Jazz & Salsa
An Interview with Fernando Miramon and his Austin Legacy Brand -- Sabor Salsa
Fernando, tell me about the early days. Just when did the idea pop into your head to make a product and what were the first steps you took after that thought?
The year was 1981. The original Whole Foods, located on 12th & Lamar, was our first account. Then, and even now, Austinites will support anything local. In fact, I’ve been lucky to live in Austin. It was sort of fluke that I launched in Whole Foods. I had gone into Straight Music, which back then was located right next door, and, as I am a professional musician, I would into Straight Music often for repairs. I’d often wander around in Whole Foods after dropping off my instrument for repair and one time I happened to meet the #2 guy in the corporation. I told him I made fresh salsa and he invited me to drop off a sample. I did just that when I returned and he said, “Are you kidding me? This is great!” He requested I bring in large samples for the team to sample. Turns out, they really liked it. That was how it all got started.
What happened next Fernando?
Once I realized I had a viable product and a potential place to sell it, I borrowed, from a good friend, a PH tester. I brought samples, along with the PH data, to the State of Texas Health Department. They said my salsa was too acidic as it was just above 5.6. To solve this I came close to adding vinegar but instead I added olive oil and it brought the oxidation down to the correct level of 4.2. The protocol is to let it sit, and 2 weeks later, it was at 4.8 so my label and shelf life for a fresh product were approved.
At this point, I needed to figure out how to make labels and have them not only stick to a jar in a damp refrigerated environment, but I also needed someone to carefully and consistently apply them. I didn’t have the necessary funds to have labels printed and so I literally printed them on paper myself and used Elmer’s Glue to adhere them. During these times, I volunteered often at the School for the Blind. I read information to the engineer for their sound equipment. I happened to identify one of the students who, while she was blind, had extraordinary capabilities and so I gave her a job at the taco stand I owned and operated, Mi Gordi’s, to take phone orders and apply the labels. One of the other students from The School for the Blind, built a frame for her to use to apply them accurately each and every time. She was really happy to have this job and she was a huge asset for me.
Why Salsa? How and where did you know how to make such good salsa?
I was born and raised in Mexico City. I had a good education there. I first came to the US in 1974, went to the American Embassy to apply for legal status, and started touring around the country as a jazz musician. I learned how to make salsa, really good salsa, from my years growing up in Mexico.
How did you from selling in one store to becoming one of Austin’s most beloved salsa brands?
I started selling to Fresh Plus on West Lynn. From there HEB came along. Someone suggested I also go into Central Market so I also launched in their stores shortly thereafter. About this time, Texas Monthly Magazine did a big story on some local brands such as SASS and Mangia Pizza. The article was titled Recipe for Success and they’d printed a full-size page, in color, for each product or restaurant spot. They invited me to do a photo shoot and included me and my Sabor Salsa. This opened the door for Sabor Salsa as it gave me exposure. One late afternoon, I was performing across the street from the Texas Monthly Magazine offices at the Driscoll Hotel and I brought two gallons of Sabor Salsa and two large bags of chips over to their offices to thank them for the article. I met the Editor at the time and they all came over to hear me play that evening and many evenings thereafter.
Often, I would work a late piano gig, then I’d go home to do the prep and labels and make the salsa till 1:30 am and deliver to HEB before 11 am. Making and selling a product is a commitment. I’m lucky to have a business where people keep liking the product and keep buying it! I don’t use a distributor as I’d rather have complete control over the quality, so I self-distribute. Many investors have approached me over the years to scale up and maybe one day I’ll decide the time has come to do just that. HEB and Central Market have already requested, along with my red sauces, that I also sell my green sauce in 100 of their stores.
How has the industry changed in Austin over the years compared to when you first launched?
Now, there is a lot of competition. I won First Place and Second Place many times in The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce competition. I eventually stopped competing to give others a chance. Nowadays, there are more shelf-stable salsas because having a fresh salsa is a lot more work. Going thru receiving at the retailers is difficult as they are very strict. I’m used to it though and I know what I’m doing. The shelf-stable salsa market may be more abundant, but the fresh salsas taste much better. If a salsa is shelf stable, then over time it keeps getting hotter. If it’s fresh, then the heat is stabilized. I always use serrano peppers. They have the perfect consistency on hotness. I also buy them locally and in fact, I use as many locally-grown ingredients as possible.
Who opened some of the doors for you that had a significant impact on your success?
Oh that’s easy…..my neighbors…aka friends of the taco stand I owned and operated, Mi Gordi’s. I met so many nice people operating the taco stand. I built the manufacturing space next to it on my property and I still operate out of it today. Bernadine and Conrad of Barton Springs Nursery, back in the day, sent someone to help build out the frame for the structure. Support from neighbors in the Cuernavaca neighborhood is what this business has been all about all along.
What would you do differently if you were to start over again today?
Not a thing. I’d do the exact same thing. I’d follow the rules. Always follow the rules. Recently, I had to change lids to get a better seal. To ensure quality and safety I personally go into the stores and check the dates and pull product which is getting close to the expiration date. The new lids, which I am getting from France, are much better.
What have you enjoyed most about being an Austin Legacy Food Brand?
Again, I’m grateful. I’m grateful that I landed in Austin because this level of support, not only for my salsa brand but for us musicians, does not happen in every city. It’s Austin. It’s that Austin is supportive of everything local. It’s about gratitude.
Now, tell me about the music?
I am a jazz musician and I play regular gigs all over town. I play these gigs thanks to the many bar and restaurant owners who support me and others by giving us a location in which to perform consistently. I enjoyed playing so many of the ‘Cuerny Jams’ over the years as well. This is an annual Cuernavaca neighborhood music jam. A lot of Austin’s finest musicians currently live or have lived in this neighborhood and I’ve gotten to play with many of them. Some include Terry Bozzio (played with Frank Zappa, Stevie Ray, Beck, Duran Duran, etc), Chris Layton (Stevie Ray Vaughn’s drummer), Omar and the Howlers, Doug Hall, David Grissom, Tony Campise and Bob Meyer for example. These guys wanted to sit in with me and my B3 Hammond organ! I’ve had such great experiences performing here in Austin.
Each Sunday, I play brunch at Chez Zee. Sharon Watkins, owner of Chez Zee, has supported so many of us musicians over the years. I am grateful for the opportunity to perform on her beautiful grand piano and the Sunday crowd is always so lovely and gracious.