Their Aunt’s Salsa Was A Party Hit. So Mom And Son Made It Their Business

By Marijke Rowland The Modesto Bee

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the mother-son team who have created a unique salsa based on their great-aunt Delfina Guzman's long-held recipe.

The Modesto Bee

Almost everyone has a grandma or great aunt with a secret family recipe they swear they could bottle and sell.

But the mother-son team of Elaine Johnson and Julian Farhoud from Hughson actually made it happen.

The family started selling Tia Fina's Salsa, based on her great aunt Delfina Guzman's long-held recipe, in early 2016 at local flea and farmers markets. They have since ramped up production and last year began manufacturing out of Auburn.

The salsa is now available at area Safeway and O'Brien's grocery stores as well as other regional markets. And they are finishing a deal with Save Mart to be in stores from Modesto to Merced.

"When people try it they say it brings them back to a flavor they haven't had in a long time," said Johnson, who has partnered with her son, who is CEO of the company.

Turn over a jar of the salsa and you'll see a picture of their tia (Spanish for "aunt") who went by the nickname "Fina." Above her portrait are the words, "From our Family Table to yours."

The salsa itself is a blended mix of diced tomatoes, garlic, salt, roasted green and jalapeno peppers and, depending on spice level, roasted serrano peppers. It comes in mild, spicy and hot flavors and contains no added sugar or vinegar and is GMO and gluten-free.

Johnson has long been the keeper of her great-aunt's recipe, since learning it from her over 35 years ago. The original recipe had been passed down through generations to Guzman, who lived most of her life in Austin, Texas. Over the decades Johnson became the go-to maker of salsa for family gatherings, parties and other events.

Then, about three years ago, Farhoud had a gathering for his 21st birthday where they served the salsa. The next day a friend called him asking for more of the salsa, and saying he would gladly pay for it. That's when a light bulb went off for him.

He began experimenting with making batches of the salsa in the family's backyard. His previous work experience was as an automotive technician, so the world of commercial food manufacturing was completely new and had a steep learning curve.

When they finally had it down and began producing jars to sell about two years ago, they took it to the one place they knew would be a true crucible for any salsa -- the flea market on Crows Landing Road in south Modesto.

"Our biggest critics were at the flea market because it's like a mini-Mexico there," Johnson said. "But when they tried it they were shocked with how authentic it was."

They sold at the flea market almost exclusively for their first eight months, then expanded to local farmers markets. Along the way Farhoud was mentored by Modesto entrepreneur Jamie Norwood, president of Amalia's Cocina sauce company. She helped them make the leap from manufacturing in a commercial kitchen in Turlock to a co-packer facility in Auburn. They've also been working with Jeff Pappas, the CEO of CJ Produx, as a broker to help gain more accounts and distribution.

They're currently producing about six pallets, or close to 6,800 jars, in each run and distribute out of a warehouse in Turlock.

You can find the salsa at Safeway in Modesto and Turlock and O'Brien's in Modesto and Riverbank stores. You can also pick it up at Village Fresh in Turlock, Sam & Dave's Market in downtown Modesto and other locally owned groceries in the Central Valley. Jars retail for about $5 to $6.

Once the Save Mart deal is finalized, within three or four months, they expect to double their production runs. Farhoud and Johnson got their tia's blessing before they started production. She passed away at age 101 last year. But they said she would be honored to have so many people trying her salsa today.

"I don't think there was a day in her life when she would think the salsa she made every day would be sold in the community. She would be very surprised seeing something she helped to create and went through generations take off like this," Farhoud said. "I think she'd feel special."

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