Treasure Valley salsa operations are flourishing, and some aren’t so small anymore

Here’s a look at four of the local salsa makers adding spice and flavor to the Treasure Valley food scene.

zkyle@idahostatesman.comAugust 5, 2013 

Salsa is a big deal in the Treasure Valley.

Whole Foods in Boise carries 83 salsa flavors and heat levels. Boise Co-op carries seven fresh salsa brands and eight canned, shelf-stable brands. Eight of the 18 brands are made in the Treasure Valley, and most started in the last three years.

Some national media reports say salsa has usurped ketchup as America’s favorite condiment. While that claim appears debatable, the nation — and the Valley — have unquestionably acquired a taste for the cool and spicy stuff that drenches chips at our summer barbecues and populates our grocery shelves, farmers markets and restaurant menus.

Here’s a look at four Valley salsa producers feeding that demand.

STEPH’S SERIOUSLY GOOD SALSA

Garden City

Stephanie Bennett remembers her hometown of Santa Maria, Calif., for its beef tri-tip barbecue and its chunky salsa that ventured into pico de gallo territory.

Bennett, 45, has made salsa since her grandmother taught her how as a girl. But she didn’t consider making salsa her career until 2011. She took a sample to Boise Co-op. The employees must have liked it, because the manager later called and asked when the salsa could be ready for the shelves.

“I didn’t even have a name or a business yet,” Bennett said. “I was ready and on the shelves in six months.”

Bennett’s tubs are now available at the co-op for $5.49 as well as several Albertsons in the Treasure Valley and grocery stores in the Wood River Valley.

She spent about $25,000 of personal savings to start the business. That included converting her rented work space into a commercial kitchen. She cobbled together used equipment. Her sink used to be in a Jack in the Box restaurant.

Salsa-making is Bennett’s only job. She and four employees produced 1,800 gallons of diced tomatoes, cilantro, yellow onion, serrano peppers, sea salt and fresh lime last year, nearly four times as much salsa as she made at first.

“We love cilantro and realize it is a love/hate relationship for most people,” Bennett said. “When you jar salsa, you cook out that yummy cilantro flavor, and we use a lot of cilantro.”

She hopes her salsas reach shelves in Washington in the coming years. She said she has made inquiries and received interest from stores. However, establishing distribution systems for fresh salsa — which must be refrigerated — is more complicated than shelf-stable salsa. Bennett declines to disclose revenues or profits.

“We have to be able to get it to stores in Seattle fast and keep it tasting like customers made it at home, or even better,” Bennett said. “That’s the biggest hurdle.”

AJ’S SOL CRECIDO SALSA

Boise

Aj Lopez, 51, turned to salsa making after losing her job at Bailey Engineering in Eagle when the economy soured in 2008. She filled out job applications online but never heard anything.

“They seemed to disappear into a black hole, so I pulled up my big-girl pants and decided I was going to make it on my own,” Lopez said.

Lopez chose the name Sol Crecido, Spanish for sun-grown, to give her brand the fresh, garden feel she was shooting for. She started processing in the now-closed Bull’s Head Pub in Meridian at night when the space was unoccupied.

She moved to a commercial kitchen in the Stonehenge Commissary at 11295 Ustick Road, a commercial kitchen attached to Stonehenge Produce, one of the first stores to carry Sol Crecido. Hers is one of six small businesses to use the kitchen, including Cowboy Caviar, a corn salsa producer.

“(This kitchen) is my piece of paradise,” she said. “I have all the room I want now.”

The salsa, which sells for $5.39 at Boise Co-op, allowed Lopez to quit her twice-a-week job at Hobby Lobby and make Sol Crecido a full-time job.

Working by herself, Lopez made about 18,000 tubs of salsa last year. She reports about a $15,000 profit on $56,000 in revenue. She writes herself a check for $300 each week. She may have to hire more employees if she sells to more large grocery chains.

“I am the owner, president, sales manager, salsa producer, accountant, delivery person and cleanup crew,” Lopez said. “If I get any bigger, I’ll definitely have to hire more people.”

TREASURE VALLEY SALSA

Caldwell

In 2010, David McCown was trying to sell some office furniture on Craigslist when an errant click brought up a post for a local salsa-making business for sale. McCown purchased Treasure Valley Salsa soon after.

The company has grown 400 percent since and has increased production to 500 cases a month from 80. It is sold in most large grocery stores in the Valley, and McCown’s salsa empire is about to expand. Starting Aug. 8, Treasure Valley Salsa will be sold in 150 Fred Meyer stores in the Northwest. The local company’s Habanero & Lime, Salsa Verde and other products will travel more than 2,000 miles to Fred Meyer shelves in Alaska, a long way from the University of Idaho’s Food Technology Center in Caldwell, where Treasure Valley Salsas have been made since McCown took over. The company’s seven varieties sell for $4.99 each at Boise Co-op.

McCown is the chairman of the Air Charter Association of North America. He travels often but oversees his eight employees on processing days. While McCown appreciates the Valley’s buy-local attitude, he said his business needed to expand to areas with more disposable income to remain viable in the long term.

“We’re trying to become more than just a locally produced salsa,” McCown said. “It’s hard to make a living in this business if you are just focused on the Treasure Valley.”

Unlike Steph’s, Treasure Valley Salsa is canned and shelf-stable, giving store managers greater flexibility in how they transport, store and place jars in their stores.

“I love fresh salsa, but the business model is more difficult because of the refrigeration requirements,” McCown said. “Unless you put in preservatives, which a lot of the national refrigerated salsas do, you won’t get much life out of it. It’s much easier and cost-effective for expansion through a shelf-stable salsa.”

LOS PASTORES SALSA

Boise

Pastors David and Gina Collins were playing music in Eagle Island State Park in 2000 when a man asked to be baptized. The Collinses had been asked to attend a barbecue for a group of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. They baptized the man in the Boise River. Then they dunked 40 more who lined up on the riverbank.

All of the recovering addicts came to the next Sunday service at the Collinses’ Riverwind Fellowship, a nondenominational Christian church at 10220 W. State St. in Boise. The new congregants were hungry, so Gina Collins provided bowls of chips and the couple’s homemade salsa.

A man said the salsa was so good the pastors should bottle and sell it. The idea behind Los Pastores Salsa was born.

The Collinses spent about $100 to buy produce and 120 jars for their first batch, which they sold for $5 a bottle in front of grocery stores as a church fundraiser. Today, the salsa operation has four employees. It brought in $144,000 in revenue last year. Every penny went to the church and its outreach for recovering addicts, David Collins said.

Their salsas, including Mercifully Mild and Fire from Heaven, are sold throughout the Treasure Valley, including at Albertsons, Whole Foods and Boise Co-op, where jars sell for $4.79. Los Pastores salsas are also featured at Downtown Boise restaurants The Taphouse and Fork.

The Collinses make their salsa at the University of Idaho Food Technology Center in Caldwell.

Salsa keeps the Collinses busy, but the ministry remains at the heart of the operation.

“This is far more important than bottom-line profits,” David Collins said.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464

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