Hot times for local salsa maker

In early April, Kelly Towle was making 1,200 pounds of salsa every Tuesday in her basement kitchen – and selling out the whole batch to restaurants and natural food stores all over New England by the end of the week. As May 5 (aka Cinco de Mayo) approaches (a minor holiday in Mexico, but a much-hyped one here in the U.S.), she’s gearing up to increase her home-based company’s output to 2,000 pounds a week.

“I love Cinco de Mayo just because people eat so much chips and salsa,” says Towle with a laugh. “We are there to fill that need.”

Plucked Fresh Foods, based in Windham, has just celebrated its one-year anniversary. The company’s Plucked Salsa, which comes in three flavors (Purely Plucked, Mildly Plucked and Sinfully Plucked), is on the shelves of 22 Whole Foods markets in New England and delivered fresh every Wednesday and Friday by Jason Towle, Kelly’s husband. Local natural food stores also carry the salsa, and it is on the menu at several restaurants, including Pat’s Pizza and Brian Boru in Portland.

“We used to deliver door to door, like the milkman,” says Towle. “Now we sell out each week at each location.”

Kelly Towle, 36, gave up a job at MEMIC, a workers’ compensation insurance company, to start making salsa full time. She’d just given birth to her son Wyatt (now 2) and hoped that making salsa – which her MEMIC co-workers had often clamored for – could be her ticket to staying home full time. Her husband, whose background was in restaurant management, was all for the idea. They took the leap of faith and financed the purchase of a commercial kitchen and a refrigerator truck with loans from family and with credit card advances. A Facebook page got them off and running, as did local food distribution channels such as Cisco in Westbrook. Soon, they decided they could handle their own distribution. They are, however, hoping that Whole Foods will want to distribute their salsa more widely in its chain. They are looking forward to expanding this summer, which Towle calls a “booming time” for salsa sales.

Towle admits that fresh salsa is fairly easy to make, but her varieties seem to be gaining converts among consumers who don’t have the time or the inclination to make their own every week. The Towles are also taking advantage of a trend that has seen salsa consistently outsell ketchup nationwide. (There’s some debate about when the salsa revolution actually started. George Costanza proclaimed it America’s No. 1 condiment in a 1992 episode of “Seinfeld.”)

Towle, who used to sing in a local funk band called Sly-chi, is not shy about marketing her salsa. She says the key to Plucked Fresh Salsa’s success is its freshness. It’s an all-natural, no-preservatives product with a 30-day shelf life. It consists of only a few ingredients: tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapeno – or a blend of jalapeno and habanero peppers, marinating in freshly squeezed lime juice. The recipe is low in sodium and has no added sugar. Unlike many salsas, it has no vinegar, making it acceptable for those on a Paleo diet.

Towle uses Roma tomatoes that are still pink – not quite ripe. That allows her salsa to literally ripen on the way to the consumer’s refrigerator. Right now, those tomatoes are trucked in from Florida, but Towle hopes to be buying more locally as soon as possible.

The 1,000 pounds that Towle makes every Tuesday is actually divided up into 50-pound batches in order to maintain quality control.

“We want every person to have the same taste every time,” Towle says.

A personal taste test recently at Whole Foods concluded that the salsa flavors are accurately labeled. Only the Sinfully Plucked variety left a fiery trail on the tongue – as you would expect a habanero to do. But even that spiciest of blends seems as if it would be easy to handle on a plate of nachos or on top of a taco.

Towle is working on a new fruity flavor that will include pineapple and mango. Her stepdaughter, 11-year-old Riley, has given it the thumbs-up, Towle says.

With a toddler in the house, Towle says she’s pleased at the pace at which Plucked is growing and likes to think it’s a business she and her husband could hand off to the kids someday.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing this,” she says. “I’m so proud of what my husband and I have done, and we’re excited to see what comes next.”

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