The Spice of Life, One on One with Southern Roots Spice Owner Todd McKinley

As you listen to Todd McKinley talk about Southern Roots Spice Company, it becomes apparent he means business. His knowledge of seasonings and willingness to experiment with flavor combinations would lead one to believe that he is a renowned chef at one of the best restaurants in the world. He’s a guy with a love for cooking and seasoning, coupled with years of medical sales experience, who brought to fruition the chance of a lifetime after being laid off due to the pandemic.

McKinley grew up in Chicago but currently resides in Atlanta with his husband of 21 years, Lynn Brewington. They opened Southern Roots Spice Shop as an online store in July 2020. In March 2021, the couple opened SRS Coffee Café and Southern Roots Spice shop, a 3,000-square-feet brick-and-mortar store. 

Southern Roots Spice is a modern shop focusing on helping its customers understand the world of spices and layering flavors. They offer over 100 individual spices and more than 130 custom blends. Their natural and organic products are free of chemicals or pesticides.

I had the pleasure of interviewing this exuberant spice connoisseur. McKinley shared his background story, recommendations for herbs you should keep in the pantry, and why you’ll never go back once you go smoked paprika. 

PrideIndex (PI): Introduce yourself and tell me about your background. 

Todd McKinley (TM): I’m Todd McKinley. My background has been in medical sales for my entire career. I was the North American Director of a diagnostics lab. Unfortunately, I was laid off during the height of the COVID pandemic. As a sales leader, it was my dream job. I have always had a strong love for cooking. And so, when I lost my job, this was an opportunity for me to figure out what my next step was. I decided that I would start my spice business online and have a chance to share my love for spices and exposure to various flavors and blends. This would be an opportunity or an avenue to venture out and finally try it. And if I failed, the whole world was on pause with me. So at least, I said, I did something. But you know, as God would have it, it has been good, you know, a great success for me. And, you know, an excellent way to continue my career and something I am genuinely passionate about and love so much.

PI: Do you have any culinary or official cooking degrees?

TM: No. I describe myself as a home cook. People often ask me that question because I love cooking. I have shared and created recipes, posted cooking ideas, and taught about spices by origin. I have also shared which flavors work best together, so people think I’m either a chef or have some culinary training; I am a simple home cook with a passion for elevating flavor and so that has always been my focus. When I created my home blends, I was always trying to find a way to make our food way more exciting and more delicious. The flavor is always at the center of good eating. That [is] why I’ve always been intrigued with making blends. Working in science and laboratory sciences, and in sales almost 30 years, I was always fascinated with the idea of putting something together, a combination of sorts, to create something so delicious.

PI: “Southern Roots” implies a southern background. Where does your family come from? How did you come up with the name Southern Roots? 

TM: In October 2019, my friend and I were leaving one of my favorite spice shops in California. As we walked along the lake near the shop, he said Atlanta would be a great place to bring the spice experience and dared me, as a joke, to do it. I’d lived in Atlanta for about 18 years, and my husband and I discussed retirement, so we decided that Atlanta would be where we would stay and bring our business.

My family is from St. Louis and East St. Louis, Missouri; however, I grew up in Chicago, on the Southside. I grew up as an only child in a large family. My mom came from a big family, and we always had huge family dinners and people coming together to cook and eat. Having those experiences in my large family and that love for food, and establishing myself in the South, the name Southern Roots Spice seemed so appropriate.

PI: What are your go-to spices? 

TM: Before moving to our new home this year, we’d lived in an Airbnb for 13 months; I had a few go-to spices because I was not doing a lot of cooking. We ate out more, so I used my Montreal Steak Blend as my go to spice to raise the flavor of the food. It has a paprika resin, so it’s bolder. The nice thing about a minced product is that you get a taste with every bite. These are nice things to have and work well on steaks or chicken. 

PI: What herb would you recommend everyone keeps in their pantry?

TM: Always keep garlic. Garlic is my favorite spice. I recommend keeping an element of heat, whether a hot sauce or cayenne powder, and always have something sweet, like sugar or brown sugar. It’s widespread that if you put garlic with either of them; you instantly have a delicious blend.

PI: What do you think is people’s biggest misconception about spices?

I think people believe that all spices are the same. They are a little different whether you buy them in the grocery store, a farmers’ market, or a spice shop. Most grocery store spices have other preservatives or additives that can lay the flavor, hold it down, or change it. When you have an all-natural product with no chemicals, pesticides, and non-caking agents, you get a full flavor of just that spice.

The other misconnection is folks hear the word spice and think it always means hot. When you ask them to try a spicy sauce, they say, “Oh my God, I don’t want anything hot.” So, what I’ve learned to ask is, would you like to try something flavorful? That speaks more to someone’s brain than it will taste hot. I use that more in our store when engaging customers. 

Lastly, I’ve learned that folks are unfamiliar with individual spices. Beyond garlic, most people stay with the salt and pepper. So, when they taste freeze-dried blackberries, and I mix them with bourbon sugar and a little bit of garlic, onion, pepper, and salt, which is my very BlackBerry blend, it blows their mind. If they have some of my dehydrated maple syrup mixed with Vietnamese cinnamon, and a little bit of garlic or onion, now they have my Southern Sweet Maple. These blends are different to the palate. I like exposing people to individual spices, so they can test out the flavors when I let them taste a blended mixture. 

PI: Where do you find the inspiration for your blends and products in your store? 

TM: I’m inspired to create new blends by so many things. My spice creations are inspired by places I’ve lived or food I’ve eaten. My Mississippi Huckleberry is a smoking blend that I make reminiscent of my times growing up with my stepdad from Mississippi. It’s freeze-dried huckleberries with smoked paprika, molasses, and a little cayenne.  I have a Carolina Rub because I used to live in Charlotte, and people from Charlotte are serious about their rib rubs. I created this Hungarian Rub with a bit of lemon, Hungarian Paprika, and garlic. 

When I create stuff, I think to myself, “I’ve got to put this out on social media.” Sometimes my inner saboteur starts to speak loudly in my head, so what I do when I am in a place like that, as opposed to getting mired down in it, I do the work. In my fear, I created four of my most delicious blends. I would not say that I’m fearless; I’m living with less fear and doubts.

PI: You mentioned smoked paprika. I tried it after seeing someone cook with it on one of the cooking shows. My partner went shopping and committed the cardinal sin by bringing home regular paprika. I thought, how he dare purchase that typical shit! (Laughs.)

TM: Let me give you a two-second history of paprika. So, honey, when you eat it, you can luxuriate in knowing [where it came from], which is what I love telling my customers. I am selling three kinds of paprika in my store. One is what I call domestic paprika, which is what we grew up on. The others are smoked and Hungarian paprika. So, what’s the difference? Because they are [all] red.

So, we grew up on [the most common one.] It is just for color and does not have a lot of flavors in it. That one is red bell pepper seeds. It is roasted because all paprika must be smoked to get some taste. 

Now let’s talk about smoked paprika. Christopher Columbus brought the seeds back from the new world and gave them to King Ferdinand. Ferdinand gave the seeds to the monks. The monks grew them, [but the seeds] did not ripen, so they thought, “Why don’t we smoke them?” Hence why, we smoke Spanish paprika. That smoky flavor comes from the monks. 

The third one, Hungarian paprika, is something I recommend you try. And if you get some, you better order it from Southern Roots Spice. Hungarian paprika is slightly sweeter. It’s so delicious when you’re making a grill blend and don’t necessarily want that smoky flavor. It gives you a delightful sweetness; I don’t mean sweet like sugar because it’s still paprika. It’s the smoky sweetness that helps grill foods beautifully. I recommend adding smoked paprika when you’re grilling or adding to your meatloaf or a pot roast to get that smoky flavor out of it with that onion and garlic. Hungarian paprika works with deviled eggs and meat pies. 

PI: Do you want to open a chain of stores or focus on the store and post orders by mail, bulk, etc.?

TM: My business has a two-pronged approach. Initially, my goal was to start online, which I did. I aimed to build myself as a brand authority in the spice game. I knew I wanted to create a brick-and-mortar store. So, I opened the store, which helped me to become a go-to authority around flavor. We have a royalty deal where I’m creating spice blends for another small company. I have a bunch of avenues to branch out and [open] franchise stores throughout the United States. My goal is to educate the African American population, and those interested in food and invite folks who love spices into the store to try all my blends.

The next phase is to put our products in specialty stores like Whole Foods promoting our line of international blends. We want to be everywhere from grocery stores in Atlanta to specialty wine stores, Chicago eateries, and chop shops where people buy meat and meat products. I want my spices to be where folks can purchase them anytime and in restaurants used by chefs. I’ll make those sales calls, sit down with chefs, and discuss the flavors I can create for them.

Visit Southern Roots Spice