Shakin' It Up!
Cecil Johnson's original blend is certainly seasoning the Eastern Shore
By Manning Lee
Photos by Maire McArdle
Admittedly, I’m less than a gourmet chef. These days, I’m the type of chef who looks for fail-safe ways to add flavor to my dinners, and I take a very pragmatic approach. In a quest for simplicity, I discovered Cecil Johnson’s Cambridge Spice Company at a produce store south of Cambridge. I was drawn to the spice because of its cartoon-looking caricature on the label. Because I wondered how delicious this hometown spice would be, I grabbed a bottle of it and soon learned about Cecil Johnson’s magic in a bottle.
The company’s Original Seasoning looks like a simple spice rub for meats. I started using it on my pork chops. Before long, I put it on everything. I scramble my eggs with it and sprinkle some on my green beans, collard greens, and broccoli. Everyone in the house loves it when I fry my potatoes with the spices. I keep adding it until my food looks perfectly spiced against the black backdrop of my sizzling cast iron pans.
First impressions of Johnson — he’s just a guy who loves making food for his friends. While he’s known around Cambridge for his barbeque, he also does smoked pig, pulled pork, fried chicken and fried fish. He once entered a Summer Sendoff and BBQ competition in Cambridge with his daughter and a friend. He was the only non-restaurateur who entered the contest. He was surprised to learn that he’d won and was invited to be on a former MTS Broadcasting Company radio program with Troy Hill and with Mark Potter on WINX FM radio. The more I spoke with Johnson, the more I discovered that there were as many layers to him as ingredients in his proprietary blend of spices.
About eight years ago, Johnson began researching what it would take to bottle his own label barbeque sauce. He was both stunned and discouraged. “It required a minimum of a $35,000 to $40,000 investment which would be the equivalent of manufacturing a trailer truck full of sauce. I just wasn’t prepared to do that,” explained Johnson.
He was inspired to do something and so he decided to try something different. “I started playing with spices on my own to see what I could do with a dry rub. I started mixing different spices together, using my friends as guinea pigs. One day my wife said to me, ‘don’t touch it,’ she continued, ‘that’s exactly the blend right there.’ The only problem was I hadn’t been measuring. I was just mixing. I ended up having to break down everything that I’d put in so I could remember which ingredients and how much of each of them I had put in there,” he said.
Johnson’s friend, Keith Graffius, owner of Crabi Gras in Cambridge, advised him on some things he would need to do to get his spice company started. “He told me how to package and box the spices and then to come and see him. It took three or four months to prepare my spices. When I was ready, I delivered some boxes to him. He put them on his shelves in all three locations of Crabi Gras. The Cambridge Spice Company blossomed from there. Eight years later, our products are in 30 stores in the region,” Johnson said. They have since added a Jerk Chicken and a Blackened Fish rub to the product line.
The greatest strength the Original Seasoning has is its versatility. Johnson says that his customers sprinkle the spice on everything. “My wife puts it in her macaroni and cheese, and even popcorn. The blend isn’t something that you put on food where the taste of the spice comes through, but rather when you add the blend to the food, it enhances the flavor of the food. I guess that’s where the difference is between our blend and other spice blends,” said Johnson. “I even put it in my milkshakes. I feel like I’m eating a chocolate bar or a mouthful of strawberries.”
Johnson distributes his spices all around the Mid-Shore, from Queen Anne’s County to Ocean City. Most of his distributors are in Dorchester and Talbot counties. He has a very selective list of outlets where he sells his products. “I don’t want my products everywhere. I pick and choose where I want to sell. I make sure that I’m not stepping on people’s toes. I could have two stores side by side selling it, but they’d have to have different clientele. I’m careful about placement,” he explained.
People have taken notice of Cambridge Spice Company’s quality flavoring. He has created a blend of spices for a store under a private label for them. He has also created a private blend for a chef.
Besides running Cambridge Spice Company, Johnson is also a cancer survivor, a recent college graduate of The University of Phoenix with a bachelor’s of science degree in business, a teacher of Consumer Science at Mace’s Lane Middle School and a member of Waugh Chapel United Methodist Church.
Johnson hadn’t always wanted to be a teacher. He was a regular substitute teacher for 12 years. “I ran from teaching (as a career) for 12 years. I was at a crossroads when I said, ‘Lord, I keep making my own decisions. When I do, things don’t seem to work out. I am asking you. This time I will do whatever it is you have for me to do.’ He told me to go back to school. I chose school,” he said.
“I have a vision. I’d love to see all of my students learn, grow and leave my classroom with an increased level of skills to set personal goals and identify their career goals. One day, some of them could even possibly own their own businesses.”
Johnson recognizes the potential for growth in the spice company. “If I really started traveling to places like Western Maryland or North Carolina, there would be potentially a lot of room for growth. I’m not totally motivated by money. I love seeing people who enjoy my spices. If I were so driven financially, I’d lose the soul of my business. Seasoning, not money, is the soul of my business,” he said, adding, “I love where I am now with my teaching career and my business.”
There is so much to learn about this down-to-earth guy who is content with the world God’s given him. He has his family, lots of friends, dreams for mentoring students, as well as influence in his community through his work at Mace’s Lane Middle School. He also has a fantastic spice business that he uses to spice up people’s lives.
As for me and my family, we’re having pork chops with his magic spice on them for dinner tonight. I am determined that there will never be a time when my pantry isn’t donned with a very large bottle of Johnson’s Original Spice.
For more information about
Cecil Johnson’s Original Seasoning
and the rest of his products:
Cambridge Spice co.