By Monica Mendoza
Elvia Sandoval Caldwell has faced down the most discerning salsa connoisseurs.
They shower her with questions. “Do you use vinegar? Is there cilantro in it? Where do you buy the peppers?”
As people have begun to get serious about fresh ingredients, salsa — that combination of tomatoes, spices, onions and peppers — has emerged as one of the more popular condiments. And while Sandoval Caldwell can talk about tomatillos and guajillo chilies all day, she simply says:
“Go ahead and taste it, and tell me what you think.”
Sandoval Caldwell, owner of Baja Salsa in Colorado Springs, is pretty confident that her salsa will win over any critic. Her recipe was born in those moments when she was a girl helping her mother prepare that night’s dinner in Baja California, Mexico. Fresh salsa was part of every meal, not just a treat on Super Bowl Sunday.
Salsa Baja says its offerings are gluten-free, use no chemical preservatives, no sugars, no oils, no genetically modified vegetables and no vinegars.
Sandoval Caldwell said she learned how to mix the ingredients in a way in which flavor is more important than spice.
“For me, I don’t like it really hot,” Sandoval Caldwell said. “I like to enjoy my salsa.”
So, of course, do a lot of others. Baja Salsa is a modest business with annual revenue of $110,000. But it’s enough to keep Sandoval Caldwell, with just two to four employees, depending on the time of year, busy. She makes the salsa fresh everyday in her 1,000-square-foot manufacturing kitchen on North Academy. Each week she makes about 150 gallons of six different flavors of salsa including Southwestern, mango and traditional. During peak season, which is now, she cuts and mixes up 200 gallons of salsa each week.
At the west side farmers’ markets at Bangcroft Park on Saturdays, Sandoval Caldwell usually sells out before closing time at 1 p.m.
Salsa can trace its roots to the Aztecs. In the U.S., salsa sales began to take off in the late 1980s. By 2000, salsa outpaced sales of ketchup, though only because salsa is more expensive. Still, salsa’s more popular than ever.
So, when Sandoval Caldwell decided to take her salsa from her dinner parties to grocery store shelves, she had done her homework. She didn’t want her salsa sold in a jar. She wanted to keep it fresh. And in 2002, she was really at the start of the gourmet salsa boom.
“We didn’t see a whole of competition,” she said. “Most of the salsas were made by people who have probably never been to Mexico. I thought I can bring the real flavor of home.”
“The first two years we did mostly farmers’ markets and then we moved to small natural-food stores and in the last two years we started jumping into big-box natural food stores,” she said.
Baja Salsa is sold at Whole Foods and Natural Grocers, among other groceries.
The company is now ready to jump to the next level, said David Caldwell, Elvia’s husband and business partner. In the next two years they expect to do much more formal marketing, rather than relying largely on word of mouth and move sales beyond Colorado’s borders.
The only downside to the business: When the Caldwells get invited to a party, they’re expected to bring the salsa.