Many Wichitans know and love The Spice Merchant for its flavorful selections of coffee, tea, spices and gifts, but the local treasure is also dear to the heart of Newman University.
The Spice Merchant, Wichita’s Original Gourmet Coffee Roaster, is owned by Newman alumnus Robert “Bob” Boewe, graduate of 1969 when Newman University was known as Sacred Heart College. The notable alumnus graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in business.
After serving in the U.S. Navy and attending college, Boewe took a job with the Kansas Department of Children and Families. He continued working in social services with the Kansas Juvenile Courts then decided it was time to do some traveling.
“I took every dime I had and backpacked through Europe for two and a half months,” Boewe said. “I came back to my wife-to-be, who I had met in Topeka at a training seminar. Our idea for The Spice Merchant came from living two and a half years in St. Louis while attending graduate school at St. Louis University. We spent weekends exploring the city’s assorted ethnic groceries and the great Soulard Farmers Market.”
Boewe and his wife opened The Spice Merchant in 1980 in a building across the street from Wichita East High School. The original location was only 400 square feet. The Spice Merchant is now located in a building with 13,000 square feet of space.
“Plus, we’re in a historic landmark building,” Boewe added. “We are headquartered in the place that was originally built for the Mentholatum Co. in 1908. So (The Spice Merchant) helped celebrate the 100th year anniversary in 2008,” he said.
“In any business, you hope you made the right choices, have the right product to sell and that it’s always what the customer wants, and we’ve been very lucky with that,” Boewe said. “We now have 20 employees and our annual sales are over $2 million each year.”
The Spice Merchant has been roasting coffee since 1985 and roasted more than 100,000 pounds of coffee in 2017. Today, they receive coffee imports from almost every producing country.
“We have a huge selection of 220 teas in our shop that we flavor and blend, as well as lots of spices,” he added. “We also have an assortment of kitchen accessories, coffee and tea accessories, and gift items like teacups, coffee mugs, lots of different pretty serving pieces, aprons, dish towels and T-shirts.”
Several one-of-a-kind furniture pieces, such as wood carved cabinets from India, are placed throughout the store and display the Old Town coffee, tea and spice.
“One of the neat things about the job and the business I’m in is that I get to go to market in Dallas and Chicago for a big international houseware show in March,” Boewe said. “We also have a big tea expo in June every year in Las Vegas, so we have a lot of really cool importers that we work with. We try to keep it fun and interesting, and to make it work, we try to have items that you can’t buy at Walmart and other places.”
For years, The Spice Merchant has supported Weekend Edition on KMUW, the local National Public Radio station. It has also provided tea and other items for the Community Christmas Program at the Wichita Art Museum, CityArts and Botanica.
Boewe has also kept ties with Newman by supplying ingredients for the High Tea event as well as tea and coffee to the Multicultural Leadership Organization on campus.
“I remember the collegiality between faculty and students in my time at Newman,” Boewe said. “Sometimes we’d take off and drive to Winfield for dinner and things like that, and it was just a really good experience for me. I remember Sister Tarcisia Roths and Dr. Campbell, who taught some of my businesses classes and a commercial design art class that I really enjoyed, too.”
Boewe has been working since he was 14 years old, and through his business has truly learned about the real world, he said.
“One of my customers is an adjunct professor at another school and he asked me to come and speak. I always tell the students, ‘Put your books away and let’s talk about everyday business.’ We talk about taxes, upkeep, landlords, every penny counts and you better not squander it. Because you can read all the books you want, but experience is crucial.”
At 75 years old, Boewe said he loves what he does.
“I get up every morning and come here to work. My wife asks when I’m going to retire. She says, ‘You’re old,’ and I say, ‘Well, I’m not done yet.’ We’re survivors, we love what we do, and we’re going to be doing it for a while.
“After all,” Boewe joked, “we have to pay off that new machine somehow.”