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Hangin’ With Klecko: Salsa Lisa’s Lisa Nicholson

I don’t know if you could classify it as an epiphany, but the moment changed my life. I was at the Midway Super Target standing in the refrigerated salsa section when I discovered that my salsa options had doubled overnight.

I typically don’t buy salsa, and there were too many options so I began to feel overwhelmed and asked a woman in medical scrubs what brand I should buy. 

You should have seen the look on her face. She was trying to figure out if I was up to something, or just dim-witted.

Once she realized I wasn’t a threat, she answered: “You have to get Salsa Lisa. There is no other choice.”

Salsa Lisa had several selections, so when I asked if she had a favorite and she answered “Medium-Red” with an enthusiasm that tilted toward obsession.

Later that evening, I cracked the lid to sample my salsa purchase. Originally I intended to have a couple chips, but after my first bite, I became mesmerized and before I came to, I emptied the container.

The following day I decided to embark on a culinary Hajj. I wanted to meet Salsa Lisa and find out how she was able to create a product that was head-above-heels better than her competitors, so I called her facility and one of her employees set up a meeting.

As I pulled up to the plant, I wondered if Salsa Lisa had learned her craft in some romantic village bordering the equator, but when she greeted me at the door, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was surprised when she revealed that she was a hockey-playing Swede from St. Paul.

“You’re pretty tall,” I observed. “You must be a winger, huh?”

Then as my host led me to her conference room, she pointed out that she was a playmaker who went wherever her coach told her she was needed.

Sometimes it isn’t what a person says as much as how he or she says it, that lets you know you’re in for a fun interview.

As we sat at a table covered with chips and salsa samples, I started with some obligatory questions.

“What is your name, and tell me about your current line?”

“Lisa Nicholson, and right now we have six salsas, starting with our three reds—mild, medium and hot. But we also have chipotle, tomatillo and pineapple ginger.”

“Do you have anything new coming out soon?” I asked.

Lisa paused for just a second before answering: “New might be a relative term. We just finished an exclusive contract in Texas for fire-roasted tomato and that is definitely in discussion, but I’m also working on an avocado salsa that’s crazy good.”

When I asked how this salsa empire was formed and what the secret to her success was, she answered: “I had a humble beginning; I started selling at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. I’ve always believed nothing nurtures long-lasting impact like word of mouth and that takes time. You can’t rush that process. Hype is no good; to create natural growth you need to be super focused and create natural momentum. If you can do that people will know you’re sincere.”

When she finished talking, I could see her wheels were still spinning, so I remained silent until she continued: “Garrison Keillor actually gave me an endorsement, and that went a long way. I don’t think he endorses many products. But to be honest, I’ve never felt lucky. I’ve worked too hard. Sometimes, when things aren’t going your way, you have to will things to happen.”

At this point I was getting comfortable so I asked the question I came to ask: “How come your salsa is better than everyone else’s?”

 “If you ever decide to make fresh, shelf-stable salsa, it’s really easy to make it cheap,” she explained. “I didn’t want to do that. As I was figuring that out, I began noticing that nobody was having success selling salsa nationally.

“In many ways the salsa community was like the yogurt community. For years yogurt could only be found regionally until Yoplait came along and figured out logistics. Right now we are shipping high-volume to distribution centers in California, Texas and New Jersey.”

When I asked if Salsa Lisa was servicing any private-label accounts, she interrupted before I completed the question. “I’m really glad you asked that,” she replied. “That’s a big part of what we do. Right now we’re supplying Kroger. They’re the number two grocer in America. After we send them salsa, they add fresh ingredients and make it their own. This is a win-win for everyone involved because I use all natural, fresh tomatoes and guarantee 60 days to retailers.

“In addition to offering private label to retailers, I’m hoping to spend more time talking with foodservice. The same rules apply. Salsa is the most popular condiment in the world, so if you decided to make it in house, would you want to make it cheap or want it to shine? The biggest advantage we have at our plant is we have the ability to treat the ingredients and offer the consistency chefs and their clients desire.”

As I stood up preparing to leave, I reiterated what a fan I was of her product and asked, “Now that you’ve become a condiment matriarch, don’t you find it hard to keep attacking with the same passion?”

The Swede from St. Paul grinned, thanked me for coming and left me with the following quote: “Years ago I wanted to be attached to the best salsa. Now I want to be attached to the best company. You just can’t do that if you don’t maintain focus.”

And with that, I hopped into my breadmobile and headed back to work realizing I had been converted.

Chefs, cooks and anyone else in hospitality with purchasing power, you’ve been reading this column for over a decade and in that time, I don’t think I’ve ever pushed a product. But Salsa Lisa is more than that, it’s a way of life. So if you want to make money while keeping beautiful people happy, get on the phone and call your food rep now. 

Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at kleckobread@gmail.com, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.

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