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A taste of Mexico in Gretna

 

Elia Rivera, owner of Melina's Salsa and Chips of Gretna.

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."