BY JEANETTE HURT | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
The idea was simple: Create a blend of spices for foolproof potato salad that anyone could use. But there was a catch: Use no additives or preservatives, and still feature shelf stability. Professional pilot Alan Swan and his wife, Laura, who works in corporate retail, achieved their goal, and together, they’re now expanding CJ’s Premium Spices, looking to reach more home and commercial cooks.
The pair sat down with M Magazine at a local restaurant for lunch, bringing along samples of their finished potato salad, dill dip and onion dip. (And there weren’t any leftovers for the Swans to take home.)
Tell us how the idea originated.
Alan: I’m a professional pilot, and I privately fly the top 1 percent of the world, and I’ve been inspired by them. I was working with another pilot, who had this great recipe, and there was no other potato salad mix out there.
Laura: We eventually bought out the pilot (whose name was Captain Jeff).
Alan: We changed the name from Captain Jeff to CJ’s, and it worked out because our son’s name is CJ.
Laura: Our daughter, Hannah, (now) wants to have something named for her.
Alan: The problem with most spice packets is that they’re pulverized, so the ingredients stick together. Then (companies) have to add things like silicon dioxide, which is like sand, so (the ingredients) flow out of the packet. They’re also usually packaged in foil packets, so you can’t see the (bad ingredients). Our mixes look as great as they taste, so we want people to see them.
Besides no additives, preservatives or chemicals, your mixes are gluten-free, kosher and organic. Anything else to note about them?
Alan: They’re not pulverized. They’re whole spices, and our potato salad mix contains 12 ingredients, while our dips contain 11 each. No other mixes out there have that many spices. And while you could replicate them in your kitchen, it would cost you $65 to buy each ingredient individually. We also have a patent pending.
Are you both big at-home cooks?
Alan: No, and that’s why this is great — even I can make it. If you follow our three steps, you can make our potato salad in 21 minutes, taking 18 to boil the potatoes, and it’s delicious every time. It’s scratch cooking in a bag. Our tagline is “culinary joy in a packet.”
Laura: We always have homemade dip in our refrigerator.
Where can people get your spice blends?
Alan: They’re in all the Sendik’s stores, Good Harvest (Market), Albrecht’s Sentry in Delafield, and other stores throughout the state. We’re also at Camp Randall Stadium and the Kohl Center in their luxury suites. We also are at some farmers markets, and we are in some restaurants, food service and catering companies. We’d like to get in more stores, and we really believe our product is ideal for fish fries and catering companies. Often, potato salad is the worst (side dish) for a catered event.
Laura: It’s just a matter of breaking in. We’re at the Wisconsin State Fair, and that’s created a lot of excitement about our product.
Alan: And we can’t explain it over the phone — you have to taste it. I’ve even had people who don’t like potato salad taste ours, and they love it.
Laura: We have a team of women who go out and demonstrate in stores. We call them the “spice girls.”
Do people use your spice packets for things other than dips and potato salad?
Alan: They’ve cooked salmon with our dill mix; our onion dip has been used as onion soup in beef dishes and in pot roast — it’s delicious. They’ve also used the onion in chicken and pork (slow cookers). People have used our potato salad mix in potato soup, in faux potato salad using cauliflower, in scalloped potatoes, mashed potatoes and pasta salads.
Any suggestions for cooks?
Alan: Follow the three steps. Mix the spices with the mayonnaise before adding the potatoes. You don’t have to even peel the potatoes if you use thin-skinned potatoes like reds, Yukon Golds, Klondikes. But russets are for baked potatoes and are not so good. Also, rinse the potatoes off in a colander with cold water first to cool them down. You don’t want the mayonnaise to curdle like a gravy.