allspice, the East Village shop celebrating its second anniversary this week, carries spices, herbs, oils, vinegars, chilies and dried mushrooms sourced from all over the world, and was a second career for attorney Alex, but a family project, too.

"In 2010, Alex started contemplating a career switch," Jennifer says. "He focused on family law, including divorces; the economy was bad and he was looking for something more positive to do. We had a lot of family conversations trying to figure out what was next."

Alex loved travel and research and food, Jennifer says, and the family thought long and hard about what would meld those interests together. "And then I went to the pantry and opened the cupboard doors. There were probably 200 jars of spices and herbs there."

From pantry eureka to Allspice's opening in September 2010 was a scant 10 months of research, planning, sourcing and designing. The Rhoadses contemplated holding off for a few years in light of the unfriendly economy, but "we decided the pursuit of the passion was worth the risk," Jennifer says.

Part of the confidence came from the security of Jennifer's job as a human resources director with Principal Financial Group and part from a carefully crafted business plan. Besides, the two of them had already faced worse things than a bad business decision.

Jennifer uses a wheelchair after a lifeguard stand fell on top of her in 1988, her first year of college. She is also a cancer survivor and met Alex, she says, "when I was bald and had a swollen face — love at first sight." He had just finished chemotherapy for his own bout of Hodgkin lymphoma.

It could also be that part of the go-ahead courage was really a nudge from the universe, since a year and half after the store opened, Alex was gone.

When you walk into Allspice, there is a wall of smells — curry and cinnamon and pepper — that makes you want to cook something. Hence, Jennifer says, the tagline "Taste the Allspice experience."

"It's a place to enjoy, learn and share. You can sample everything and the people that work here are passionate about food and cooking," Jennifer says.

She attributes the come-hither-and-cook atmosphere not only to Alex, designer Connie Wilson and architect Tim Hickman, but also to the staff.

"I can't really even call them staff," she says. "They're family. I don't know where I'd be without my Allspice family."

Greta has put in her time, too, and was part of family discussions about the project from the beginning. "She really got into it," according to her mom. "She loves working the cash register and drinks the oils and vinegars like candy. This place is an extension of home." Greta Rhoads even has her own business cards for her position as "assistant creative director."

The Allspice family rallied when news of Alex's death came, and the store remained opened that day, and every other except for the day of the funeral.

Amy Jensen is co-manager of Allspice with Rory Brown, and was Allspice's first full-time employee. A graduate of culinary school, Jensen is the brains behind the store's recipes and weekly Saturday Sampler.

A lot of the tasks that were once Alex's have fallen to Jensen, especially the ordering.

"Really, I thought all that time he spent 'working' in his office he was probably playing games. Turns out he really was doing a lot of work," Jensen jokes. "It's definitely a learning curve; (his death) was a huge loss of information."

Joking aside, Jennifer credits the staff, and Jensen and Brown's leadership, with the store's continuing success "(At Allspice) I didn't want to focus on just keeping the wheels on, but also on taking it to the next level," she says. "The staff has implemented some of the things they had talked about with Alex. They've kept Alex's passion alive and the business has thrived."

In the store's first year, Allspice far exceeded business projections, an anomaly for a new business in any year, let alone during a recession. And year two has seen more than a 30 percent increase in business.

Jennifer wondered if she should sell the business after Alex's death. "But I'm not ready to sell now. I'm thinking more about what's next. I still want to see it thrive and grow. I have been approached about franchising and that could be a possibility for the future.

"But the advice is not to make any big life decisions for at least a year after a major event like a death, so right now my focus is on working together with Greta to get through this a day at a time."

Jennifer loves her work with Principal and says she will stay there as long as they'll have her and the team Alex put in place at Allspice plans to keep the business alive and kicking. "If I could do both, I would," Jennifer says, "but I can't do that and be a parent. I'll always have a connection to Allspice. I just don't know what that will look like in the future — whether it's as an owner or as a really loyal customer or something in between."

Both the Rhoadses and the store seem to be pulling through, if not unscathed, at least still strong and positive, ticking along even without their much-missed and beloved timekeeper, the heart of it all.

Still, though the store's success is a sort of balm for Jennifer, there's no escaping the hole that Alex's death created.

"We miss him. This was Alex's dream and his passion and he lit up when a customer came in the door and he had the chance to share his knowledge. I know it seems really hokey, but he had a kind of magic."
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