What is your full name, title, and business name?
Vickie Nortz, CEO/Business Owner, Ridiculously Good Salsa
Give us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.
We make fresh salsa in three flavors and we make it fresh every week. We sell to most of the Whole Foods in Ohio, we sell to a lot of really nice family stores like a market up in Cleveland, Weiland’s Market, Lucky’s Market, The Greater Gouda, The Butcher & Grocer, some really nice little places. We’re in a couple of bars like Zassy’s Tap Room over in Grove City, Firehouse Tavern in Sunbury, and Firehouse Tavern in Copley, Ohio. We have three flavors, Mellow, like a mild garden goodness. Happy Medi-Yum, which is a sweet side of salsa. Everybody loves this, it’s the favorite and we sell out of it every time we go somewhere. Then, we have a High Heat which has a late hit to it. If you’re doing chips, you can enjoy it with a nice cold beer. You can have more than one, it’s not like that ghost pepper thing where you’re gonna get one bite and that’s it. It’s a really nice spicy heat.
We also have taco seasoning and chili powder. It’s a clash of spices. We have a collaboration with The Cheesecake Girl and this is really cool. I approached Samantha and said “Ya know, could we try my salsa and your cheesecake”. I know she thought it was crazy. But, we worked on it and we decided the high heat works the best. So it’s her cheesecake mixture and some of my High Heat salsa. It’s really delicious and it’s a huge crowd pleaser so whenever you take it somewhere it’s gone in no time. It’s fun to work with.
How did the idea for your business come about?
It was nothing I ever chose consciously. Several years ago, my son and his then girlfriend, now wife, were in a really bad car accident in upstate New York and he stayed there in the hospital for two weeks. He came home and was in physical therapy for two weeks. They had just gotten a place in German Village but had to leave and couldn’t stay there for like 6 or 7 months. He had to move home, he didn’t work for a year and he had all ortho injuries. They were hard but thankfully they weren’t neuro injuries. He had friends coming over on the weekends, he couldn’t move, he had a lot of things attached to him so I had them come here and I would just make food on Saturday and Sunday for them to watch football. We had an old family recipe and I kind of kept tweaking it. They were joking around because my husband would say “Don’t make it hotter” and my son’s friends would say “Make this one and call it like ‘old dude’ and then make ours and call it ‘young stud’ and put a lot of heat in it”. They(Vickie’s family and her son’s friends) kept saying “You gotta sell this. You gotta sell this”.
My son Andrew was in sales at the time and I just needed to get his mind going and his body moving. I’m also a part time nurse so I said “Maybe we should listen to your friends and do this” and he said “Okay mom lets try it”. So he worked with a friend on a label, we took it to Celebrate Local at Easton, the lovely local store. I had him chop the vegetables because it was really hard for him. He had a right elbow injury and it required two separate five hour surgeries, so it was hard for him. But it was part of his therapy and I made him do it. Then he had to learn how to walk again so he had to go to a walking school. I took him over there(Celebrate Local) and I had to wheel him in his wheelchair. I let him do the presentation and while we were there the lady ate like half of the container. She said “I think this is good”, so a couple weeks later we got into the store, took him in his wheelchair, had him do the inventory-they had a really complex inventory system at the time-and then he would hand me the salsa and I would put it on the top shelf. I was satisfied with that you know, my only goal was to get my son to move and to get him back to his life. Then, Weiland’s called and said “Hey, we’ve heard about your salsa, could we carry it here?” and I’m asked him, “Well Andrew, could we make a little extra?”. So it just kinda grew. At the end of 10 months he actually went back to his job. Then he went back full time and I was kind of like “What do I do with salsa?”. So my younger daughter helped and it’s just kind of grown from there. Today, Andrew actually does work in the business, he’s in charge of production.
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
All along I did, I guess you could call it, mini focus groups but it was really just with my family and friends. They all liked it but then it was getting outside of that and I thought maybe I should do an event or something where people who don’t know me try my salsa. At that time you could sample so I thought if I can get this out in front of strangers and they like it, then good. We did a couple of local festivals and events and we would sell out every time. So that’s when I realized I think we have something here that’s not just something that our friends say they like or the soccer team says they love or the lacrosse team says they love.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
I have three grown children so I should probably be looking to retire or something. To choose to continue to do this with the help of all three of my children and their different capacities, it’s huge to me. Without them and my husband, he’s very active in the business, I don’t know that it’s anything that I would continue to do. We continue to do very well at events, we continue to grow the business. If I have something like this to look forward to everyday, it’s a gift. I feel very blessed and I feel like I have a purpose everyday. We do the Dublin market every Saturday and we sell out every Saturday. Every week I look at my records to see how many new customers I have versus the old customers returning. I think the thing that indicates to me were growing is every week I have more and more new customers who come by and tell me “Well my friend had it, she brought it to a party, somebody brought it to a shower”. A lady came to me last week and said “We had it at our school and I’m having my son’s graduation, can I order in bulk for the graduation party?”. So to hear things like that and for somebody to show appreciation for what you do, that’s really a gift. I don’t think that a lot of people get that in their job everyday. I really appreciate the comments and the events that people share with me because that’s their family and their friends stuff, it’s important and it’s a good memory for them. So for them to share it with me makes my day.
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
Oh my gosh, we would be nowhere without the support of people. I can’t name any specific organizations that I’ve been affiliated with but just the restaurants, the festivals, and the local grocery stores we have here. Weiland’s is amazing, Tony at the Butcher and the Grocer, their continued support and the fact that they order from us every week says a lot. The festivals that we do here are amazing. The people of Columbus love local and love to support, I think they like to see a small town winner. I think people like to be associated with something good and I think this is something good.
Are you from Columbus? If not, please explain what brought you here and ultimately what made you stay.
I’m actually from the Cleveland area, I went to Akron University, I met my husband there. He is one of twelve children so his family has a big presence up in the Cleveland, Lakewood area. We got married, lived there then he took a job in South Carolina years ago so we lived there for a few years. Then, we wanted to come back to Ohio so he took a new job here in Columbus in the mid to late 90s so we’ve been here since then. We just liked everything you know. We love the metro parts, we really love the Columbus Zoo. At that time Cosi was at its beginning stages. So just the activities and the things the city of Columbus offers are amazing, you just have to do a little bit of digging. Now we have a new stadium-my son is a big Crew fan.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
I’ve heard a lot of “No’s” and that’s okay. That’s people giving their honest opinion and you need to hear that. I don’t know how many times I heard people say “We’d like to jar that and we’ll put it on the shelf” and we did try that. We did think “Well, maybe people are right. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I can’t make it go on the fresh salsa shelf”. But, I think the tide has turned and people like fresh. We did try that, we did jar it, we did can it, we did all of that. At the end of the day, we gave it to a bunch of people and said to compare my fresh salsa to this and they said it’s ridiculously good salsa compared to mush. So, why would you want to soften the vegetables, make them mushy and make more of a spaghetti sauce. I think at the end of the day, you have to be able to take the “No’s”, look them in the eye, and then figure out how you can make that work for you. Then look at yourself and say “Do I have the tenacity, the energy, and the desire” because there are a lot of sleepless nights and a lot things that go wrong. Especially now with the supply chain being interrupted, there are so many things that can go wrong on a daily basis but, when I go to the market and I hear these wonderful comments like last week a couple said “Hey we went to the Crew game and we had a party before in the parking lot, people loved your salsa”. That makes it all worthwhile for me because in my head, I visualize a bunch of people tailgating over there. For me, to think people are doing this and enjoying themselves and our salsa is apart of it, that’s all of it for me.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
Well, I had an idea of entrepreneurship because my father owns his own business up in Medina county and I worked for him when I was young. So I’m very use to working with the public as a nurse and the other jobs that I’ve had. I guess the things I wish I would’ve known were the regulations. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing wrong until you do it wrong. When you find out you’re thinking “Well if there was a way for an entrepreneur to just say, hey I wanna start a small cookie business. What are the rules and regulations?”. It tells you some things but it doesn’t tell you all things. There are sites you can go to but how many people know where these sites are and how to do that. Rules and regulations would be one for me. Now I know what to do and I’m compliant with everything, I make sure that my things are reviewed by the governing body because we always want to do the right thing.
What’s the most challenging part of your business?
The supply chain and distribution right now is an issue. The supply chain is just a total mess. I think the other piece of that is growth. You do what you do and then you have to have time to go out and grow your business. We tried to do collaborations as a way to introduce our product to restaurants and bars. We just did some things for Cinco de Mayo and we called it Cinco de Ohio. Picking partners to collaborate with was a big way to get our salsa out there. Like you can put it in cheesecake and a few other ideas that could happen. So that’s challenging, trying to find a way to get your salsa out there. It’s also interesting because I love to meet new people so even if it amounts to a big fat no, I’m happy I met someone new.
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
I enjoy a lot of support from my husband and my children. I have a huge network of twenty-eight people up in Cleveland spreading the word for us. So I’m very blessed for that but I think people wear out from it for not finding what they need to find. “Who’s my right distributor? Where’s the kitchen?”. Columbus does not enjoy a situation where there is a lot of incubator kitchens and places for somebody to grow products. There are other places in Ohio where you can do that but who’s going to drive two hours to make ten dozen cookies. All of these things add cost to the final product. For the food industry, if you were making hats or something I don’t think it would be a problem for you but for the food industry there are a lot of rules, a lot of regulations, there’s a lack of resources.
What tool has helped you the most for your business?
We recently just hired a part time social media person who is just amazing. I don’t have time to do everything and I try to stick with what I’m good at. I’m learning what I’m good at and what I feel like learning. I’d rather put my resources to my strengths as opposed to social media which is not. So we hired a part time person to do social media and she’s done amazing things. We have a new series called Stay Fresh and it’s an opportunity where you can take your leftover salsa although, everybody always says they never have any leftover salsa, but if you did, you take the salsa and use it in these various recipes. Last week we did sea scallops, this week I think we’re doing our version of the crunch wrap. So if you had extra salsa, these are the recipes you could use. It says on our label, dip, dollop, or share so dip something in it, dollop it on something, or share it with somebody. A few weeks ago, we blended it down, added vodka, stuck a bunch of cool stuff into it, and we had a Bloody Mary just to be creative and not waste it.
What is something that you did that was a game changer for your business?
My biggest game changer was Whole Foods. I knocked on their door many times and I just kept going back, I don’t know why. I just really felt like my salsa belonged there, I just had this belief that it should be there. In the process, they put a stalemate on everything, they kind of locked everything down for about a year. They froze everything because I think they were in the process of being bought out. I finally got through to people and they had me send them a case of salsa which they wrote back and said this is delicious, they loved it and told me that they would get back to me. Two weeks later they said that they didn’t think they would be able to carry my salsa. So I just believed in it, prayed on it, and I thought that it was going to work out. Two weeks later I got an email that said “We’ve given it further review and we’d like to carry your salsa”. Today we’re in nine Whole Foods and there’s a couple extra outlier Whole Foods in Ohio that we need to contact but it happened.
What was an idea that you spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference in your business that didn’t pan out.
Aside from spending a lot of time chasing down the wrong suppliers. I just spent a lot of time calling on the phone “Do you have this…Do you have that…Can you get it here?”. It’s not just me, it’s everybody in the industry but it’s frustrating. So I think that but I haven’t had any product idea or anything like that.
Who is your best Columbus resource?
I have a friend who owns Lopaus Point Waffles and she’s several years down the road from where I am, she’ll be a national brand hopefully soon. So whenever I have a question, I go to her. I’m not from the food industry so she has a more extensive background than I do but even if your products are different, if you’re a fresh versus an on the shelf, your worlds are entirely different but you do share some similarities.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
I envision being a number one regional brand because we’re fresh. The technology, to my knowledge anyway, to extend shelf life isn’t there and I don’t want to extend it by using unnatural preservatives or things that are icky. So our goal is to be a very strong regional brand and to have a succession plan that includes the children if they want to be involved. Or to at least have them involved in some way, I know they will be involved in some way. I’m not sure how much in the day to day operations, I guess it would be a matter of what’s suitable for them. So the Stay Fresh series, my daughter does those every week. She lives in Chicago and we kind of coordinate what we think is seasonal so we’re trying to work on some summer recipes now and picnic or barbecue things that you could easily take somewhere.
When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?
I walk, pray, and talk to my kids.