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Empty nester to salsa chef: How one local woman's popular-at-parties salsa became a grocery story sell out hit

Cheryl Wilcox created Mom's Homemade Salsa initially as something to serve her family at parties. It was so popular with friends, she's now selling all over the capital region.

For years, Cheryl Wilcox has been known for making a delicious salsa sauce.

Wanting to make a healthier party snack, she refined her recipe, using premium vegetables and cutting out the sugar and fillers found in most brand-name salsas.

Every time she made it, family members and guests said the same thing.

“You could sell this.”

But as the office manager of an oral surgeon and mother of three, Wilcox was too busy to even dream of selling salsa. And so, it remained a fun family activity, where she made as many as 200 jars at a time for gifts and parties.

It wasn't until 2018 when Wilcox started thinking they might be right. Perhaps she could sell her salsa. With the kids grown and gone and time on her hands, Wilcox, 57, was looking for a hobby — something to do into her retirement.

“The kids had been after me for years to sell my salsa, but the time was never right,” Wilcox admits. “I was too busy being a mom, running off to competitive hockey, dance and gymnastics. We never had the time. But when the kids got older, my husband Don and I had the time to do something that would take us into our retirement years.”

She got valuable advice from her friend Janet, the powerhouse gourmet entrepreneur who owns Mrs. McGarrigles Fine Foods in Merrickville.

With Janet's encouragement and food retail savvy, Wilcox made her first batch for commercial sales: 30 jars for sale in McGarrigle's store. The whole batch sold out the first day. Customers started asking for it. They liked it in spaghetti, on sandwiches and with their eggs.

That's when the penny dropped and she saw the potential of her product.

In 2020, Cheryl and Don decided to take her side hustle to the next level, spending $10,000 for licenses, equipment, marketing and space in McGarrigle's commercial kitchen to produce salsa on a larger, commercial scale.

Today, she's selling nearly 1,000 jars of Mom's Homemade Salsa a month in 50 stores from Kingston and Carleton Place, to Almonte and Russell, including Foodland, Independent Grocers, Cooke's Fine Food, Kichessippi Brewery and The Log Farm. A couple of big chain grocery stores have also shown serious interest in carrying her sauce.

“You've got to be serious if you're going to do it,” she says. “If you're just going to sell stuff at a farmer's market, it's a great hobby, a fun way to meet people. But if you want to get into something big and legal, you've got to be prepared to spend big money and do it the right way.”

Not surprisingly, salsa's sort of taken over her life. When she isn't making salsa, she's calling stores and pitching the product, ordering materials or off to another farmer's market.

“It started as a hobby and if it didn't go any further than selling salsa at the farmer's market, that would be a fun thing to do,” she adds. “I didn't have a long-term plan. I knew it had the potential, I just didn't know where the potential would lead. But this isn't a hobby anymore, it's an investment. I look forward to going forward.”

Her success has given Wilcox the ambition and the confidence to push her sales region nationally, with sales as far away as Manitoba. In the meantime, she's adding new products like her Mom's Homemade lineup including hot jalapeño relish.

“I'm amazed at how well it's going,” Wilcox confesses. “I'm ready to develop this more as a business, get in more stores. It would be nice to get it into southern Ontario. I'm ready to make this a nice retirement.”



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