1 (four owners: Scott Hennis, his wife, and his in-laws)
Salsa, barbecue sauce, bloody mary mix (second and third are new products rolled out at the end of 2013)
Production volume and revenue were up nearly 20 percent from 2012 to 2013. The company has averaged 19 percent growth year over year for five years.
Scott Hennis had a decision to make in 2009. He had taken over running Curt’s Salsa from his in-laws, who bought it from Curt and Betty Hollister in 2007. People in Minneapolis were familiar with the brand, which does business as Montero Distributing; they’d seen it at farmers’ markets and they dug the spicy flavors. The Triple Hot salsa was a hit, which is surprising for Minnesota, known for its triple-bland palette. And the packaging was quaint: just a mason jar and a black-and-white label.
But to get into bigger retail outlets, such as Lunds, perhaps it would need to be rebooted. Hennis knew what the big salsa makers were doing: Presenting LOUD packaging with vivid, in-your-face messaging and colors. Perhaps that was what he needed to do to compete.
He decided it wasn’t.
“People may think we should do something more flamboyant to stand out, but my thought is that when every other label on the shelf is full color, with many things going on, people understand what we’re trying to convey, which is quality,” he says.
He’s won some converts at big accounts. Steve Sorenson, a senior category manager at Lunds, remembers that he sat down with Hennis to discuss shelf space around the time Hennis was mulling a change. He knew of the product from farmers’ markets, and liked it. And it was the packaging that helped seal the deal.
“It caught our eye. I mean, it’s plain and generic but it sticks out. We thought, ‘What’s Curt’s Salsa? What’s this about?’ ” he says.
He also took note of Hennis’ passion. He had a feeling that this was a guy who was willing to get out and work to move the product—which has proven to be the case.
“Scott does a lot of what we call ‘meet the maker’ demos out in the stores. He’s there on weekends demo-ing the products, getting it in the hands of customers, telling them why it’s different, why it’s special,” Sorenson says. “All that makes a difference.”
Sorenson championed the product, and Lunds came through with shelf space, which came on the heels of orders from Kowalski’s and Cub Foods. The product is now in approximately 340 stores.
And it’s selling—not only holding its own against its colorful competitors, but beating them.
“We probably have 30 or 40 different lines in the salsa category, and his line is No. 6,” says Sorenson. “His original product is the fourth-best-selling single item in the category. And we’re seeing solid growth. He had a 30 percent growth with us last year, and units were up about 35 percent. That’s because he continues to work with the product. We’re thrilled with the performance.”
How Hennis manages to find the time to work with the product as much as he does is hard to imagine, considering he’s a one-man operation. The answer comes when he explains that he outsources pretty much everything, from his manufacturing and packaging to his distribution, which is done in part by Eden Prairie-based Supervalu. This allows him not only to focus on the current line but also envision brand extensions. He recently unveiled two Curt’s barbecue sauces and a Curt’s bloody mary mix, all packaged—you got it—in a mason jar.
In a way he’s back at the beginning, out on the stump, demo-ing new products.
He won’t lie—he loves this part of the job. “I’ve got maybe a dozen accounts so far carrying the barbecue sauce, some bloody mary mix. It’s just like six years ago,” he says. “From a retail side, it really is a show-me-something environment before they give up shelf space. But I’m going to follow the same path. It’s worked well for me.”