If your spice cabinet is anything like ours, there are three main categories of little jars: the ones purchased for a random recipe (never to be heard from again); those that are used sparingly for specific purposes; and the precious few that are used day in and day out. It’s those everyday spices and seasonings that are the quiet heroes of the kitchen, adding bursts of flavor to punch up simple meals. It was the pursuit of this type of workhorse, all-purpose seasoning that led steamfitter-turned-chef Marcus Davis and his wife Rose Orrell Davis to found their spice company, Wah Gwan.
The couple, both of whom are nutrition coaches, recently relocated to New Hope, PA after living in the New York City area for years. For them, this project started with Scotch Bonnet peppers. After looking for a high-quality dried version of this staple of Caribbean and West African cuisine, the Davis finally came across a delicious, potent specimen. That discovery opened the door to a new entrepreneurial venture aimed at sharing delicious flavors with home cooks far and wide.
The brand, which came to life during the early phases of the Covid-19 pandemic in Spring 2020, speaks to a specific challenge of home cooks. It’s one we’re all too familiar with after preparing countless meals during quarantine: how to make food that’s satisfying and healthy but doesn’t take forever. Wah Gwan’s spice blends provide a helpful kitchen hack that doesn’t sacrifice quality or nutrition. The name “Wah Gwan” is inspired by the Jamaican Patois greeting which means “What’s going on?” and draws from the West Indian flavors that Marcus grew up enjoying with his parents, who were both Jamaican immigrants. So far, the spice lineup includes their signature all-purpose seasoning, as well as a spicy version of that blend, a dry brine, a pure Scotch Bonnet pepper powder, and G-salt, French finishing salt. It can be used for pretty much any dish, ranging from grilled meats to saucy pasta to vegan sandwiches.
We spoke with Marcus and Rose about this new Pennsylvania business, and are excited to share their story with you through this PA artisan Q&A:
PA Eats: What was the original inspiration for the Wah Gwan line of seasonings?
Marcus Davis: A big part of the impetus and inspiration was the need for an all-purpose seasoning that anyone can use without second guessing. That’s something we knew would make our lives easier, and that became our mission: solving that problem with our spice line. It helps focus on what’s important, like spending time with family. As we built Wah Gwan, it became part of our lives and our community.
Rose Orrell Davis: In his self-taught chef life, Marcus had a lot of people pressing him for an all-purpose seasoning for years. When he and I first met, and were talking about food and how we’d love to find a combo of seasonings that is an all-in-one solution. We experimented with different flavors and really realized that, in our work as nutrition coaches, people kept asking for a seasoning without salt in it, because of heart issues, hypertension and other health issues. It really fit into the wellness conversation.
When did you start working on Wah Gwan? What was that process like?
Marcus: We first experimented with it in late 2018, then we got serious about it probably a few months after that. As a gift from Rose, I received a certain kind of scotch bonnet powder and dried paprika. I’d been trying to find a quality scotch bonnet powder for my whole life! It’s one of the most distinct flavor in West Indian food, but it’s hard to find. It has a flavor profile unlike any other pepper, and having retained that during the manufacturing process, it was mind-blowing. The paprika was sourced from Spain, and it really spoke to me when I tasted it. Putting those spices together and then building around that was a moment we knew we had something. Once we found these, we thought: How can we get more people to experience these flavors?
Rose: We’ve always known that if you start out with quality you’re on your way. Building the blends was a matter of balance and ratios and flavor profiles that match up. That whole blending process is about whittling it down until you get something that people would commonly use. That’s how we started. It became a matter of which seasonings are going to compliment each other. We tested it all out and then gave it to a wide range of people and got their response backs. Overall, it was so well received!
Marcus: We launched the business just before the pandemic, and we were just thrust into it. The world stood still and we kept going. We tripled-down during that time and we had a chance to gain a lot of ground while people were at home and thinking more about what they’re eating. Some people don’t like to get in the kitchen, but you can win them over if you can make that experience more enjoyable and easier.
Can you explain more about the R&D process of developing your products?
Marcus: We tasted the spices dry, cooked, individual and mixed. Starting with all the separate variables, it becomes a matter of dimension and depth. Spices like paprika lend themselves to color and volume, so we started to build out and test the amount of what’s out there. It was a lot of plastic containers filled with spices, and a lot of meat cooked with it as a control group.
On top of honing the flavor ratios, it was a lot of running numbers, and learning about importing spices. The paprika is from Spain, so we were looking at importing spices and figuring out if we could consistently get the one we want for the right price point. Our sel gris (G Salt) comes from France, another international sourcing. The scotch bonnet was the biggest one, because we had to make sure that this quality powder that was produced by this one guy was sustainable. He solely grows for us, and we have first look at the peppers and are in close communication with him.
How did you land on the branding? It’s such a clean, serious aesthetic.
Rose: We initially launched the spices with Marcus’ media brand. The product line fell under that umbrella until it was clear that the spices line was going to run in its own direction. I did a lot of the product branding, and I kept thinking back to the early 2000s when I lived in California and Dean & Deluca was this dream culinary experience. It was so sensory. I modeled our look after their in-house product lines, which had an industrial chef feel. That’s exactly what we want the impression to be: elevated, sophisticated, a touch of masculinity.
Tell us about your move from NYC to Pennsylvania!
Rose: We moved from both working in Manhattan and dealing with commuting, high stress jobs, the whole nine yards. You live the life and it’s great, but I went remote prior to the pandemic and Marcus stepped away from steamfitting. We realized we don’t need to be in the city anymore every day, we can expand our options. I grew up in New Hope, I know this area well. We looked online at houses on a whim and we found a house on a farm right in New Hope. We drove down the next day and signed a lease that week, and moved in two weeks later! The pandemic hit shortly after, it was the foreshadowing we could never have seen and we’ve been counting out blessings ever since.
We couldn’t do with our business what we’re doing if we weren’t here. The chaos and distraction and financial burden of living in the city was stripped away. You can’t discount what nature brings to peace-of-mind and perspective. We both went through a transition. I moved home and that’s a whole thing. Marcus never lived in the country like this, so we probably went through six months of adapting.
Marcus: I’m one of those born-and-bred New Yorkers, but life has a plan, and sometimes you go with it. This was one of the best moves though. It was important for us to have some peace and solitude. Being in the city would have a completely different outcome, everything is so concentrated. Out here, we had some space and focus. New Hope has been very receiving of myself. I always try to support locally, and we have access to so many farms here, there’s a connection, and that translates to our products and how we want to present them. The mission is bigger than your food being flavored, it’s supporting a whole community that supports each other.
- Photos: Dana Kinlaw, Brea Warren and Jared Simpson