San Antonio’s Rising Salsa Stars

Story by: Julie L Cohen, Staff Writer for San Antonio Express News

“That’s the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had,” said Dominic Mendiola to a speechless barista during a recent visit to Sip downtown. “It’s just the best,” he repeated as a slow smile spread across the barista’s face.

It’s hard for Mendiola not to make people smile — his broad frame nearly pulses with infectious goodwill. It’s also hard for him to wait his turn to talk, but it’s usually because he’s trying to pay someone a compliment.

It’s that energy that has made the latest phase of his life possible, that of salsa entrepreneur with today’s launch of Dom’s Chop Salsa.

Many in San Antonio and South Texas have gone down this path, but the path of Dominic and his wife Susana Mendiola took a village of devoted friends and team members, mostly from S.A.’s temple of tech, Rackspace, where Dom has worked for nearly 10 years and Susie for nearly nine. The couple’s bosses OK’d a sabbatical to get the company off the ground. Two colleagues became the Mendiolas’ business partners, donating their expertise for design, marketing and communications and accepting payment in the currency of salsa until the profits come in. The Mendiolas’ kids became their first pitch people, hawking sales at their schools.

And in the end, with so many self-proclaimed geeks working together, the product is not only a smoky, roasted salsa, but the invention of a new grill to make consistent mass production possible.

It took eight years to get to this point, and it all started one day when Dom was too lazy to stop his grilling and walk inside.

Catching fire

As a kid growing up primarily in Alaska where his father was stationed in the military, Dom was always found in the kitchen playing with flavor combinations. He learned the skill of making something out of nothing from his mom, Laurie, who had a knack for taking a bunch of random ingredients and somehow transforming them into a meal she would call “a la Laurie.”

“She was passionate about food,” Susie explained, “but there also wasn’t a ton of money. She got very creative.”

Nowadays Dom can still be found in the kitchen — he’s the cook of his household, Susie will be the first to tell you. And he still loves to create concoctions — “a la Dom” he calls them — from his Mexican gumbo with a carne asada base to his New Mexican-style green chile chicken enchiladas with an Ohio spin.

Susie’s parents grew up in Mexico, and Susie’s mom’s salsa, which she made by cooking tomatoes and jalapeños on a comal, was one of the first Dom had eaten that didn’t come from a can.

Dom adapted his mother-in-law’s technique, but on Dom’s Chop Salsa’s inception day, instead of walking inside to cook his tomatoes, onions, peppers and chiles on a comal, he threw them on the patio grill to create an a la Dom.

“It turned into a barbecue salsa with this natural smokiness,” Dom said. “I took it into work that night; I was working third shift, and everyone was like, ‘This is amazing, what the heck is this dude? It tastes like you barbecued it.’”

After that, the Mendiolas starting bringing Dom’s creation to every potluck and to their friends at Rackspace where Dom works as a social media strategist and Susie is a senior account manager. As the salsa’s fan base grew in the office, co-workers encouraged them to bring in proper jars of the salsa to sell, so they could have a stockpile in their pantries.

“I went to Internet school,” Dom said.

He went online to read everything the FDA had to offer — in this case an 84-page document about how to safely can low-acidity fruit. “I read it up and down because the scariest thing I saw was the risk of causing botulism,” Dom said. To be extra safe, he also got his hot-fill certification from Texas A&M’s Horticulture department. “I thought, I don’t want to kill someone! No one gets in the business to kill someone!”

Getting the go-ahead

In July of 2014, before Dom and Susie decided to obtain a LLC, go to Internet school and start mass producing their salsa from home, they had a sit-down with their two kids, Joshua, 15, and Isabella, 9.

To make salsa in mass quantities, they knew they would need a lot of weekend time, and they wanted the process to be a family affair. So, they decided if their kids weren’t on board with the idea, they weren’t going to do it.

“I don’t want to look back and think, man I wish I had more time with the kids. That’s the most important piece to us, our kids,” Dom said.

At the same time, Susie explained, Isabella was learning about Sam Walton in school.

“She said to us, ‘You’re going to be an entrepreneur?!’” Dom said.

“Then she started pitching the salsa to all her teachers and selling it at school,” Susie laughed.

Joshua, who doesn’t even like salsa, helped make it while Isabella, who Dom proudly claims can kill a jar of mild in about 30 minutes, acted as a taste tester and judge of consistency.

“If she wouldn’t eat it, we knew we needed to back it down a bit,” Susie said.

Breaking bad

Taking a slapdash, yummy creation that by nature involves a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and then scale it to produce hundreds of jars that will always taste the same, involves some logistics.

This nitty-gritty detail stage of a project is where a lot of creative minds can stumble, but lucky for Dom and Susie, this is an area where they also shine. (It’s actually hard to get Dom to talk about his company in terms understandable for the MBA-less.)

For their first batch with the intent to sell, the Mendiolas brought 300 jars to work. They immediately sold out. Without ever sending out an email blast or using any type of marketing, excitement for the salsa quickly permeated Rackspace’s San Antonio office’s 3,000 some-odd staff.

Soon, the couple was bringing 600 jars to the office every six weeks, and demand got to be so high, they created a preorder list. “We would come into delivery day with (500) to 600 jars, but we would only have 75 jars available for sale,” Dom said.

To get to 600 jars, the Mendiolas needed five Saturdays where they turned their kitchen into a commercial kitchen and made salsa all day. On Friday nights, they prepped the vegetables and the next morning Dom fired up the grill. “Then it was coffee, coffee, coffee, tomato, tomato, tomato,” Dom said.

The Mendiolas required two delivery days in order to physically move that many jars. Dom would drag the jars in to Rackspace on a wagon.

“His team was extremely patient and understanding,” Susie said. “His boss was like, absolutely you can set up here.”

“But,” Dom said, “ when you have 300 people coming by your desk throughout the day … We got to the point where we said, we need to take this the legitimate route.”

This past March, Dom contacted the FDA to see about getting his manufacturing license. He was not only told no, he was told he had, unknowingly, been breaking the law. The Mendiolas either needed to use a true commercial kitchen and sell their salsas fresh or use a third-party co-packer that would head up manufacturing.

“They said,” Dom explained, “‘This is a common occurrence that people think they can make salsa out of their house and sell it. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the Texas Cottage Act. It gets missed. But you now know you can’t go forward.’”

“This is all stuff we didn’t know. You learn,” Dom added. “We were only six months in. It’s kinda of funny, I’ve heard of other salsas companies that were two years in and selling on shelves before they got their manufacturing license.”

Going straight

To truly go legitimate, the Mendiolas knew they needed more free time, so they applied for an eight-week sabbatical from Rackspace, which they received.

As Taylor Rhodes, president and CEO of Rackspace explained, any Racker who has been at the company for at least seven years and has been performing well can apply.

“We try to help our employees go deep into where their passions are,” Rhodes said. “Engaging your brain is a way to engage yourself, which is consistent with us wanting to get the best out of people.”

The Mendiolas also knew they needed more help, which is where their business partners, Ernest Flores, creative lead at Rackspace, and Kelly Long, Rackspace’s human resources chief of staff, came in. During Dom and Susie’s sabbatical, the foursome would carve out some time every couple of weeks to meet at the downtown co-working space Geekdom. Now that the Mendiolas are back at work, they try and meet during lunch breaks.

For the last few months, Flores has been working on Dom’s Chop Salsa’s website,domschopsalsa.com, as well as design, photography, branding and marketing while Long has been helping with the website and heading up the business plan, financials and communications. But really, with a team of just four where no one is getting paid (yet), they all pitch in to do a whole lot of everything.

“I’m spread super thin, but I’ve known Dom forever, and I love this salsa,” Flores said. “I said, ‘Look dude, I do a lot of work for a lot of people, but I’ll help you out. Just pay me in salsa.’”

Long attributes her attraction to helping build a small company to the entrepreneurial spirit that she sees common in a lot of people at Rackspace. She also simply loves working with Team DCS, as Dom likes to call the four of them.

Once their team was in place, Dom and Susie knew their next and, arguably, most important step: designing and fabricating an automated grill that a co-packing facility could use to stay true to Dom’s original grilled recipe.

Dom drew a crude version of his vision on a scrap of paper: A dual grill with a conveyor belt system so that the ingredients could roll along the grates and become properly caramelized. “Ernest looked at it and said, ‘This is great for a third grader. I’ll go ahead and do something with this.’”

Flores turned Dom’s drawing into a real design. Flores claims the idea behind the grill isn’t complicated, but nothing like it exists. He took his design and started meeting with grillmakers to see who could build it. “They said, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this, but it’s kinda kickass.’” Flores said.

Now that the stainless steel beauty is built — at a cost of $24,000 — Team DCS has plans to patent it.

Game on

“We know we’ll have hectic times ahead, but that’s the commitment that we have,” Susie said. “We will continue to work full time. We will continue to allow our kids to do everything that they do. And we will find time to do this when we can. It’s a lot. But it’s OK.”

Long added, “I have three little ones. Sometimes things are hectic and busy, but if you can have a good time and get something done with people who are passionate, that’s something.”

And if Rackspace truly is a microcosm for how the rest of San Antonio will react to Dom’s Chop Salsa?

“If it means Dom and Susie leaving (Rackspace), we feel quite comfortable that they will be making San Antonio a better place with their business, which is our core value,” Rhodes said. “Rackers over here are rooting for them.”

And if the brand doesn’t take off beyond friends and family?

“If we’re going to commit to something,” Dom said, “whether it’s a failure or a success, we’re going to see it through. And as Ernest always says, ‘Geeks like to munch, too.’ So why can’t we make a food manufacturing product?”