Two Oregon women have ambitions to rival the charitable powerhouse that actor Paul Newman built with his 'Newman's Own' food business. This duo wants to make a difference for the poor globally by making gourmet salsas locally.
The start-up business has just turned its first profit with exotic flavors like 'Peach Jalapeno' and 'Cherry Pinot Noir Salsa.' Correspondent Tom Banse went into the test kitchen.
The spotless kitchen could pass for the set of a TV show. In fact, we'll call it, 'Cooking in Albany'.
|Martha Mendez (left) and Robin Stover founded the gourmet salsa company Heaven's Garden, Inc..|
Robin Stover: “We're in our home kitchen. It is a licensed kitchen. This is where we put together all the new salsas.”
Our ingredients start with two women reinventing themselves in mid-life. Combine equal helpings of Robin Stover and Martha Mendez, in matching red chili pepper aprons. Mix in a fresh product idea.
Martha Mendez: “It's going to be Raz-Cranberry Salsa.”
Flavor with garlic, onion, orange oil, and several kinds of peppers.
Martha Mendez: “We de-veined the jalapenos so they would be mainly for flavor.”
Set to high energy for five years. Do not add salaries. And you get Heaven's Garden salsa company.
Robin Stover: “We can't wait to make lots of money, because there is so much work to do.”
Martha Mendez: “Our goal in the end, we would love to have a nation be transformed from within.”
Tom Banse: “By salsa?”
Martha Mendez: “By salsa.”
The urge to start a business came out of a church trip. They visited gypsy camps and orphanages in Romania and saw people walking barefoot in the middle of winter.
Martha Mendez: “Both Robin and I wept all the way back to the U.S. and said, 'What can we do?'”
Martha Mendez was ready for a higher calling than her job in sports medicine. Robin Stover was at loose ends after an ugly divorce.
The new best friends went in search of a cash cow that would allow them to fight global poverty.
Robin Stover: “We sat down and we said, 'What do we both love to do that would be easy?' We love to cook and entertain. We went through the gamut of things. Should we do catering? Should we have a room at our house where we hold dinner parties for people? We love the whole decorating thing too. So finally we thought, 'OK, everybody loves when we're making salsa and tortillas.'”
The business started small, as a farmers market stand in Albany, then in Salem, and finally in Corvallis. It was a lot of work for not much dough.
Martha Mendez: “We decided that if our original vision was to go and help the poor, then we needed to make money. And so we decided we needed to go into jars.”
Then the partners discovered that instead of being benefactors, they'd be borrowers for a while, from a bank.
Robin Stover: “It takes a lot of money to go into production. We had to build a cool room in the garage. We had to buy a van because we have to have a big enough vehicle for a pallet and a forklift to put that pallet of two thousand pounds of salsa in the back.”
The businesswomen still aren't drawing salaries nearly five years into their enterprise. A divorce settlement has sustained Stover. Mendez lives off the proceeds from the sale of a previous home in California.
Their salsa costs eight to nine dollars a jar at retail. That's triple the price of store brands.
Robin Stover says customers will pay for higher quality and a good story. She says sales through boutiques, markets, and the internet are rising at about 50% per year.
Robin Stover: “You know, I've seen them like, 'Oh honey, do you see what they're doing with their profits? We have to get this.' You know, dragging back the spouse to say, we've got to get this.”
This year, Heaven's Garden finally eked out its first profit on $35,000 in sales. It'll be combined with private donations to build a cottage at an orphanage in Uganda and help war survivors in Sierra Leone, Africa.
If you're still wondering about raz-cranberry salsa, itís said to go well on pork, turkey or lamb. Or you can just eat it straight out of a saucer, like I did.