ALAN ELLIOTT OF THE NEWS STAFF
When opportunity knocked, Jim Buddington was already busy. But the chef and cafe manager nevertheless saw that the Sisters Salsa recipe and brand name, which was up for sale, had potential. So he squeezed his schedule, bought the business in 1998 and a glutton for punishment was born.
In addition to feeding customers and scheduling entertainment at the Left Bank Cafe in Blue Hill, the Massachusetts native took on the responsibilities of business owner and salsa delivery driver. He and a small crew would chop and mix salsa in the wee hours after the cafe closed. Buddington hauled crates of fresh salsa wrapped in sleeping bags and blankets and packed with buckets of ice in an unrefrigerated box van scrawled with the Sisters company logo.
The route stocked more than 200 stores in Maine and New Hampshire. He often found himself on the road for more than 20 hours, making periodic stops to introduce Sisters Salsa to new stores along the way.
"I could almost sell it anywhere I wanted to go," the 47-year-old Blue Hill resident said.
At the end of 2002,
Buddington finally opted to doff his driving gloves.
A year later, annual sales have jumped from $342,000 to $400,000, Buddington's catching more Z's and Sisters is poised for further growth. An easygoing guy who would rather not get ahead of himself, Buddington says he now hopes to attract $250,000 in investment capital to expand the company's Hinckley Ridge Road operation and boost Sisters to broader distribution.
The next couple of years will be telling. The pending hurdles are high, and the beaten path for South of the Border recipes doesn't quite lead to Hinckley Ridge Road.
It's a little out of the way when you're trying to sell salsa to millions, said the former Castine Inn chef, who moved to the Blue Hill peninsula a decade ago.
The salsa itself couldn't be more simple: a refrigerated mix of fresh tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeno, lime juice and spices. It sells in stores throughout Maine and in Vermont and New Hampshire, including more than 150 Hannaford and Shaw's grocery stores.
Sisters is technically a pico de gallo, or "rooster's beak" salsa, named for being traditionally eaten in pinches between thumb and forefinger, mimicking the shape of a rooster bill. Finding fans for the condiment is maybe the simplest part of the project. Even at $4.99 per 14-ounce package, roughly twice the cost of what Buddington calls "spaghetti" salsas, a few mouthfuls of the juicy, tangy relish makes it tough to settle back into the jars of soupy, tomato salsa lining the grocery store shelves.
While small specialty shops have welcomed Sisters, getting the product into chains beyond Shaw's and Hannaford has been more difficult.
Chains often base their hospitality on what the industry calls slotting fees. Those fees generally require suppliers, like Buddington, to accept deeply discounted per unit prices in exchange for shelf space. The contracts also come with stringent supply commitments and steep penalties for failure to comply.
Buddington is cautiously preparing to commit to that next step.
"I'm prepared to move ahead, but I want to plan it," he said. "I'm making a living here, and it's a good position to be in."
The chance to buy Sisters Salsa cropped up two weeks after Buddington signed a year-long agreement as chef and manager of the Left Bank Cafe, a former nexus of good food and folk music in Blue Hill. Bud-dington bought the business "for about a year's salary" from Janet Benzel, then a Blue Hill resident who founded it as a kitchen table outfit, a means to stay home and school her two daughters.
The Sisters name was cute, the numbers seemed viable. But what really drew the Left Bank chef was the salsa itself.
"Because I loved it," he said. "I was buying it to put on dishes at the restaurants here I worked."
Benzel agreed to accept weekly payments, with a few lump sums along the way. Buddington and his crew made salsa in the wee hours, after the cafe shut down. He made deliveries on his days off.
A year later, Buddington paid $65,000 for the Hinckley Ridge building and property, put another $40,000 into improvements and hired his brother Larry as production manager.
The shop is easy to miss, with its simple plywood sign and a parking area watched over by an ambling Samoyed pup that announces arriving guests with one curt bark. The business fluctuates between three and eight employees. Jim, Larry and three others currently turn out about 300 cases of salsa each week.
Buddington said he could up his output to 700 cases a week, but can't maintain that pace in the current space. More refrigerator and counter space, storage and loading dock areas are a prerequisite to any large-scale growth in distribution.
Buddington recently bought the 68 acres surrounding his shop to clear the way for expansion. He is preparing a prospectus for local investors, presenting Sisters as a competitive, homegrown alternative to stock-based investments. Anxious to press the next growth phase, but wary of moving too fast, the entrepreneur is nonetheless not too shy to admit his aims are high.
"I'm not ready for a national situation," he said. "But down the road I'd like to be able to capture the East Coast."
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