By Shay Castle
Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the Colorado mom and entrepreneur behind the growing food startup “Winking Girl Salsa.”
Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.
For a seven-year-old company that once won top honors at the biggest natural food event of the year, Winking Girl Salsa has flown surprisingly under the radar.
But with a new name (the business was previously called White Girl Salsa), some new products and a presence in more than 1,500 grocery stores across the U.S., the mom and entrepreneur behind the food startup is hoping that a fresh shot of innovation can propel Winking Girl to national status.
We sat down with the white girl herself, Julie Nirvelli, to find out more about the new name and new direction of the company:
Question: How did you get started selling salsa?
A: I had tomatillo salsa at a party. I never really liked tomato-based salsa that much, and when I had tomatillo salsa, it’s a little sweeter and not as thick and it had a good flavor, so I started making my own.
And my friends loved it. My hispanic friends joked that they couldn’t believe a white girl could make such good salsa, so that’s how I got the name White Girl Salsa.
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I started selling it at farmers markets about 7 years ago. We sold 5,000 jars of salsa in three months at the farmers markets.
I was floored, so I took that to Whole Foods and started selling into Belmar, Cherry Creek and Pearl Street (locations).
I was doing demos and getting to know people, and then stores started contacting me. It just kind of organically grew from there, and we’re in 1,700 stores today.
Nowadays, of course, it’s this old joke for grocery store buyers: ‘Not another salsa.’ There’s just so many.
Question: You’re doing more than salsa now, right?
A: We recently started doing skillet sauces. The idea was to offer something that can be convenient and has better economics than the salsas. The salsa costs $5.99, which is at the high end for salsa prices. Our sauce packets are $2.99.
People that are buying salsas, they either love it and have five different kinds or they buy one kind and only use it occasionally. Either way, it doesn’t turn as quickly off the shelves. Whereas the skillet sauces, we have people that make three meals a week with them.
People love them. They’re really clean: low in sodium, no corn syrup. (Louisville-based) Fresca Foods has this great research and development team that did the recipes.
Question: Does Fresca own part of your business?
A: They do. And I co-pack there, too. When I was really early on, I was using a co-packer in Denver and they weren’t focused on the quality so we were having production issues. I realized I needed Fresca to grow.
I was so small; they have high volume requirements for who they work with. We struck a deal and that was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Question: How else have you financed the growth of the company?
A: I’ve mostly been bootstrapping it. But I have gotten loans: Three from Whole Food’s Local Producers program. Their terms are really good. I just got one because I felt it was crucial to launch the sauces. And I got a loan from the Colorado Enterprise Fund.
I’m also looking for an investor. I’d love to partner with a strategic investor but most of their thresholds are (companies with revenue of) $1 million, $5 million or $10 million, and I’m just under a million.
The sauces are in Whole Foods Rocky Mountain region, Sprouts nationwide, and Alfalfa’s and Lucky’s locally. The plan right now is to focus any dollars available on marketing for the sauces and not increasing distribution until I have the funds.
Question: You recently changed the name from White Girl to Winking Girl. Why?
A: People really enjoyed the name, but I have big aspirations for the business and ideas for launching lots of new products. I don’t know what we’re launching but White Girl could limit what we could launch.
I’m not planning a spaghetti sauce or anything, but if I was, White Girl spaghetti sauce wouldn’t make sense. It just had the potential to be limiting. And eventually if I wanted the company to be acquired, a large company might not acquire us with that name.
We took the White Girl logo and made her wink and there was our name. We’re still trying to keep that light, fun feel to the brand, and I think Winking Girl does that.