Salsa - hecho en Vermont. Production of this Mexican condiment goes into high gear in the Ferriot family kitchen
East Thetford, Vt.
WHEN Betty and Dan Ferriot started whipping up a little homemade salsa for friends a year and a half ago, they didn't know they were following a recipe for major changes in their lives. But that original pound or two of their peppy, freshly chopped concoction has since ballooned into 1,000 pounds a week.
The Ferriots' All Seasons Kitchen brand can be found in gourmet and natural food stores as far south of this central Vermont village as Boston and as far north as Burlington, Vt. Country stores and specialty shops lap it up in between. They've even had ``salsa emergencies'' - quick orders for 10 pounds via overnight express - called in from as far away as Malibu, Calif.
Chopping, mixing, marketing, and shipping of salsa makings has become a 14- to 16-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week occupation for these parents of two pre-teen children. Their extended family includes two geese, four pigs, and three chickens.
The Ferriot home, a neat little one-story dwelling perched on a slope overlooking the picturesque Connecticut River Valley, positively hums with entrepreneurial energy. If Betty's not feeding tomatoes into the dicer or going over the books, Dan is chopping up cilantro (a spicy cousin of parsley) or driving thousands of pounds of ``Hecho en Vermont'' salsa down to Boston.
It all began, in a sense, a number of years ago when the couple first met in California.
Betty, a Vermonter by birth, was a student at Sacramento City College and Dan, a native of Ohio, was installing wind-energy systems. Both had acquired a taste for Mexican food - and especially for that all-purpose, jalapeno-based condiment, salsa.
When they moved back east to Vermont, Dan brought along a salsa recipe. He'd make it, then Betty would alter it, then he would, and, pinch by pinch, they arrived at what they considered the ideal blend of peppers, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cilantro, and garlic salt.
It's a fresh product, uncooked. Most people, Betty points out, think of bottled preparations when they hear the word ``salsa.'' And those thinking of going into the salsa business are likely to cook it, she says.
``But anyone who knows anything about salsa knows that's not how you make it,'' she explains. ``You make it fresh.''
And fresh, peppery, and piquant is the way it tastes. The Ferriots use it with everything - tuna, hamburger, eggs, salads. The children, Jesse, 12, and Glen, 10, love it. Any leftover salsa or salsamaking scraps go to the pigs. They've acquired such a taste for it that they often turn up their snouts at grain and other normal porcine fare, says Dan.
After more than 12 months of chopping, mixing, and packing the sauce, the Ferriots are on the verge of a major expansion of their business.
They've built a large extension onto their home, which will be devoted entirely to salsa production. It includes a spacious, open room that will soon be filled with industrial food-preparation equipment, bought from an old plant in the Charlestown section of Boston. There'll even be a gadget to squirt 16 ounces of salsa into each plastic container.
The Valley Bank, in nearby White River Junction, Vt., gave Betty and Dan a sizable loan for this expansion. Tom Hill, a bank executive, says he spent a lot of time with the Ferriots getting to understand their operation and feels confident about their prospects. The food specialty business is booming in Vermont, he says, and All Seasons Kitchen salsa - like Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, Blanchard & Blanchard condiments, and others - could become a north country success story.
What expansion means for the Ferriots is a little less hands-on salsamaking - but probably no easing of their frenetic schedule. Production will double, Dan predicts. And that may help them gain entry into some of the supermarket chains in the region, which demand a guaranteed supply of a product. It may also mean the hiring of full-time employees - something they've avoided till now, though they have had part-time bookkeeping and production help.
That's a bit of a dilemma for two people who have nurtured a business from the kitchen chopping block up.
``This is our baby,'' says Betty, holding up a carton of ``Hecho en Vermont,'' with its ``el bondadoso'' (loosely, ``the good'' or ``great'') cartoon logo. She's concerned that other workers just won't have ``the same ethic.''
Meanwhile, the weekly production of salsa continues in the Ferriot household, with the children chipping in on tasks like labeling and cleanup. It's not always easy to fit family demands in with work demands, mom and dad admit. But ``we still go to softball and soccer games. When our children ask us to be there, we'll be there,'' Betty affirms.
Does salsamaking ever get old?
``I remember one morning, peeling onions, when I asked, `Is it worth it?''' Betty says. Their answer is yes. ``It's fun, because we have to create this whole thing,'' says Dan, adding, ``We like to work.''
``I've never really accepted that old saying about only so many hours in a day,'' Betty chimes in.