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Roles with spice company season life for Carroll couple

Roles with spice company season life for Carroll couple
Mount Airy residents Donald and Ginger Ports head J.O. Spice Co., which supplies 800 restaurants, crab houses and carry-outs from New Jersey to the Outer Banks with seasoning for crabs. (Photo by Nicole Munchel)

The crabs piled on a table for a backyard crab feast, hot and spicy, are probably sprinkled with a unique taste many in the area associate with summer in Maryland.

If the crabs came from one of the metro area's carryout restaurants or crab houses, more than likely the seasoning isn't the iconic Old Bay. Chances are, it's a seasoning mix produced by a company run by a Carroll County couple.

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This is no McCormick with its giant campus in Hunt Valley and hundreds of employees.

J.O. Spice Co., in Halethorpe, is family run and employs a couple dozen people to produce seafood seasonings, as well as a whole line of products to spice up meat, fish and poultry.

"You go to a restaurant and you eat your crabs, and you think you're eating Old Bay," said Ginger Ports, vice president of marketing and sales for J.O. Spice Co.

And, said Mount Airy resident, that's fine. "That's a Maryland icon. There's a place for that product," she said.

"Old Bay is in the grocery store," she said. "J.O. is in the restaurants."

Ginger Ports works in the office next to her husband's in the spice company's headquarters in the southwestern portion of Baltimore County, a short distance from the Anne Arundel County border.

Donald Ports, the president, is from the third generation of the original family to run the business.

His grandfather, James Ozzie Strigle, a Tangier Island, Va., waterman, and his wife Dot, started J.O Spice Co. in a Baltimore storefront in 1945.

Don Ports, a Catonsville High School graduate, served in the U.S. Marine Corps before taking over operations at the spice company, then located on Hammonds Ferry Road, only a few miles from its present site.

The company, which produces its own combinations of spices, has been growing ever since.

J.O. Spice moved to its current location 24 years ago. Last December, it doubled its size when it took the adjacent 14,000-square-foot space for spice-mixing operations, a gift shop and specialty items.

With her youngest child in middle school, Ginger Ports, a long-time stay-at-home mom, considered getting a job when Don suggested that she work for J.O. Spice.

"Let's keep it in the family," he said.

One of her first projects was the custom crab mallet.

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"It was the mallets that brought me in," she said.

Don Ports bought the engraver and she began selling custom mallets to restaurants and for parties and even weddings. They sold 650,000 that first year and 800,000 last year.

Settling in

The couple moved to Sykesville soon after their marriage and now live in Mount Airy. They chose Carroll County, in part, because of the school system, and they like the slower pace after long days in the spice business.

"It's more relaxed out there, slower, not as stressful," Don Ports said.

The couple have three children and have been active in their community, especially Ginger Ports.

She participates every year in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. She worked first with a team in Sykesville, then formed a team six years ago called Colleen's Crusaders, in memory of a friend who had ovarian cancer.

She also volunteered at youngest daughter Brittany's school, Piney Ridge Elementary, and at Winfield Elementary, which Tyler and Bethany attended.

A soccer mom, she spent lots of time taking her son to games with his travel team.

"We were always, soccer, soccer, soccer and more soccer," she said.

Tyler, now 19, is at Carroll Community College, studying golf management. He works at Rattlewood Golf Course in Mt. Airy, where this summer he taught golf to children.

Brittany, 21, hopes one day to take over J.O. Spice Co. She is studying business at Carroll Community College.

Bethany, 15, attends South Carroll High School.

All three have worked for J.O. Spice, doing everything from sweeping floors to sticking labels on bottles to stocking the store and running the cash register.

"Just because they were family, they didn't get special treatment," said Don Ports. "They probably had to work harder."

Running a business meant a lot of time away from the kids for Don and now for both parents — although weekends usually remain open, Don said. The family had its first summer vacation together four years ago.

Now that she spends as much time in the office as her husband does, his wife understands his level of commitment.

"Working together has improved our marriage," she said as her husband nodded in agreement.

Now, she explained, she understands the long hours and the customer service that gets Don Ports in the car to make a delivery on a Sunday evening.

Busy season

For a small family run company, they have a big job. Ginger Ports said there are some 800 Mid-Atlantic restaurants, crab houses and carryouts among its regular customers.

Local crab houses, as well as seafood houses from New Jersey to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, are their main focus. Another 25 distributors handle orders in North Carolina, Florida, New Jersey and New York. Small as it is, J.O. is spicing things up as far away as Australia and Singapore, too.

With the company delivering its spice mixes directly to restaurants and crab houses, you might not have heard of it. "J.O. has always been on the wholesale side," Ginger Ports said.

Locally, restaurants such as the Woodbine Inn, Salerno's, Park's Landing, Winfield Inn, Captain Bob's Manchester, Steamin Mad Crabs in Hampstead, and Casa Rico's use J.O. Spice.

The familiar yellow and blue Old Bay can, on the other hand, is stocked in major retail outlets. "It's a consumer brand and a consumer item," said Laurie Harrsen, McCormick's director of public relations and consumer communications. "That's the way it started."

Old Bay, marking its 75th anniversary, is available wholesale for restaurants and, to a small degree, for companies with licensing agreements to use the spice blend in their products.

"Primarily, it's a consumer business," Harrsen said. "That's a good, long-standing heritage."

McCormick, which bought the brand in 1991, produced 50 million ounces — 3.1 million pounds — of Old Bay last year, she said.

J.O. produces enough spice to season 7 million to 12 million bushels of crabs a year. Some 1,750 to 3,000 tons of raw materials produce 3.5 to 6 million pounds of spice blends every year, according to Ports.

Spice only begins to describe J.O.'s participation in the traditional crab feast. They print bushel boxes for crab houses, stock brown paper to spread on the tables for crab feasts, order crab mallets by the trailer truck-full. They stock big paper bags and even vinegar, too.

"We literally provide everything but the crabs," she said.

Since the demand for crab seasoning tends to drop in the off season, J.O. started a small gift shop in an unused space a few years ago. It expanded when the facilities grew last winter.

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The diversity of their products keeps the staff working year round, Ports said. The work may change according to the season but "it keeps them busy," Ports said. That way, she explained, there are no layoffs, or temporary employees and everybody works full time, with holidays and two weeks at Christmas off.

"Everyone is like a family," she said.

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