Former college employees add spice to their lives

Kim and Karen Pontius are former Ivy Tech Northeast employees who went about their small business ambitions in a nontraditional way. They named their Fort Wayne-originated spice company after their favorite vacation destination, Suttons Bay, Mich. Eleven years and three business moves later, the couple relocated the business to the idyllic village.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picturesque view is worth a relocation plan.

At least that’s the sentiment Kim and Karen Pontius shared after visiting Suttons Bay, Mich., while on vacation in 1990. 

The coastal village that so enchanted them began as an agricultural and lumber center in the northwest corner of the Great Lakes State before its evolution into a contemporary tourist destination, complete with boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and a working nickelodeon. The village’s name comes from its surrounding bay, an inlet of Lake Michigan, approximately 15 miles north of Traverse City.

Karen, an alumna of Ivy Tech Community College Northeast’s Hospitality Administration program, and Kim, the former executive director for the college’s Workforce and Economic Development division (the forerunner to Corporate College), saw promise in making the town their future home.

“The scenery is so beautiful, it sucks the air clean out of your lungs the first time you see it,” Kim says.

Nevertheless, the reality check of work and family responsibilities awaited the couple once they returned to Fort Wayne.

By the early 2000s, Karen had enrolled at Ivy Tech Northeast to follow a more intrinsic passion with cooking and baking, leaving behind a job using artificial intelligence software.

Assistant Professor of Hospitality Administration Meshele Wyneken took notice of Karen’s kitchen prowess.

“She was an excellent student and a really good cook, too. She came to us with a solid background in cooking,” Wyneken says. “Her education here helped tweak her natural talents.”

As Karen’s graduation approached, she says Kim asked her how she intended to apply her new skills and credentials. Based on Kim’s restaurant experience, Karen says the couple knew that the 16-hour workdays common in the restaurant industry would not be desirable, especially with three children either in or about to enter high school.

At about this time, a Fort Wayne businessman and acquaintance discussed a spice-blending business opportunity with Kim.

“When Kim introduced the idea to me it just seemed to fit,” Karen says. “What chef doesn’t need a good source of premium spices and seasonings? Besides, cooking and recipe development became fun, experimental, and diverse, unlike the restaurant business where sometimes you can get stuck in a rut doing the same things in the same ways because your customers have an expectation of sameness.”

Kim and Karen decided to welcome the challenge. They settled on Suttons Bay Trading Company Inc. as a business name, after applying the second habit of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to their enterprise: begin with the end in mind.

As Kim and Karen maintained their spice and seasonings business on Wells Street during its first five years of operation, they also pursued employment opportunities at Ivy Tech Northeast, with Kim directing WED and Karen teaching baking and pastry arts in an adjunct faculty capacity.

The Pontius family soon formed an extended bond with the college, as their children Jared, Jessica, and Stephanie either started or completed associate degrees at Ivy Tech Northeast.

While never losing sight of their relocation dream, Kim and Karen’s reward for patience and planning finally arrived 11 years and three business moves after the launch of Suttons Bay Trading Company Inc., with a permanent move to their beloved getaway.

Today, Suttons Bay Spices—the retail arm of the larger commercial, wholesale, and Internet fulfillment business—rests in a location where Karen says she enjoys storefront views of the park, beach, and marina in Suttons Bay, as she perfects and sells her trademark spice and seasoning blends.

Kim and Karen have achieved genuine bliss between the work they perform and the surroundings in which they pursue it.

“While most businesses typically start off small and build to a point where they seek larger market opportunities and larger population centers, we chose to put place ahead of profit and growth,” Kim says. “We have always been a little unconventional with our business model, but you cannot argue with the results.”

Photo credits: Joyce Kerns (lake) and Karen Pontius

Spice rack wisdom

  • Buy more spices and seasonings. Be bold. Experiment with them in creative ways, such as fresh ground nutmeg and black pepper on salads, spinach, and even vanilla ice cream.
  • Replace spices every year for optimal freshness. Whole spices maintain flavor and essential oils better than ones already ground.
  • Store spices and seasonings in a cool, dark place away from heat, sunlight, and UV light, which will compromise their distinct aromas and flavors.
  • Ignore the myth of freezing spices because the practice does not keep them fresher, longer.
  • Purchase spices and seasonings from a spice shop rather than a grocery store because they are fresher and generally less expensive, ounce for ounce.