Manny and Mike Hernandez toast another successful weekend of grilling at their Flower Mound home … which, of course, features their new spice blends from their company Casa M. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Mike and Manny Hernandez have peppered their romantic partnership with a passion for food

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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When Mike Hernandez was in high school, he told his friends and family that he knew he would follow one of two career paths, but hadn’t decided between them: Either he would attend the Culinary Institute of America to become a chef, “because I knew that I really enjoyed cooking,” or he would head to Tulane University to obtain his Ph.D. and become a chemical physicist.

His friends said those choices were at odds with each other; Mike didn’t see it that way. “Everyone looked at me like I had 15 heads — nobody saw they were related. But to me, they were one and the same.” In his mind, both involved precision work dealing with formulas and using technology; one of the laboratory instruments he would use in his chemistry career was virtually identical to what chefs use to sous vide meat. Tomato, tomahto.

But he did have to choose… and Tulane won out. Mike earned his Ph.D. and quickly relocated to Ohio to work with Scott’s, the chemical company known for its fertilizers. But being stuck in the Midwest did little for his mood.

“When I moved away, I immediately began missing the flavors of New Orleans that I had become accustomed to — the cayenne, the Creole and Cajun spices,” he recalls. “My mom was from New Orleans, would ship me spices all the time. Then I had an epiphany that she was mostly paying to ship me salt.” Mike began coming up with his own recipes and blends and tinkering with flavors.

As it turned out, the job at Scott’s didn’t last all that long, and so Mike branched out into entrepreneurial enterprises. “I wanted to blow things up with lasers,” Mike says… and he’s not joking. He learned UNIX in the early days of the online boom; that led him to establishing his own companies.

“It was the perfect time, when the internet was beginning to bubble,” he says. By the time he started his last company (around 2005), he devoted the little free time he had to twerking his spice recipes, honing the flavors.

The beef-specific Cattle Drive rub comes in Controlled (milder) and Uncontrolled (hot) versions.

Mike eventually met his now-husband, Manny Hernandez, who shared his passion for food … and for business. So, when Mike decided to sell his last company for a nice sum in January 2017, he finally had all the free time in the world.
That didn’t last.

“Many was like, ‘What are you going to do next?’ He suggested something around my spices and grilling, but I was not sure about that — I did not know if I wanted to devote so much work to a business like I just had for 14 years.”

Manny’s idea, though, germinated; and Mike, being ever-ambitious, dove in headlong. The result: The newly-launched Casa M Spice Co., which combines their entrepreneurial spirit, love of barbecuing and enthusiasm for spices. It has been hard work… but also deeply satisfying.

The basis for the company — and the concept — has always been a spice blend that Mike named Chain Reaction, a season-all mix that works well on everything from scrambled eggs to shrimp. They probably could have stopped there. But no, they wanted to create an entire product line.

“The evolution sharted with Chain Reaction, and every blend after that was built on it — a tweaking of that particular [recipe],” Mike says. And they are tailored to the proteins they enhance.

The seafood rub, called Hooked, takes Chain Reaction and adds dill, tarragon, chervil and other ingredients to create a different profile. Then there’s Free Range (for chicken, with a trace of brown sugar), Cattle Drive (for beef), Whole Hog (for pork, with brown sugar and ginger), and one they are especially proud of: Good Shepherd for lamb.

“[When we looked in the market], there was almost nothing out there specifically for lamb, which I love,” Mike says. The addition of rosemary adds an earthiness that highlights the gaminess of the meat. (There are Controlled and Uncontrolled variations of each blend. “Controlled is more palatable to those who don’t like [too much heat].”)

“A lot of our inspiration is adaptation,” Mike says. “You see flavors that will go well together. When you travel around the world you find flavors you love, so we took inspiration from Jamaican cuisine, we took inspiration from Indian cuisine and a lot of other places. And I think that one of the great things that makes our blends stand apart is, they aren’t one-dimensional. There’re not super-forward on any one particular ingredient.

They give you an evolution of flavor that stays with you for a long time.”

And they learn from people who use their spices as well. Mike liked to make Brussels sprouts using only Chain Reaction until a neighbor who was also an earlier customer posted a picture in which she made the sprouts with Whole Hog. “I said, I never really thought about that. But she said

Brussels sprouts when they are cooked right they are sweet anyway, so I thought the ginger and sweetness of Whole Hog would add to them. She was right.”

They take great pride in their product, from start to finish. The ingredients are all non-GMO, all-natural and of exacting standards. “One of our peppers is unique to us — they cost $70/lb. So that spice is more expensive than at a grocery store, where spice blends are mostly salt. All of our blends, though, are low-sodium … less than 35 mg a serving,” Mike says. It took them months to find a packer who was as dedicated to consistency and quality as they are. And the quality shows.

“We do know there’s at least one chef [who has liked one of our blends so he] is trying to reverse engineer our recipe!” Manny says.

They even have a fan in Food Network Star alum Sarah Penrod, who has designed dishes around their rubs. “I enjoy it on brisket, on fajitas. I find the blends surprisingly dynamic,” she says.

Their attention to detail is something that has served them well in navigating the byzantine world of making, marketing and even labelling their products, from FDA rules about the size and content of the ingredient disclosures to copyrights concerning their logo … something of a particular point of pride for them both.

The couple had already designed a personal logo — Casa M, representing the House of Mike and Manny.

“Casa M was a house logo created for our home in Cozumel, but people said it was too busy to work on a shelf,” Manny says. “We hired [a company] to solicit logo designs, and we received 138 submissions, then we cut it down to eight and put those out on the internet and had people vote.”

The winner, which uses a chile pepper in the M and intentionally conjures a passport stamp to suggest the internationality of the spices, was the deserved winner.

“People were really engaged [in the voting],” Manny says. “They were actively leaving comments. When we printed the logo [without color from the pepper] of some products, people complained, ‘Where’s the red chile?’”

Hey, you can’t please everyone all the time. But that just adds spice to life.

Casa M Spices are available online at CasaMSpice.com and available in gift sets (including shakers) and in refillable packages for $8.99 and up