Willmar man finds successful niche with homemade salsa
WILLMAR -- With a rapid chop-chop-chop of a knife, Francisco Morales turns fresh tomatoes, onions and avocados into a flavorful salsa.
So tasty, in fact, that he makes and sells literally gallons of Francisco's Pico de Gallo Salsa each year at stores and outdoor markets.
Almost 20 years after creating his first batch of salsa at the kitchen counter, Morales, 52, marvels at how the enterprise has taken off.
"I never thought that it would grow like this," he said.
With warm weather just around the corner, Morales will be busier than ever.
During the summer, his weekends start in the middle of the night as he loads up dozens of jars of his fresh, homemade salsa to sell at farmers markets in the Twin Cities.
Weekdays usually find him shopping for produce -- preferably organic -- and making fresh salsa at his small commercial kitchen in Willmar.
"I like to make it fresh. People like it fresh," he said.
A native of Mexico, Morales grew up in the western coastal cities of Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, where salsa was an everyday food.
"In Mexico we use lots of salsa," he said.
Even after moving to Minnesota in the 1980s, he continued to make and enjoy salsa. Using his mother's recipe, he experimented with ingredients and flavors and came up with the idea of adding avocados to the mix.
"It changed the flavor. I liked it a lot," he said.
So did those who tasted it.
Morales, who works at the Willmar Junior High School as an interpreter and paraprofessional, began bringing jars of his salsa to school events and parties.
People ate it up. Gradually, word of mouth began to spread and friends started suggesting to Morales that he go into business.
He'd never produced or marketed anything before.
"I didn't know how to sell it," he confessed. "I just learned, little by little."
His first big commercial break came about eight years ago, when Cash Wise Foods in Willmar agreed to begin carrying Francisco's Pico de Gallo Salsa.
"He'd buy his ingredients at the store and he'd bring in a jar once in a while," recalled Brad Michelson, then manager of the store.
By then, Morales had opened a small commercial kitchen, hired three part-time employees and successfully gone through the state licensing and inspection process.
"Then we were able to sell his products," Michelson said.
Today Morales has a thriving business with outlets not only at Cash Wise but also at the Becker Market in downtown Willmar and at seasonal farmers markets in the Twin Cities. His salsa also turns up on local menus at everything from graduation parties to family picnics and gatherings.
"Christmastime is busy. Easter is busy. The Fourth of July is crazy," Morales said.
In his native Mexico, there are several versions -- often made with fruit -- of Pico de Gallo salsa. The name, Rooster's Beak, refers to the diced texture of the sauce and, so the story goes, was inspired by its resemblance to the pecked-over remains of a chicken's meal.
Morales uses all-natural, organic ingredients -- tomatoes, onions, avocados, peppers and cilantro -- with no preservatives.
Most people eat Francisco's Pico de Gallo with tortilla chips, but it's versatile enough to accompany almost anything.
"I use it with tacos. I use it with beans. I use it with rice. I use it on baked potatoes. I use it in many ways," Morales said. His personal favorite: pureeing some of the salsa in a blender and using it as a marinade for grilled steak.
Store the salsa in the refrigerator, he advises. "As soon as it gets warm, it's ruined."
He prepares his salsa in a small commercial kitchen he rents in the Public Market building in Willmar. It's equipped with three cutting tables, two sets of triple sinks and a sharp set of knives.
Once summer gets under way, Morales and a crew of eight or nine part-time workers will be busy in the kitchen at least three days a week, making salsa to keep up with the demand. Morales figures he goes through 450 pounds of tomatoes a week during the summer.
A one-pint jar of this hot stuff retails for $5.95. It comes in four strengths: mild, regular (the choice of most customers), hot and X-rated, which gets its fiery heat from habañero peppers.
That's Morales himself on the label, decked out as a caballero ("and I hate to wear hats," he said).
Many have tried to duplicate his salsa but few have succeeded.
What's the secret?
"I'm thinking it's the touch," Morales mused. "The process of the salsa is organic. Everything is by hand. It's kind of hard to get the right balance of taste. I try to buy the best things I know to work with."
"He has a good recipe. That's where it's at," Michelson said. "Obviously he's found a niche."
Morales said he plans to keep making and selling salsa for as long as he can.
"I never say no to something I can do. I always like to try new things," he said.