From the first crunch of the tortilla chip dripping with savory salsa, you know you’re tasting some delicious, locally-made goodness. The smells of the fresh chips off the production line waft from the small warehouse in suburban Gretna out to the small surrounding parking lot, and out back, another truck is loaded up for delivery to one of more than 100 stores in four states.
Melina’s Mexican Salsa & Chips is growing, successful business that does an estimated $500,000 in sales a year. But the idea for the delectable products now found in the health food sections of grocery stores throughout the region came from a small store in Monterrey, Mexico, where Elia Rivera’s godmother would serve homemade salsa along with tostadas and lemon to her customers.
Years later, working in a corporate office in the Chicago area, her supervisor asked Rivera to bring in a dish for a potluck. She mixed up a batch of her godmother’s salsa recipe, and the reception was so positive she soon was busy making bigger batches to sell to the office staff; after two years, the demand was so great that she outgrew her kitchen. In 2001, seeking some advice on her burgeoning small business, Rivera completed SCORE’s pre-business workshop and, through the Women’s Business Development Center, found a co-packer in Union, Ill. to manufacture the salsa in large batches, an arrangement that continues to this day. She also got some advice on tortilla chip manufacturing, a perfect match for her mild, medium and hot salsas.
She named her company after her daughter, and now was ready to jump “out of the kitchen and into the grocery stores,” Rivera said.
Melina’s tortilla chips are all natural and gluten free, and the salsa is made from tomatoes, onions, garlic and peppers. The jars of salsa have only a 90-day shelf life, but Rivera said, “they don’t sit on the shelves for long.”
By 2005, a longtime friend suggested expanding from the Chicago area to Nebraska, where the leasing costs were cheaper, and competition was less fierce. Rivera asked the manager at the Hy-Vee story at 36th and L Street in Omaha if she could set up a table to offer free samples of her products to passing customers; all the store manager could promise that if the sales that weekend went well, he’d give her shelf space.
She got her space.
Toting her salsa jars, bags of chips and multicolored tablecloths from one store to another, playing maracas and singing traditional songs, she eventually got her salsa and chips in grocery stores in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.
One grocery store in nearby Papillion has sold 7,000 units of Melina’s Mexican Chips & Salsa over the last three years.
Rivera got a $5,000 SBA Express loan through Banco Popular North America in Melrose Park, Ill., in September 2007 for a line of credit as she continued to grow her business.
And her business already has outgrown the old warehouse in Omaha she had leased since she expanded to Nebraska. Rivera needed something with comfortable office space and room for trucks to dock, and found what she needed in nearby Gretna. In meeting with the property’s leasing agent, Rivera was delighted to discover the agent was a longtime fan of Melina’s Mexican Salsa & Chips.
And during one stretch from the middle of May 2010, when Rivera moved her operations to Gretna, to the end of July that year, her company sold 27,000 bags of chips.
“I want to expand to tortilla, tostada and taco shell production now,” Rivera said, and expects to do so shortly.
Rivera hopes to get the capital by the end of the year to purchase kettles and the rest of the Gretna warehouse property to bring the salsa manufacturing operations to Nebraska. Manufacturing for chips and salsa have to be separate, however, because moisture generated by salsa production would ruin tortilla chips.
Her company also keeps three restaurants in Chicago supplied with chips and salsa; Rivera has been so busy just keeping up with the demand from grocery stores she hasn’t pursued putting her products in Nebraska restaurants yet. She has seven full-time employees, and is looking for part-time help for the production line.
In an entertaining video on her company’s YouTube site, Rivera said: “I look forward to serving all of the grocery stores in the United States … and beyond."
President and CEO Sri Devi (left) and Business Development Director Mike Fisk of Guru Alliance outside their Omaha office.
They're already known for their agility and ability to compete on price when it comes to finding software and technology solutions for their customers in the commercial world. Their next goal is to tackle the tough federal government marketplace, and to that end they're counting on a team from the Nebraska District Office and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center to help.
Guru Alliance, a software development, technology services and staffing company with offices off 72nd Street in Omaha, has branched out around the world, with business in Canada, Singapore, and Chennai, India, the former home of company president and CEO Sri Devi.
"As a company, you always look to expand," Devi said. "For us, the federal government is a natural progression. We've worked as a subcontractor, so that exposed us to working with the government."
Tackling the energy sector with passion and innovative products
With one of their signature products is a tool which enables petroleum producers, marketers and blenders to comply with federal mandates for renewable fuels set by the Environmental Protection Agency, Guru Alliance would seem to be a perfect fit for taking advantage of the prospect to grow the small business through the biggest buyer of products and services in the country.
Devi bought out her partner some seven years ago, and with a passion toward application development, "we thought we could bring high value to the energy sector with our diverse skillset." But there's more to the story than that.
"We have a passion for what we do," Devi added. "We want to contribute to society, to help the environment. We know our renewable fuel tracking is a wonderful concept, so we really wanted to help businesses be in compliance with the EPA. Sure, there are other factors, our customers can benefit from it, they can make a profit, too, not just by tracking the renewable fuel as it process through, but by marketing themselves as good for society. We want to have an impact on the environment in a good way. You know, this is the society in which you live, and we always as a team work to contribute something back."
Looking to leverage contracting opportunities
A couple of years ago, Guru Alliance certified as a Minority-owned Business Enterprise with the Great Plains Minority Supplier Development Council, leveraging the company's strong commitment to diversity to expand the company's market share. In the future, the company will apply for certification by the SBA as an 8(a) firm; they're already a self-certified Small Disadvantaged Business.
Then there's the new SBA initiative, the Woman-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program. In the room during a rundown of the program at a seminar at the Nebraska District Office in September was Mike Fisk, Guru Alliance's business development director. After almost 20 years with a large technology company, and several years working with large and midsize federal contractors and directly with the federal government, Fisk came aboard last July to help Guru Alliance better compete in the federal marketplace.
They're quick to credit the SBA, and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center on the University of Omaha campus. Fisk credits Roger Johnson, who has served for the past three years as a counselor with PTAC, for "hitting the bulls-eye” in helping us structure how our innovation and custom application development capabilities should be aligned in government related databases. “There are thousands and thousands of federal, state, and local government opportunities. How do you navigate that landscape, and focus on the best matches at any given time? “Roger and I have worked hard to get things lined up just right. We continue to work closely to keep things aligned appropriately with Federal and other Government databases.”
Devi agreed: "When we incorporated, we just focused on private sector. PTAC made me realize the potential for companies like us, and Roger was very patient with me and helped me understand the process."
To complete in the in the government marketplace, Guru Alliance had Kathleen Piper, the district office's 8(a) business development specialist, on their side. Piper helped the firm pursue solicitations for contracts, and help guide the process learning about capability statements and pre-solicitation preparation. In addition, SBA Procurement Center Representative Dwight Johnson offered key feedback on positioning the company for progress in the federal marketplace after seeing a demonstration of Guru Alliance's software products and capabilities.
"After having worked with PTAC, with Roger, Mary Graff, directly with the government, and the SBA, I understand the bright light shining on small business," Fisk said. And when other companies who want to work with Guru Alliance call Fisk with questions about the contracting process, Fisk knows the right buttons to push. “Our goal is to compete effectively with key players and the government marketplace, and at the same time partner effectively with key players in that same marketplace”, says Fisk.
Getting attention from other contractors in the area
As a result, others in the federal marketplace have taken notice. Bellevue headquartered The Garrett Group is one of four firms across the country which won a right to compete on pieces of a $277 million contract with the Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency; as they win work, Guru Alliance will serve as a subcontractor for The Garrett Group.
Pretty good testimony to Guru Alliance's ability to do the job. “The Garrett Group sees us as innovative, agile, with price points that are very competitive. They have assembled a cadre of team members that deliver best of breed services”, Fisk said. “They are a top-notch company, great people. We’re on board, and happy to be part of The Garrett Group team.”
Devi said another local partnership was a perfect fit with the company's goal of giving something back. SCOLA is a non-profit educational firm which receives, translates and retransmits news, information and entertainment programming from Italy to Africa and Asia, and every place in between, to its cable TV watchers across the country. The organization, headquartered in a small Iowa town about 18 miles northeast of Omaha, needed a partner to help re-design and develop their online offering and build up its application modules, and provide ongoing technical support, and Guru Alliance was a perfect fit.
"We're being sought out for our core strengths, especially in mobile device applications," Fisk said. As far as the company's future says Devi: "We have an excellent track record and plenty in the pipeline with commercial, government, and 8(a) firms."
Mitch Meyer (center, wearing dark hoodie) and the crew at Mail Order Comics in Gretna, pose with some of their wares.
Mitch Meyer, the comic book fan, knows his Daredevil and his Punisher, his Dark Knight and his Green Lantern. But in his alter-ego as a successful businessman in Gretna, Meyer also knows his “margin” and “efficiencies” and “tangible value.”
Early in 2011, Meyer, with the help of his parents, bought the Comic Book Supermarket retail store and its attached warehouse business, Mail Order Comics, located at an outlet mall just off busy Interstate 80 southwest of Omaha. With his fresh energy, in less than a year, even in a tough year with turmoil in the comic book industry and fits and starts with an updated web site, Meyer said the business already has made $1.9 million in revenue.
Mail Order Comics, for one, is proud of being the fifth-largest distributor of the popular Marvel Comics brand in the country, and is a source for collectable fantasy figurines, statues and game cards. Customers can pre-order comic titles two months in advance using the web site.
Truth, Justice ... and providing great service to its customers
Meyer's eight full-time employees and 17 part-timers make sure the business can ship "two or three pallets a week," he said, with the largest group working two shifts on a single weekend from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to do most of the work.
"We have one employee who writes his paycheck back to the business just to pay for his comics purchases," Meyer said with a laugh. "I think we’re almost making a profit on him working for us."
Five percent of their business is to foreign customers, such as Argentina and Pakistan. He's become an expert in vicissitudes of export diplomacy, noting his business has to be careful how to package and ship comic books to ensure customs agents let through the merchandise to his customers without delay.
"Our guy in Argentina usually spends $8,000 a month," Meyer said, before checking his order statistics on a nearby computer. "... Actually, he spent $10,000 in December."
Meyer said many of his retail comic store customers order through his warehouse because of their competitive discounts.
"We offer a 38 percent discount off the retail price," Meyer said, "where the bigger guys offer 35 percent. Plus we offer occasional specials like half off to 75 percent off merchandise. We scoop up some of the smaller retailers the other distributors skip over."
Meyer also is honored to participate in Operation Shoebox, a non-profit effort out of Florida arranging for morale shipments to troops in Afghanistan, donating an entire pallet of comics for troops in the field.
Every great business comes with a story of its origin
Every great comic book character starts with an origin story, and Mail Order Comics has one just as worthy of telling.
It starts with the company's previous owner, a collector of miniature statues himself, who started the business out of his basement more than a decade ago as little more than a hobby. He sold comics over the internet part-time, eventually growing the operation out of his home to the outlet mall and into a retail store; by 2008, Meyer nabbed a job running it.
But when the owner got a promotion at his day job at Omaha Steaks, moving up to an executive position in the marketing department, he sought to cash out.
"My folks were the ones who were trying to convince me to run this business," Meyer said. "You know, I was running the retail store, but that was only about 10 percent of the whole business. And that's a lot of responsibility for someone just 26."
Meyer's father, a former pilot, was looking for the next chapter in his life, so he joined his son in offering a letter of intent in Nov. 2010 to purchase the store and warehouse.
The SBA to the rescue
With a down payment from his father, and an SBA-backed standard 7(a) loan through Wells Fargo approved Feb. 22, 2011 for $472,000 to purchase the business and provide $40,000 in operating capital, Meyer found himself in the comic book business.
"Sure, the process of getting the loan was frustrating sometimes," Meyer said. "I’d provide one thing to the bank, then they’d ask for 10 more things."
One big sticking point to get the SBA guarantee was a requirement for the owners of the mall to provide the business with a lease with a three-year option, a provision designed to protect small business owners who obtain SBA financing. The owners weren't comfortable with that requirement since they had begun redeveloping the shopping center, and after much back-and-forth negotiation, Wells Fargo got the SBA to waive the lease requirement, and Meyer got the loan.
"Our whole family is involved in the business," Meyer said. His younger brother Mike helps with operations, and a family friend handles the books and orders.
"Mike has a college degree, but he'd rather be working here," Meyer said.
Destined for the comic book business
And to think, but for a single pull-up, Meyer would be wearing Air Force blue rather than leveraging the new storyline for the X-Men for more business.
As he neared high school graduation, Meyer looked to follow his father and become a pilot. With good grades and test scores, and a recommendation from then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, only a physical training test stood between him and the Air Force Academy. But even after three times, he couldn't master the pull-up portion.
"I passed everything else, and I went back and worked on that, but then I got bronchitis, so I bombed it and didn’t make it," Meyer said. "On the third try, I did two quick ones, and I was just one pull up away from going, but it was weird, almost like someone put their hand on my head, and I couldn't do the last one. So I kind of think I was destined or something not to go."
After high school, Meyer tried a bunch of majors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, "but nothing worked." As a freshman, he got a job at the airport as a lineman, flagging in planes and gassing them up. He also worked as a cook at a half-dozen local restaurants before getting the job running the retail comic book store, getting experience which eventually led to the purchase of the business.
Rebooting the Mail Order Comics operation
One of the first projects Meyer undertook taking over the operation was updating the mail order web site, making it easier for customers to find what they want; eventually, he'll merge the separate sites for the retail store and warehouse. That's one part of leveraging technology to expand the business.
"We have a customer who runs a podcast and does advertising, and he said he’ll do social media for us," Meyer explained. "We’re working on optimizing Google searches for the web site, and we're finding new things focused on how we do things to fulfill orders, and improve efficiencies."
Mail Order Comics is already on Facebook, promoting their special deals, spending lots of time just talking comics, timing the conversation to leverage the arrival of the new Avengers movie.
Then there was the challenge last July when the popular brand DC Comics elected to "reboot" its entire line of comics, giving its roster of characters from Superman to Batman and beyond entire new background stories.
"Whenever you do a relaunch, when you do any changes, it's scary, especially in the comic book world," Meyer said. But any anxiety about the editorial content changes of his merchandise were quickly dispelled as the media attention brought to the reboot meant "our sales went through the roof. Customers were even upset because we couldn’t keep them in stock."
While Meyer is enjoying the business' current success, he's on the alert for future challenges and opportunities, such as new technology offering comic book fans a chance to download digital copies of titles to e-readers for instant enjoyment.
"Marvel and DC want to appeal to digital downloads, and my brother has already gotten in contact with a digital download distributor to see if we can sell some of those," he said. "I don’t want to be left behind."
Privately, Meyer doesn't see an immediate challenge to his business selling hard-copy versions of his merchandise.
"Sure, if you’re getting digital downloads, you can scan them and read them, but a big part of the fun of collecting comic books is having a physical, tangible value," he explained. "You can’t trade them at conventions, you can’t sell them, you can’t have the creators and artists sign the books. That's a big part of the whole fun."
Besides, he often sees younger collectors brought into the retail store by parents looking to pass down the enthusiasm of comic book collecting.
'Almost like fate, finding the store like that'
And to think that if his brother hadn’t chanced upon the comic book store location one day, none of this success story might even have happened.
Growing up a comic book fan, Meyer worked at different jobs since he was 15, and spent his spare cash on his stash at area stores every chance he could get.
However, it wasn't until one day his younger brother and fellow comic fan Mike found the store, and excitedly pointed out the outlet mall location to him that Meyer realized the large shop, crammed with long boxes of the latest titles, even existed.
"It was almost like fate, finding the store like that, like I was supposed to be here," Meyer said.