Taste December 19, 2017

When Life Gave Her Lemons, She Made Salsa

AJ Lopez builds her dream business

Like many during the 2008 downturn, AJ Lopez found herself out of work. As a project manager for Bailey Engineering, and as new home construction ground to a halt, so did the need for her skills managing permitting and other responsibilities for new subdivisions.

“Here I was almost 50 years old, and I was in this big, dark Internet hole looking for work,” she said.

So, she started making salsa and selling it to her friends. And she got a job at Hobby Lobby.

Salsa was a no-brainer since she’d always made it for her family, who she describes as “big salsa eaters,” and for parties. Friends lamented how hard it was to find good fresh salsa in Boise. “People would always say ‘you should bottle this and sell it.’”

So she did. She started out small, making 100 units a week. She rented kitchen space at Bull’s Head Pub in Meridian, where she made the restaurant’s house salsa as well.

Demand began to grow.

“I worked nine months at Hobby Lobby and realized I was making more money making salsa,” she said. So I decided to grow the business.” That meant a move to another kitchen, where she had to make the salsa at night when the business was closed. “It’s hard to grow a business under those conditions,” she said.

But onward she went, and the Boise Co-op became the first commercial customer for AJ’s Sol Crecido Salsa. Lopez makes three heat levels. Born to be Mild, Three Spicy Bitches (medium) and Angry Bastard (very hot). “It was like it was meant to be. I took my three samples to the grocery manager who said, ‘we’ll take it.’”

Now Lopez has built her business to 2,400 to 2,800 units a month, with help from her son Jeremy Vanhoozer, who is her quality control expert and helps her package and deliver it, and son Matthew. She has her own space, Community Kitchens, in a historic building on Ustick Road. Six years ago she took over the lease on the entire building, and she now rents kitchen space to other local food entrepreneurs, such as Urban Rustic Gourmet, Hummuna Hummus and Tamales Nelly.

Lopez sells her salsa all over the Treasure Valley. Getting into Whole Foods was a coup but turned into a 16-month hoop-jumping process of testing, new labeling, and complying with other food-safety requirements. And while distribution remains a challenge to more growth, she’s also selling her product in Ketchum and Jackson Hole, and occasionally Utah, which requires toning down the names to Three Spicy Amigas and Angry Mr. Caliente.

Lately, Lopez is excited about getting into Natural Grocers and is crossing her fingers for Albertsons. “To get into Albertsons is huge.”

Keeping all the balls in the air to run a food business and kitchen comes naturally to Lopez, whose project management skills help her keep up with food safety inspections and requirements, tenants coming and going, and the challenges of working with produce.

Consistency is her big challenge, because produce quality can change week to week, especially the peppers.

“I’m at the whim of peppers,” she said. “The hot can be so hot.”

She sometimes uses a tiny bit of ghost peppers in the Angry Bastard if the habaneros, serranos and jalapenos aren’t too hot. Her husband Dan Lopez helped her perfect the recipe because it’s just too angry for her taste buds.

In late summer and fall, she trades a local grower a year’s worth of salsa to provide her with organic produce. “They give me the most gorgeous Roma tomatoes and peppers and
fresh cilantro.”

But the rest of the time, she has to get her tomatoes and peppers from California.

Lopez’s dream is to build her own kitchen, which would allow her to grow even more. Now she’s limited to certain days for using the kitchen because peppers and onions wreak havoc on others trying to cook there. She had plans drawn up to build a commercial kitchen, but said the city treated it like a restaurant, requiring things like a 1,500-gallon grease trap. But Lopez says she’ll keep trying and growing. And the demand for her delicious salsa shows no sign of slowing down.

“Idaho just loves local product,” she said.

This article appears in the Winter 2017 Issue of Territory Magazine.