FORT THOMAS, Ky. -- The man affectionately known throughout Greater Cincinnati as "The Colonel" doesn’t mind the pun-riddled headlines one bit.
He loves bringing flavor to local food, and as he and his team get acquainted with their new Fort Thomas home, residents are basking in the heat.
Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices opened its first stand at Findlay Market 10 years ago. The brand has since expanded to Jungle Jim’s International Market in Eastgate and, for a brief time, was headquartered at The Friendly Market in Florence.
The Colonel -- whose real name is De Stewart -- now services 50-60 regional restaurant clients. One of his biggest clients is popular local staple Eli’s BBQ, which recently ranked among the best barbecue joints in the nation.
"Eli wouldn’t mind me telling you that he’s never roasted a piece of meat that didn’t have our spices on it," Stewart said, laughing. "They’re now expanding to a Kroger store in Louisville, so we’re really excited to expand our reach along with theirs."
Despite the last decade’s impressive success -- or maybe because of it -- Stewart quickly realized after setting up shop that the Florence location wasn’t going to meet his business needs.
"The main issue we were having was with space," said Stewart. "I could manage the dry spices well enough there, but we needed to bring in a kettle for the wet products, and there simply wasn’t room."
In April, acting on the advice of a longtime colleague and realtor, Stewart moved his operation to a 1,400-square-foot space at 18 N. Fort Thomas Ave., where he now produces all his barbecue sauces, marinades and dry spices onsite.
"With the move, we managed to cut 44 miles off every trip to all of our restaurants. That’s how far away the Florence store was from downtown," said Stewart. "Those kinds of savings drop straight to the bottom line."
The new Fort Thomas location also came with 1,000 square feet of basement warehousing space, complete with walkout to a sizable back parking lot in which Stewart has already hosted a handful of community gatherings.
His 34-person team is enjoying its new home, particularly the three certified chefs Stewart employs. "Their minds just race with possibilities, and they love having that whole panoply of spices available in bulk; that’s something they never had when they were working in restaurants," Stewart said. "One of the chefs actually told me recently, ‘This is like Disneyland for me.'"
Stewart is now switching part of his focus to the immediate community, where his business has been well received among Fort Thomas residents.
"We were very excited when Colonel De and other businesses starting coming into the neighborhood," said Ashli Slawter, part owner of the nearby Studios of 33 North, which houses architects, interior designers and other providers of home renovation services.
"Ten years ago, this middle of town was very sleepy," Slawter said. “Now we’re seeing this wave of really neat stuff going on in the business community -- people out walking around and dining, going in and out of Colonel De’s, the coffee shop and Top This (donut shop)."
Slawter and 33 North’s tenants share The Colonel’s goal of educating the community about food. One 33 North tenant, Debbie Coultier, will offer cooking lessons and demonstrations through her culinary business, Passion in My Pans. Other tenants have worked off and on in an outreach capacity with students from Cincinnati’s Antonelli College of Design.
"Collectively, we’re all doing our part to draw people to the community and extend the offerings of our businesses beyond just the basics," Slawter said.
Stewart plans to continue engaging neighbors and supplying nearby restaurants with his wide array of products. He’s currently working with state legislators in Frankfort to secure the appropriate licensing for a separate LLC called The Colonel's Catering and Kitchen that will allow him to host cooking classes, food and alcohol tastings and other events designed to introduce visitors to a new way of looking at food.
Meanwhile, Colonel De has been in talks with local school officials to develop a boxed-lunch program for students at Highlands High School, which already offers a culinary program that helps feed grads into Cincinnati State's Midwest Culinary Institute.
Details of that program are forthcoming, but with regard to others in the community conducting similar food-education programs, Colonel De doesn’t feel the least bit threatened.
"To hell with competing against each other," said Stewart. "There are so many venues already here that we can use to put Fort Thomas on the culinary map. We’re not quite there yet, but that’s the goal. It’s going to take time, and I’m quite prepared to spend that time."