Family business — and your mouth — en fuego
By Tara Kelly
Three years ago, Mary Jane Raiche of Ira looked out at her sizeable home garden and asked herself, “What am I going to do with all of those tomatoes?” She poked around different recipe books and decided to try making salsa. Her friends and family were immediately smitten with its hearty texture and fresh taste.
As Mary Jane tinkered with the recipe, her husband, Bob, started bringing the salsa to his co-workers. They served as taste testers and gave critical feedback about the product. Through word of mouth, the sales started to spread. Eventually, a jar even found its way to a potluck in Boston where a well-known chef got a taste of the salsa’s fiery flavor. Reportedly, she said it was the best she ever had. It was then that the Raiches knew they were on to something.
In a society that measures economic activity by jobs added, square feet developed and capital investments made, Raiche’s Salsa hasn’t yet registered on the radar screen of economists. However, it is part of a much richer story than economic data will ever tell. It is the story of a Vermont family making a living through ingenuity and hard work.
The Raiches are practical people. They have taken one small step at a time with their burgeoning salsa business. Mary Jane makes large batches in her home kitchen during the small amount of free time she has after working her full-time job managing the local McDonald’s. Meanwhile, Bob calls on the skills and connections he made as a delivery driver for Thomas Dairy. And together, they have created something that people really want.
Early on, local businesses such as Poultney Pools and the Main Street Market in West Rutland began carrying the salsa, and now their product is found at some of the local Price Chopper stores including Rutland and Manchester.
How did they do it? Well, they certainly make it sound easy enough. At first, Mary Jane told Bob, “I’m not making any more salsa until you can show me it will sell.” So, Bob loaded up the trunk and began knocking on the doors of retail food stores.
“If I liked the looks of it, I stopped and went in,” Bob said. “The food co-ops have been really great to work with in Rutland, Middlebury and Manchester.”
Like most good stories, there was a little luck along the way. The person doing corporate purchasing at Price Chopper got to talking with Bob and it turned out the buyer grew up right behind Thomas Dairy.
Of course, there were a number of great people who helped out along the way. A neighbor who is a graphic designer created the attractive, eye-catching label, and as a seasoned businessperson in the food industry, John Thomas, of Thomas Dairy, provided valuable advice.
But the product sells itself. Mary Jane has a strong commitment to quality. She only uses fresh ingredients — nothing canned. Then each jar is hand-packed to remove excess liquid. These details make a world of difference in taste.
But, as with any small business, there are always challenges. Bob had a major health issue last fall that really slowed things down. It happened right at garlic-planting time. Though thanks to friends, including local farmer Frank Gorham, 800 heads of garlic were planted for use in this year’s batch. While they use as much locally grown produce as possible, Mary Jane and Bob haven’t yet timed their salsa production to operate with exclusively local ingredients. And they also find it valuable to produce fresh batches of salsa throughout the entire year, when local isn’t always an option.
When I asked the Raiches about their plans for future business growth of the salsa, they talked about wanting to keep the business small enough to maintain its high quality. So will this salsa operation ever register with the economists? Maybe not. But, in the meantime, a great family is producing an outstanding product that is meeting a consumer demand while earning them some extra income. It seems like that ought to count in someone’s books.
Tara Kelly is the executive director of RAFFL, the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Raiche’s Salsa can be found on Facebook.