The Big Dipper
Salsa Success at Garden Fresh Gourmet
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So how did you break out?
Jack: Jim Hiller was actually the one who set the spark. He stopped in the Hot Zone one day and said, ‘I love this stuff. I want to sell it [in Hiller’s Markets].’ So we closed the [restaurant] dining room, got a Department of Agriculture license, and started selling to supermarkets. I went and knocked on doors. I picked up about 70 stores fairly quickly.
Annette: He’s a good talker, and the product sells itself. The combination of those two things, I knew we had a hit. People were raving about it.
Artichoke and garlic was a bold beginning. What came next?
Jack: Wild Mild. And then I made Screaming Hot [then] Thick & Chunky.
What about Jack’s Special, the one we see everywhere?
Jack: Jack’s Special was a lark. I used to use double and triple cilantro when I made salsa for myself. So I said, ‘I’m going to do this with all this cilantro and call it Jack’s Special.’ It’s our No. 1 [selling salsa] in North America.
You’ve invented some unlikely hits like Mango Peach and Chipotle Garlic salsa, and some pretty wild dips. What’s the process?
Jack: I get some ideas while I’m lying in bed … believe it or not.
Annette: He’ll wake up in the morning, and he’ll have had a dream. He’ll say, ‘I had a dream about a certain flavor of salsa or dip.’ He’ll come in the [test] kitchen and do it the next day. ‘I got an idea!’ I’ve heard that 200 times, at least.
Jack: I had a dream one night about [how to create] the cream cheese-and-salsa dip that I’d been working on for, oh God, probably a year. It turned out to be one of my best dips ever.
Did you have any memorable failures along the way?
Jack: We’ve had our fair share of disasters. … During the holidays, I thought, ‘I’m going to do this great Thanksgiving, fall, comfort-food salsa — pumpkin salsa. And I’m going to go with some cloves and some allspice and everything that we think about, pumpkin pie, everything we think about at that time of year.’ It was — horrid. Probably one of the worst things I ever tasted. There was no fixing it. That was a bad dream, a nightmare.
How much trial and error is typical?
Jack: I spend hours on end in [the test kitchen]. I’ve done about 200 recipes in the past six months. … If we don’t feel it’s the best product on the market, we don’t want to launch it. We don’t want to be a commodity product. We don’t sell 99-cent chip dips.
Your process must have surprised those big shooters in New York who spend millions on food research and development.
Jack: They wanted to know how we get so many products to market so quickly, because it takes them a year and a half. They wanted to know about product development and how many people were on the team. We said, ‘Jack.’ They looked at each other and sat there for a little bit like they couldn’t comprehend there was one person in the department. What I always say, ‘I don’t have to argue with anybody.’
Back to the beginning, how did you supply 70 stores, virtually overnight?
Jack: We moved from the restaurant to an old video store on Woodward Heights.
Annette: I thought we were nuts. It was just so hard. It was so physical. Nothing was automated. Everything was done by hand. I made the salsa [in five-gallon buckets] and Jack sold it. We had, like, 10 employees. … Every day, I’d be crying at 9 o’clock at night because we’d been there since 5 [in the morning]. For real. It was a lot of hard work getting to where we’re at right now.
When did you know Garden Fresh was big time?
Jack: Probably Meijers. I didn’t have to go out and drive a truck anymore. When we picked up Meijers, that’s when we realized we were going to build a building over here [near Nine Mile and Hilton]. … [But even] when we built this plant in 2002, it was a lot bigger than what we needed. I remember getting here and saying, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to be able to afford it?’ Now, of course, we bought the rest of this property.