After a lifetime of working as a scientist, Andrew Uribe, 50, walked away to create a company based on his father's salsa recipe.
His big break came about 18 months ago, when a top official at Ahold USA, the supermarket conglomerate, called to say he loved Uribe's product. But James Sturgis, director of supplier diversity at Ahold, could not put the salsa on the shelves of Giant Food stores and other Ahold supermarkets yet.
Uribe's work was just beginning.
Before he could earn big supermarket accounts, Uribe would have to ramp up production for his young company, called Emy's Salsa Aji, after his daughter, Emilia. And that meant borrowing money, opening a factory in Jessup, finding inexpensive glass jars and creating a distribution system.
All that is still taking place. Meanwhile, Uribe remains a one-man operation, mixing his salsa in Lexington Market and selling it to local markets such as Roots, David's Produce and Graul's. While prices vary, a 12-ounce jar sells for $5.99 at Roots.
Uribe, who lives in Ellicott City, wants to be clear that his salsa aji is nothing like the jarred products sold on shelves next to tortilla chips. And Sturgis agrees. He said he tastes more products than he can count, and only about 10 percent earn a thumbs-up from him.
"I love Andrew's product," said Sturgis. "Most of the products that come across my desk are 'me too' products. Although the salsa category is a full category, Andrew has distinguished himself."
Uribe's product is salsa aji, a Latin American version of the condiment. It is made with cilantro, scallion, white onion, jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, vinegar and salt, and a spicy version also has habanera peppers. While most salsas are made with pasteurized tomatoes, Uribe's salsa aji has no preservatives and must be refrigerated.
"Apparently, I'm the only one selling the condiment refrigerated, with all natural ingredients," Uribe said.
While supermarket salsa is typically served only with chips, salsa aji is traditionally used to flavor grilled meats, baked potatoes and many other foods. "I had some this morning," said Sturgis, speaking by phone from his office in Massachusetts. "I like to make breakfast burritos."
About three years ago, Uribe quit his job as a chemist at Fort Meade to create the salsa company.
He asked his father, Julio Uribe, to make salsa aji, while he watched and wrote down the recipe. Then he found someone to package the salsa, but he was told he had to pasteurize the salsa to make it shelf-stable. When he did that, "it tasted like wet cardboard," Uribe said.
Then he found someone who added preservatives to the salsa, "and that also killed the taste," Uribe said. He decided to leave his father's recipe as it was, package it himself, sell it cold and give it a five-month expiration date.
Meanwhile, he got in touch with Anthony Ruiz, senior management consultant with the Maryland Small Business Development Center, a statewide organization that provides counseling to small businesses.
Ruiz became a fan and a mentor. "The product has great, great potential," he said. "There is no product like this on the market today. Salsa aji is like ketchup in Colombia. It's very common in Colombia, but it's new in this country."
But all that support did not pay the bills. Uribe estimates he is losing $2,000 a month. Uribe's ingredients come from a farm in Illinois and are individually quick-frozen. He recently returned from China, where he was able to get a good price on jars and lids. About a year ago, he bought a van for $19,000, and spent an additional $10,000 on refrigeration.
After many rejections, mostly because he had no business experience, Uribe finally won a loan from Citizens National Bank and a lease for a factory in Jessup. The 8,100-square-foot factory, expected to open in October with machinery that is under construction, will be able to fill 600 jars an hour, he said. He plans to hire employees from Humanim, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization for people with developmental disabilities.
Once the factory is ready, Uribe can return to Ahold, and he can approach other supermarkets, as well. He would also like restaurants to use his salsa aji. Ruiz and others believe it will happen.
"In three to five years, this company could be public," said Ruiz. "Salsas on the market are very watery and have a lot of chemicals and additives," he said. "The taste is totally different from all the other products."