McHENRY – Stuck at home with a broken ankle and a garden full of tomatoes, Candy Stade made salsa for the first time in her kitchen in 2004.
Stade, 57, never thought her Sweet Slap ’n Salsa would become a part-time business. But now it’s part of McHenry County’s small but growing cottage industry of gourmet food products.
A flight attendant at the time, Stade started bringing her peach salsa along on flights to share with her coworkers once her ankle healed. Soon, she was making salsa not only for family and friends, but for coworkers and their friends.
“People started asking me for it and it just spiraled from there,” she said.
At first, Stade grew most of the ingredients in her garden and made the salsa in her kitchen. Making three cases – 36 jars – took about five hours.
“I couldn’t grow the tomatoes fast enough,” she said.
In 2010, Stade turned to Dorina Foods in Union to produce the salsa commercially. It’s now sold in 20 local stores, including Joseph’s Marketplace in Crystal Lake, as she looks for more distributors to stock and sell her six varieties of Sweet Slap ’n Salsa.
The high-end, gluten free salsa sells for between $4.99 and $6 per jar. Stade said she reinvests most of the profits back into the business, which she runs out of her home.
Other local products have taken a similar path to the commercial marketplace.
Long-time friends Bob Packard, 56, and Kent Thomas, 57, started selling barbecue sauce in 2008. They had doctored up the recipe for a pig roast 30 years earlier. At first, McHenry-based Two Fat Guys Gourmet Sauces were sold in about 55 stores. The company’s four varieties are now sold in 478 grocery stores and other retail outlets in Illinois and surrounding states.
“It’s been an ongoing learning process,” Thomas said. “Becoming entrepreneurs has been pretty exciting.”
Two Fat Guys Gourmet Sauces are all-natural and gluten-free. The mild and smoky varieties are the most popular, but the company also offers spicy and lava hot versions. The average retail price for an 18-ounce jar is $4.69. Several new flavors are in the works, Thomas said.
Two Fat Guys Gourmet Sauces is a full-time venture for both Packard and Thomas.
“We’re real proud of what we’ve done,” Thomas said, noting that despite challenges with distribution, the company has grown swiftly amid in a lackluster economy.
Getting space on store shelves isn’t easy. Joseph’s Marketplace in Crystal Lake carries many locally-made products, but breaking into regional and national chains with wide distribution is a challenge.
“It’s more difficult than people think,” said Alan Collins, who co-owns Ahruns Famous Inc. in Crystal Lake with Aaron Aggarwal. “The bigger stores want established businesses.”
Collins and Aggarwal started Ahruns Famous with a hot sauce in 2002 and have since expanded into barbecue sauces and bloody mary mixes.
The venture is a side project for both men. Collins works full-time at a printing company and Aggarwal is a restaurant owner. The pair met 15 years ago at Duke’s in downtown Crystal Lake, where Aggarwal had worked as an executive chef. A few years later, they incorporated Ahruns Famous to sell Voodoo Magic hot sauce. All of the company’s products come from Aggarwal’s recipes.
They spent about $5,000 bringing Voodoo Magic to market. The process included breaking down the recipe into parts that could be reproduced in large batches, creating a colorful label, and complying with food safety, packaging, and labeling regulations, Collins said.
Ahruns later added three varieties of barbecue sauce and a bloody mary mix.
More than a dozen retail outlets throughout the country carry Ahruns Famous products.
“We don’t have a lot of stores, but we are all over,” Collins said, pointing to retailers in Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri and Washington.
Aggarwal’s uses Ahruns Famous products at his restaurants and two local golf courses – Prairie Isle and Crystal Woods – stock the company’s bloody mary mix.
“A friend of ours is an avid golfer,” Collins said. “He travels around with a box of bloody mary mix in his car.”
All three companies have their products made at Dorina in Union and take part in a regional circuit of expositions, including the Illinois Products Expo held last month in Springfield, to boost interest in their gourmet wares.
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Get more info:
Sweet Slap’n Salsa: www.sweetslapnsalsa.com
Two Fat Guys Gourmet Sauces: www.ilovetwofatguys.com
Ahruns Famous Inc.: www.ahrunsfamousinc.com