Debb Masterson, founder of Minnesota Nice Spice, is clear about her company's goals. The proceeds from her line of organic seasonings — savory and sweet — all go to the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in St. Paul.
Over the course of her career, Masterson has held a variety of jobs in restaurants, medical device companies and as a bar owner. Now as a social entrepreneur, Masterson blends her passion for organic herbs with her commitment to her younger sister, Lucy Johnson, an adult with disabilities and an award-winning visual artist.
Masterson, her sister's guardian, credits Johnson's success to Interact, an arts nonprofit dedicated to providing studio and performing arts opportunities for artists with disabilities. When Interact needed funds for studio art materials and a water cooler, Masterson decided to spice things up. She'd already been making seasoning blends with her backyard herbs for gifts. So she and Johnson packaged them for sale in jars with a label Johnson designed. Profits from Minnesota Nice Spice paid for that water cooler and materials, and continues to support Interact's work today.
Masterson learned to make seasoning blends with her grandmother, Louisi, who at 98 continues to help develop the flavors of these blends.
"My Big Easy Louisi Cajun [seasoning] is named for her," said Masterson. "Louisi and I will sit at the kitchen table and she'll help me taste and refine the balance of ingredients." The operation has moved out of Masterson's kitchen to her Spice Shack in Riverplace in Minneapolis, which serves as both production kitchen and showroom.
Last year, Minnesota Nice Spice won the Deluxe Corporation Small Business Revolution Award and received $25,000.
"We were voted in by our customers," Masterson said. The prize money provided the means for Masterson to hire part-time help during the Christmas rush, fulfilling orders from corporate and online sales of gift packs.
Among the dozen different varieties, Minnesota Nice Spice's most popular blends include 10,000 Lakes No-Salt Blend (a tangy mix of lemon peel and garden herbs with a kick of chile), and Lucy's Pub Blend (with plenty of garlic, pepper and herbs to give burgers and bloody Marys a boost). Through the year, Masterson adds seasonal spice mixes to her online offerings.
Minnesota Nice Spice seasoning blends (www.mnnicespice.com) are available in many metro-area Target stores, as well as Whole Foods Market, several area co-ops and Hy-Vee stores. The 4-ounce glass jars retail for about $8.