Created in a Bushwick, N.Y., loft in 2008, the Brooklyn Salsa Company doesn't just make six unique flavors of salsa. The company's commitment to local, organic and direct-trade ingredients earned them a Nexty nomination at Natural Products Expo West 2012.
How could their model inspire other, forward-thinking natural companies? We chatted with creative taste operator and co-founder Matt Burns about the company's "conscious methods" and how they relate to the future of our food.
Both you and Rob are not your typical food entrepreneurs, as he is a musician and you are an actor and author, among other things. How did you two get into the natural foods business?
Matt Burns: In Brooklyn, the food scene is almost entirely young creatives and artists. Some of us come from chef backgrounds, some from business, some from farming or family traditions, but no one here is doing food in a typical way. We're all pushing into the future of food, and I think the difference with the Brooklyn food movement is that we're all approaching it from the outside in.
Rob and I were roommates and friends before BK Salsa. We were both in bands as teenagers and involved in the Brooklyn underground music scene, that's where we bonded. Rob was a punk rock businessman when we met, he was in online marketing and reppin' a tailored suit on Park Ave by day and then coming back to our loft and shredding.
I had come to New York City after drama school, but back in 8th grade in South Dakota I had a job as a dishwasher and prep cook in the back of a little taqueria. I was frying chips and making salsa and teaching myself how to cook. Salsa just stuck. Once I realized I could make salsa out of anything, my lid was off, and by the time we were living together in Brooklyn, I was a pro. All that's ever been clear to us with food is our distaste for the way it's done and the excitement of what it could become.
The company was originally an "underground" taco delivery service. Can you tell me more about what that means?
MB: We posted flyers around Bushwick, N.Y., and got a cheap cell phone number to take orders. We had a "covert organic ops mission." It didn't last long. I mean it was illegal, and we were working on an 8 p.m. through 3 a.m. schedule, so we were wiped out after about a month, but it was a blast.
We lived in a converted opera house with a bunch of other artists. We had a garden and practice spaces and studios in the basement, so anyone who was available or wanted to could do a delivery on their bike or skateboard or rollerblades. The delivery service was the first thing we ever did as a company, and it was all vegan, all organic.
We were sourcing from Community Supported Agriculture organizations (CSAs) and local Dominican and Mexican produce stands, fresh tortillas from down the block, everything made from scratch. From there we started packing the fresh salsa in compostable containers in our kitchen and giving it away at shows, then selling it for donations to raise money for other causes. Then we moved into jarring our fresh recipes, and that's what you find on the shelves today.
On your website's company biography page, it says in all caps that you use "conscious methods." Does that involve more than direct trade, local source and organic farmers, which you also support?
MB: Our promise is to constantly evolve—pushing boundaries, giving back and exposing the voices and new methods we believe in. We created "conscious methods" to build on that promise, so yeah, it's more than direct trade, local source, and organic farmers. Carbon neutrality is something we're extremely focused on in 2012, even as a small business, (as well as) responsibility and education. We've been working with New York's Health Corps and Family Cook Productions over the last two years to educate inner city students on the benefits of eating local, eating organic, planting gardens and cooking at home.
We actually just jarred a salsa called THE KIDS with a group of students from West Side High in Manhattan, for which they took the whole process from start to finish, learning the fundamentals of growing, harvesting, preparation, kitchen skills, preserving, and this summer, how to market and sell an item of their own in local NYC markets. We source ingredients from rooftop farms in NYC, from next generation start-up farms, from 7th generation organic farms, from cooperative tropical farms, even cooperative community gardens. "Conscious methods" is about thinking global and acting local.
Your products aren't certified organic because you feel that they improve upon that distinction. Wouldn't it be just as easy to certify them for an additional comfort to consumer's minds?
MB: Certified organic isn't a catch-all, and consumers will come around to that eventually. The meticulous selection of our ingredients is based on the climate and health of the soil they're grown in, the people that grow them and the explosive flavor of each heirloom tomato, pepper, onion and stalk of cilantro we use.
When buying certified organic tomatoes from corporately owned, mechanized California or Mexican factory farms, they are sprayed with color neutralizing, so-called organic compounds, and organic pesticides, and are never touched or nurtured by a human hand, hardly providing any jobs.
You're not buying from small, local, family-owned farms employing local communities of laborers, harvesting at peak ripeness, by hand, and employing them with the control of every aspect of their produce from seed to salsa.
Our farmers set the price of their produce and are paid directly. Heirloom seeds are pure and have been collected and salvaged by farmers and gardeners who have believed in a better, more sustainable future of agriculture since long before we were born. Certified organic isn't always what's right. Our product could be a lot cheaper for you and for us if we were just certified organic, but that's a business angle, that's how companies are jumping on the bandwagon.
You use only fresh lime juice and no artificial preservatives, and you recommend eating the salsa in one sitting or at least within 10 days. Have any your customers found this to be impractical?
MB: If you can't eat a jar of Brooklyn Salsa in 10 days, you're not going to be a repeat customer. And if anything you buy in a jar or a carton at the grocery store lasts for more than 10 days after opening, it's not living food—I wouldn't recommend you put it in your body. How long does a slice of tomato last in your fridge? How about a half-eaten avocado? All we do is mash fresh ingredients into a jar. Our customers can decide for themselves what they want in the fridge. We're offering the better alternative.
Currently you distribute to the New York area, as well as Texas and the Mid-Atlantic. Any plans to expand to the West Coast and beyond?
MB: Huge plans! We're already up in Canada, in Selfridges in London and Seibu in Tokyo. You'll see us in Northern California and the Rocky Mountain states this summer and we've also picked up more European, Canadian and national distribution, so I'd say by the end of the growing season you'll be able to chomp from anywhere. You can give us a hand by asking your local market or co-op to stock The Brooklyn Salsa Company, and you can always order direct from bksalsa.com and have it sent to your door.
What's the shelf life of the unopened product, and because it doesn’t contain preservatives, how does that affect global distribution, if at all?
MB: Shelf life on an unopened jar of Brooklyn Salsa is two years, and each individual jar is marked with a "devour by" date. Two years seems to be an adequate amount of time to sell a jar of salsa anywhere in the world. Once you take the lid off we recommend it disappear within a week.
How does global sourcing and distribution fit in with "act local?"
MB: The Brooklyn Salsa Company is built on flavor first and foremost, and our recipes call for global ingredients like lime juice, coconut milk, and mango that aren't available to us locally. We've never tried to avoid sourcing globally, we've embraced that process while working with integrity on a local level, across all levels.
Our intention has never been to only source and sell our products in and around New York City, the intention has been to do what's good and right, to grow a brand that is sustainable, and to feed the people. "Conscious methods" means integrity every step of the way. No matter if a farm is 15 miles from the kitchen or 1,500, we want to know the history of our ingredients. It represents The Brooklyn Salsa Company on a much deeper level. It's a badge of courage. And it's constantly evolving.
We realize the impact of moving ingredients and distributing our product around the world, and that's why the conversation of carbon neutrality has become so important to us this year, how we are able to offset the negative impact of our business. We've got a lot of fans and a lot of growing ahead of us. We need freedoms to build this company exactly how we want, and we're taking them. That's the responsibility of the New Generation. That's the Condimovement.