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Small Business Week: Heidi’s Salsa Puts Traditional Flavors and a Solid Business Model in One Jar

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Name: Heidi Withers (left) & Nikki Dougherty (right)
Business: Heidi’s Salsa (Luko Foods LLC)
Milestone: Seven years
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Founded: 2011

Heidi Withers grew up in Los Angeles as part of a large, extended Mexican family with a passion for food, fun and entertaining. When she won a salsa contest using her family recipe in 2009, she was encouraged to launch her own business making and selling her salsas. Today, Heidi and her longtime friend and business partner Nikki have been making “The Freshest Salsa in a Jar” for seven years. They’ve gone from selling their homemade goods at farmers’ markets to selling their three salsas in over 1000 stores nationwide.

QuickBooks celebrates Heidi! In honor of Small Business Week, QuickBooks wanted to lend a hand driving new customers to stores that sell Heidi’s delicious salsa. By providing new engaging social and digital content so more people than ever will be able to dip into Heidi’s treasured family recipe.

Heidi and Nikki are featured vendors at Intuit’s Small Business Week celebration in Mountain View, CA, April 30 to May 4.


Heidi, what did you and Nikki do before you started working for yourselves?

We had both had been working in advertising agencies for years. Working with brands other people built. We were looking to run something of our own -- with a purpose.

Did you have a specific “aha” moment when you knew you were going to go out on your own and start a business? 

We both went to Loyola Marymount University and met when we were 20 years old and studying abroad in Greece. While there, we uncovered a shared passion to make our mark on this world as female business owners. We had extended conversations about starting a marketing business someday and even named it “Orange,” inspired by all the oranges we ate in Greece. Though we may have seemed like mere youngsters with far-fetched plans, we both knew in our hearts that we were cut from the same cloth and were both persistent enough to actually make it happen.

How did you get started?

As friends, we were really getting into sharpening our culinary skills. We’d find ourselves going on and on about the recipes we’d tried and our latest dish and flavor explorations. Those conversations evolved into hosting 12-course suppers for friends where we’d present our creations. The joy we felt from sharing our food with others was really magical.

In summer 2011, Nikki approached me with an idea to join a local farmers market and sell our two favorite creations, my family-recipe salsa and Nikki’s fruit spreads named “Maj,” which is everything you know about jam but backwards! Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were embarking on something that was bigger than either of us had ever experienced.

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned working for yourself?

Maintaining persistence. No one is going to pat you on the back or give you a promotion for excelling at being a business owner. The reward for excelling is you get to keep the lights on!

We’ve learned work-life balance is a really important contributor to the strength of a business. We make it a priority to ensure that we are each happy, healthy and fulfilled at every step of the way.

 

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You started at a farmers market and now you’re selling to over 1000 stores. How did you handle such a huge scale up?

We proceeded very carefully and deliberately. We took a lot of industry acquaintances out for coffee to learn and avoid any missteps. We consulted trusted business mentors. In 2013, we made the decision to start manufacturing Heidi’s Salsa in a jar, because the shelf life of fresh salsa can only be extended by a few weeks and with preservatives. In an effort to save our pennies, we’d drive cases of Heidi’s Salsa in our own cars to independent retail customers in California. Once we got the salsas in about 100 retail stores and had a better manufacturing volume, we were able to become more efficient in our distribution, essentially duplicating our efforts through a nationwide network of brokers and distributors. 

In a market like Los Angeles, with so many wonderful Latin-influenced flavors, how do you differentiate your brand?

One of our biggest challenges with a food product in a traditional and stale category continues to be telling a story that is new and interesting. We do it through our unofficial tagline: The Freshest Tasting Salsa in a Jar. We always say that fresh salsa is the absolute best, and we have met many Angelenos who are so enthusiastic about their way of making fresh salsa. That makes us so happy! It will always be the best way.

Our goal is to recreate my fresh, Mexican family-recipe salsa and put it in a more convenient jar format. You get the taste of a fresh salsa but without the need to refrigerate.  

Tell me what your typical day looks like?

Some people may imagine that two best-friends who happen to be the entire company have low accountability and we sit around drinking coffee and taking selfies all day. Wrong! The reality is that our days are a lot of hustling, sans ego. We experience a mix of really humbling days and also great wins. We are always on our toes!

We typically arrive to the office around 9 a.m. after Nikki has walked her pup Jackson and I’ve done my morning jog and taken my son Wyatt to preschool.

Each day is completely different but typically involves reconciling accounts in QuickBooks, forecasting budget, sending invoices, processing purchase orders, writing checks, managing inventory, building sales presentations, planning marketing/social media, obtaining freight quotes, responding to customer service inquiries, fielding partnership inquiries and packaging online/wholesale orders and buyer samples. Whew!

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What do you love, and what is most difficult, about this work?

We love that being entrepreneurs presents constant, exhilarating challenges. There’s no manual or guide for what we have done or are about to do. We call ourselves a two-headed monster. Together we have become a force with learning, adapting and refining our craft. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, so we have a lot of fun!

What is most difficult is the fact that business has a bottom line. It is tough sometimes to charge forward confidently and really believe your brand will grow and succeed when you’re the small fish in a sea of big brands, all competing in massive retail chains seeking to maximize profit.

What do you hope to gain at Intuit Small Business Week?

We want the audience to learn about a successful company that is staying true to its heritage and values and is dedicated to making and selling a quality product. Anything less would be compromising our beliefs.

One of our bigger goals is to inspire children - especially those born into underprivileged situations - to believe your dream can absolutely become a reality. Anything is possible if you are ready to learn, find your supporters, build your toolbox and persistently charge forward!

 

Now it's your turn!

QB Community members, which small businesses will you support during Small Business week?