Published Aug 10, 2011

Field Day Report: Juan O’Sullivan’s Secrets to Successful Salsa

By Sally Worley

On August 3 approximately 80 people visited Sean and Becki Sullivan’s business near Cumming to learn their secrets to expanding their love for making salsa into a profitable business. Sean started off asking people, “What’s your lightning in a bottle? What differentiates your product from all others out there?” For Juan O’Sullivans, one of their trademarks is their chile roaster, and the fresh waft of goodness it creates weekly at the Des Moines downtown farmer’s market. Plus, according to Sean, their product tastes different than any in the world.

Sean attempted to get into Hy-Vee for some time, and each time he tried, the gentleman told him he already had plenty of salsa. Finally, Hy-Vee’s buyer acquiesced, likely so Sean would stop “bothering” him. Sean showed up to the initial sales meeting with a jar of salsa and a bag of chips, and selling his salsa and getting it into Hy-Vee stores with that single meeting.

Juan O’Sullivan’s is now sold not to individual Hy-Vee stores, but through their distributor, and rests on shelves in over 35 Hy-Vee stores. Their salsa is also available in six Dahl’s outlets, online, and weekly at the Des Moines Farmer’s Market.

Sean applied for a Value-Added Producer’s Grant to help ramp up his business. This opportunity allowed him to fund scaling up personnel, infrastructure, and marketing, with the idea that the business will have stable enough legs to be viable without financial assistance once the grant period is over. Business sustainability looks promising for this central Iowa salsa business.

Kate Sand from USDA attended the field day to discuss opportunities the Value-Added Producer Grant provides to growers and grower cooperatives. Both planning and working capital grants are available, but the deadline to apply, August 29, is fast approaching. Sean utilized a grant writer to assist in preparing for the grant, and he recommended others without this skill set consider doing so; the process could be considered labor-intensive.

John Whitson of Sunrise Gardens and Sean led a tour of chile gardens on Sean and Becki’s property. Due to the extreme heat of July, including warm nights, the peppers were lacking in size and flowers. However, with the break in heat and cooler nights we have experienced since the event, those pepper plants are likely rejuvenated. Sean and John provided these tips for growing peppers:

10 Quick Pepper Gardening Tips From Juan’s

Planning: If you are starting plants from seed, buy the seed in January from reliable sources to avoid shortages and back orders. Plant Peppers 8 weeks and Tomatoes 6 weeks before target garden planting dates (Midwest Zone 5 is May 5-10 for Tomatoes and May 15-20 for Peppers).

Composting: All season long, put everything you can in the garden for fall or spring tilling; grass clippings, compost, fine wood chips etc… the more material you can get in the garden the better.

Soil Testing: Be sure to have your soil tested through your local Extension Service or Ag University. Knowledge is our best tool to success in the garden.

Patience: Don’t try to plant too early.  If you buy bigger, older, more expensive plants and get them in the garden a couple of weeks early, not only do you risk weather damage but even if everything goes well, you may harvest a pepper or a tomato only a few days earlier than plants planted under normal procedure.

Variety Choices: Know what you are going to do with your produce. What will you cook, where will you sell it or give it away and what does your target market want to use and eat? Choose varieties that make sense. Do you need peppers for sauce or salsa? Big difference.

Irrigation: Peppers especially do very well with consistent water and under conditions where the plants are not subject to fungus / virus infected soil splashing up on them with the rain. Using drip tape and plastic puts your plants in a controlled and more likely to be successful environment, especially in a dry year.

Spacing While Planting / Mapping: Space your plants with easy harvesting and growing environment in mind. Don’t try to put too many plants in your space, or you may pay a price with no/low production. Pepper plants need to breath, especially in a wet year. I recommend spacing plants over two plus feet apart in the row and double rows at least five plus feet apart.

Varmints: Varmints , especially rabbits, love to eat tender young pepper seedlings. Chicken wire at least two feet tall works best. Take the fence down and save it for next year, after the plants are a foot tall or so.

Newspaper and Straw: In a smaller non-irrigated environment, you may want to use newspaper and straw to keep weeds out, moisture in the soil and fungus infected soil from splashing on your plants. After your plants are a foot tall and really growing well, weed the garden, lay two sheets of newspaper everywhere and put a light layer of compost, straw, hay, mulch, really anything to hold the newspaper down. Wet the job with water to keep it in place until it rains. Till the newspaper and straw right in the soil in the fall or spring. This works!

Pick Early and Often: Peppers proliferate and rebloom if managed with early picking. Pick a few of the small peppers off of your plants while still immature to allow the plants to get bigger and framier, and promote new blooming on the plant. You may double your per plant production.

Juan grows chiles at his home, but these only provide a small portion of the peppers that go into the approximately 940 pounds of salsa bottled each week in their kitchen. Sean subcontracts with John Whitson and a handful of other growers and purchases all the peppers they are able to grow. He likes that chiles and garlic he purchases from other Iowa growers are spread across farms- it mitigates risk of crop failure. John also imports chiles from New Mexico to fill in supply gaps.

Becki and full-time employee Thomas Burkhead led a tour of Juan’s certified kitchen where their product is prepared and bottled. They overviewed basic design requirements to be able to certify a kitchen, including: washable surfaces, access to a bathroom, separate sink for handwashing, proper ventilation, and that the kitchen be able to be closed off from the rest of Sean and Becki’s home. Becki and Thomas would seal off the kitchen regardless of this regulation, because failure to do so leads to everything, including clothes in closets, smelling like salsa.

Sean and Becki have provided an ingredient list and their salsa-making process to regulators, and have the ingredient-list stated on their label. They measure the pH of each batch to ensure there is a level of acid present to create a shelf stable product. After Becki and Thomas chop, mix, and cook the product, they hot pack the items, so this acid level is crucial.

Linda Naeve from ISU Value-Added Extension, a sponsor for this field day, highlighted some of the services Value-Added Extension provides. She also overviewed MarketMaker, a tool that connects producers and buyers.

The conversation was wonderful and attendance great, so these things were on the agenda and didn’t get as much attention as planned: preparing value-added for products for sale in retail stores and branding. I was excited to participate and listen in on Sean’s creative branding exercise, so hopefully we can recreate this in a future event.

The event ended with some magnificent roasted green chile served on pork sandwiches, chips and sauces (of course), watermelon, green bean salad and carrot slaw. Sean conducted a roasted chile demonstration, proving these a worthy “lightning in a bottle.”