As a single mother with not even a high school degree or work experience, Maharba Zapata (now known as SalsaQueen) started a business called Salsa Queen as a way to provide for her 7 children. In just a few short years, Salsa Queen has become the largest producer of fresh, gourmet salsas in Utah and is now shipping to nearly 1,000 stores across 30 states by focusing on big, bold, authentic salsas and dips that are preservative-free.
Originally from Mexico, SalsaQueen came to America at age 17 with just a suitcase and a head full of dreams. After 33 years of hard work, her dreams have all come true.
Starting a Business
Nine years ago, SalsaQueen met her husband Jim Birch, and he encouraged her to start a business. She settled on a salsa business when she realized that that was something she could be passionate about because it combined many of her loves in one thing. Plus, it was something she could do with all of her children. She didn’t have to leave them to work a regular 9-5 job, but she could stay home and engage the whole family in a lucrative activity.
At first, she was hesitant to offer her salsa to customers on Facebook. But Birch insisted, and the orders started to roll in. Farmers markets were next. Then local stores. As mentioned above, it’s now in more than 1,000 retailers, including Kroger and Sprouts. They also have an online store, so you can purchase salsa and have it delivered to you.
She used the experience of selling at farmers markets to refine her product and give people what they really want.
The Personal Nature of Salsa Queen’s Branding
It was Birch who first suggested the name Salsa Queen for the business. His wife thought it sounded silly, but she found that it was incredibly catchy. And she eventually loved it so much that she legally changed her name to SalsaQueen. That’s how much she is willing to devote her life to her business.
The branding further cemented her ties to the product by incorporating a sugar skull into the logo. That represents the Día De Los Muertos celebration in Mexico, which honors one’s dead relatives. Her first son died of leukemia, so she wanted to show her love for him with that addition to the logo.
Challenges of COVID-19
A big reason why they started selling online was because of the COVID-19 shutdown. They were unsure about the ability of people to purchase their products at retail stores, so Birch had the brilliant idea to start selling online. Home deliveries helped Salsa Queen reach customers and expand in a way they hadn’t anticipated before.
Finding employees willing to work during the pandemic has also been a challenge. But when they end up short-staffed, the husband-and-wife team is willing to step up and work in the kitchen like they did in the old days.
Important Lessons to Learn
Here are some key lessons they have learned in seven years of being in business:
- Growth is expensive. You need capital, and banks are usually unwilling to loan to a small business, so you have to get creative. Equipment loans are helpful.
- Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Simplify your processes even if it costs a little more in the short term. It’s worth it because it’ll save time and money down the line.
- Listen to your wife. She’s always right.
- Be flexible. COVID-19 hammered home the point that conditions can change on a dime, so always be willing to make changes when necessary.
- Expand while others contract. If you’ve been smart with your money and building a great product, hard times can be the best times to expand because your competitors are unprepared. Growth often happens in spurts, not in a slow, linear fashion. Thus, it can be hard to catch your breath.
- Watch your cash flow. Small businesses have limited assets, so make sure you’re profitable and have liquid assets when you need them.
- Don’t limit yourself. Every growing business eventually reaches the point where they have to transition from local selling to far-reaching distribution. When that time comes, you’ll have to be willing to make a leap into the unknown.