Terry Rodriquez, owner of Alave! (This is good) Salsa and Queso Suave mixes the ingredients that she uses to make her secret formula on Wednesday Sept. 7, 2011 at the Espanola Commercial Kitchen in Espanola, N.M. Rodriguez has worn many hats before starting her salsa business. Raised in Nambe, she has been a journeyman house painter for some 30 years, she was a special-education teacher at El Dorado Community School and is 12 credits shy of completing the four-year, exercise-science program at Santa Fe Community College. Through it all, her homemade salsa was in constant demand, especially with her friends and co-workers. (AP Photo/The New Mexican, Clyde Mueller)
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — There are plenty of people in Santa Fe — not to mention greater Northern New Mexico, the entire state and probably the vast American Southwest — who make their own salsa. A significant percentage, too, have most likely fantasized about packaging and selling that salsa. One Santa Fe resident, however, will tell you it’s not a project to be taken lightly.
“I do it all. Deliveries, demonstrations, everything. I drive myself crazy. This is my life. This is it,” said Terry Rodriguez, owner and sole employee of A La Ve! Salsa.
Rodriguez translates the name of her salsa as “Holy smokes! This is really good!” Although it’s a Northern New Mexican expression with many irreverent meanings, Rodriguez said she heard the phrase so frequently when people tried her salsa that she decided to name her business after it. “It just means ‘wow,’ ” she said.
Rodriguez has worn many hats before starting her salsa business. Raised in Nambe, she has been a journeyman house painter for some 30 years, she was a special-education teacher at El Dorado Community School and is 12 credits shy of completing the four-year, exercise-science program at Santa Fe Community College. Through it all, her homemade salsa was in constant demand, especially with her friends and co-workers.
“About five years ago, when I was working at El Dorado (Community School) I was taking (salsa) to luncheons, and that’s when I realized I had to turn it into a business,” she said.
Rodriguez first sold her salsa at the then-fledgling Eldorado Farmers Market in La Tienda. At that time, she was one of only a handful of vendors who sold products at the market. “One day, a customer who was always buying my salsa told me she worked for New Mexico’s Own and (said) I was a perfect candidate for them.”
New Mexico’s Own, which started in 1992 as a government agency to support local products, is a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive marketing advice to local, small businesses by increasing their access to trade shows and retail outlets, and teaching owners how prepare their products for market.
Executive Director Teresa Richlee-Sachs called Rodriguez a “poster child” for New Mexico’s Own because of her determination.
“We got her set up with strategic planning and market-ready workshops,” Richlee-Sachs said. “She already had some experience, but there were a lot of loose ends to attend to — bar codes, proper labeling, that kind of thing. She’s one of the 20 percent who succeed, and that’s due to her tenacity.”
In fact, Rodriguez was already a local favorite when she put her business — as well as her job and education — on hold last November to serve as a full-time caregiver for her mother, Angie Rodriguez, who passed away in March at age 69 after a brief bout with cancer.
“I stopped every single thing,” Rodriguez said of her decision to take care of her mother. Still misty-eyed over her loss, Rodriguez said she promised her mother that she’d get the business back on track.
“This is all dedicated to her. I could have just stopped this, gotten another job, gone back to school, but this pulled me. I felt this has to live. And I hustle every single day.”
Rodriguez said she was ready to get back to work in late spring, and she renewed her business license in June. After contracting the commercial kitchen at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola, Rodriguez got a new container supplier and had new labels professionally designed and printed for both her salsa and Queso Suave, a piquant cheese sauce that can be heated and served with chips or alongside meat, fish, pasta or vegetable dishes.
According to Richlee-Sachs, whom Rodriguez refers to as her business manager, one of the biggest obstacles Rodriguez and other aspiring food vendors face is contracting a commercial kitchen.
“You need to contract with a commercial kitchen first in order to be approved for your business license, and you have to renew that contract and that license every year. Your kitchen also has to be on your label,” she said.
Rodriguez has used several local kitchens over the years, including the one in the Lamy Station Cafe, which closed last year. However, whenever there have been changes in restaurant management or funding, Rodriguez was forced to find another kitchen and start the licensing and labeling process all over.
“The problem is,” Richlee-Sachs said, “the local commercial kitchen situation is unstable, and that’s a shame. Can you imagine — you have people who are willing to invest their sweat equity into a product and they can’t find someplace consistent to produce. That’s an infrastructure problem that really needs to be solved.”
Rodriguez’s salsa is available at La Montanita Co-op, where she has already doubled her shelf space, as well as at Kaune’s Neighborhood Market, which also carries her queso. Rodriguez, who is still a fixture at the Friday afternoon farmers market in Eldorado, said her products are packaged and sold fresh but can be frozen for longer storage, and she relies on local suppliers for her ingredients.
“The salsa is all natural, and that’s damn good queso,” she said with a laugh.
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com