Savor the Flavor

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy Jaime Lee Photography

Sep 1, 2023 | Featured, People

Variety is truly the spice of life. Just ask Tay Stratton, who’s built a thriving business on the simple concept that things are only as good as they taste. It’s a simple philosophy that’s led this Arkansas native to bring the world to The Natural State, one zesty spice blend at a time.

“I grew up on a farm south of Pine Bluff in the Delta,” Tay says. “It gave me a background of the agricultural part of things and an appreciation for plants and what they can do. That’s kind of been my stronger suit before I got into the cooking side of it.”

Tay not only traces her familial roots to the family farm, but her culinary ones as well. Specifically, she said a patch of wild-growing mint was the taproot for all that would come after.

“I give all credit to this wonderful patch of Kentucky mint we had growing on the side of the house out on the farm,” she said. “As a young child, a ten-year-old or nine-year-old, I would pick that mint and just be mesmerized on how I could crunch it and release the smell and then the taste. I think that herb is really what drove me into starting to study and understand spices.

“Honestly, my parents were not great cooks and so I don’t have that wonderful history; it was the opposite. That’s part of why I created what I did, is because a lot of people were like I was then. Spices were confusing, yet they are just amazing when used correctly. What I’ve tried to do is simplify things.”

Tay didn’t figure out how to express her passion for spices right away. A collegiate swimmer, she studied landscape architecture and spent more than three decades as a swim coach. Her spice blends slowly came into being like a lot of entrepreneurial ventures do – as a side hustle that became more and more refined.

“I was doing really well, and people wanted me to make blends for them,” she says. “I was starting to study the different fillers and all the chemicals that are put into commercial spices. I started studying spice blends and that’s what helped me really jump into this full force. I was like, ‘We’ve got to get some good stuff out there.’”

In 2018 Tay’s brand, Fennel and Fire, was unleashed on the general public and quickly became a hit at farmers markets and, soon after that, specialty retailers. Over the past five years, she’s perfected twelve year-around blends into which she rotates another ten seasonal products.

Her products aren’t luxury-level expensive, per se, but are considered premium compared to the mass-produced shakes in the grocery store. And, Tay is quick to add, for good reason.

“Being artisan, I’m using a small batch so it’s keeping the product really fresh,” she says. “I’m making something once a month so you’re getting a spice blend that’s probably made three weeks ago. And then buying in small quantities, we’re using incredibly fresh spices.

“The other thing is you’re looking at no fillers, no MSG, no chemicals. There’s no GMO, no gluten. That’s another passion of mine, the organic side and the healthy side. I think that’s very, very important for us, partly because I grew up on that farm. I saw the pesticides, I was around the fertilizer, I saw that and I understand I don’t want it.”

Producing a superior product also means the spice blends deliver their intended flavor efficiently. Thus, a $10 package of Fennel and Fire blends yields about thirty servings, which means thirty meals out of one container.

“That stretches a long way,” Tay says. “I think the difference is really just what’s in the makeup of the spice blend. [National brands] use a lot of fillers, they use a lot of salt to try to bring their price down. People sometimes will need to add salt using my blends, because I don’t use salt as a filler. I use it simply as a tasting element of what I think is exactly right for the blend.”

Tay also recognized early that many home cooks, having been brought up on cheap spice blends, don’t really know how to harness flavors and marry them to dishes in creative ways. That why she’s made consumer education a big part of her company’s overall approach. Every package of Fennel & Fire contains usage instructions, from what to pair the spice blend with to when to introduce it in the cooking and serving process.

“A lot of it came out of the process that I had to go through, because I didn’t come from the grandma who cooked forever. I had to learn it,” she says. “When do we use this? How do we use this? I wanted to share that with everybody, because it is important to know how to use [spice] properly.

“I’m here to help you find those flavors. A lot of times you see these spices and it’s confusing and the consumer doesn’t know what to do with them. That’s what I’ve tried to do with my packaging, is just make it simple. Then, as customers become better cooks and more adventurous in the kitchen, they can start playing with things differently. We help people learn how to keep moving forward, exploring in the kitchen.”

In 2019, Tay took her company to yet another level, opening Fennel and Fire Crafting House, a brick-and-mortar location in Little Rock, where clients can get an even more immersive experience in the company’s product line. She’s also branched into creating loose leaf tea blends in recent years, which she’s created and curated in the same way she’s done her spice products.

“I got interested in tea just for my own health benefit,” she says. “I’d always heard how healthy it was and wanted to be one of those tea people and I just never could get there. Through the business, I started having people contact me with good teas and sending me samples and I started tasting and I was like, oh wow, now I get it. It was a whole different world from that tea bag I had tried to like. So, the teas started me on a quest again. It’s an art form and I absolutely love it.”

Between her retail and online business and a booming wholesale component, there’s plenty to keep Tay busy in her venture. Which, she said, is part of the fun, as it stokes her creativity as well as her culinary interests.

“I like to keep it fresh and exciting and keep things moving,” she says. “I was blessed with the gift of creativity, and I am wanna-be artist. Creating spice blends was really an art; it’s almost like all those spices are your palette and then you’ve got to know what to pull in and mix to create the flavors. You’ve got to know how to not take it too far and not go too little just to hit that magic mark.

“A lot of it is intuitive. A lot of it is education. I’m constantly reading and studying and tasting. I’ll order it from all over different parts of the world to taste the different ones to see which one I want to use. It’s all part of the curiosity of it all and that’s what drives me.”

Find Fennel and Fire locally at The Market by the Park in Fort Smith, visit Fennel and Fire online at, or their retail location at 402 East 3rd, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Do South Magazine

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