Fort Worth mom turns homemade salsa into business

FORT WORTH -- Lauren Keefe loved salsa but hated the jarred stuff sold in stores.

One brand tasted like vinegar; another was nothing more than tomato paste.

Her hunt for a good salsa, combined with an increasing concern about the chemicals and pesticides her two children were exposed to, led Keefe to make and jar her own salsa at home.

"When I had my first child, I rethought everything, from what toothpaste we used to our cleaning supplies," she said. "Food was no different."

Years after she began tinkering with that first batch, Keefe's creation, called Happy Tomato Fresh Salsa, is appearing on store shelves and earning praise.

The business began earlier this year, when Keefe sold jars of the salsa to raise money for a friend's sick child. Friends and strangers began asking where they could get more.

Keefe, a stay-at-home mother for the past nine years, knew nothing about starting or running a business. After home-schooling her children during the day, she spent evenings researching online what she would need to do.

First, she needed recipes. Keefe had never bothered with exact measurements, instead preferring to eyeball ingredients.

She would also need to create variations of the mild salsa her children preferred, and she began experimenting with medium and hot products.

Keefe searched for the freshest ingredients she could find: organic, chemical-free canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, peppers, lemons and limes.

Within a few weeks, Keefe and her husband, Sean, began selling Happy Tomato Salsa at Southside Urban Market in Fort Worth and at various festivals and events.

Roy Pope Grocery and the Sunflower Shoppe in Fort Worth and Green's Produce in Arlington began stocking the salsa.

When the wine manager at Central Market in Fort Worth sampled the salsa at a local south-side festival, he immediately brought it to the attention of Sondra Hay, the selling manager at the Fort Worth store.

Happy Tomato quickly became one of the best-selling salsas at the Fort Worth Central Market, Hay said. It is also available at the Southlake store and will be sold next year in the Dallas and Plano stores.

"It is so good, people's eyes roll back in their heads when they try it," Hay said. "It is really fresh. You can really taste every single ingredient."

Keeping up with demand has been more difficult than Keefe expected. Every Tuesday, in a rented church kitchen, she and her grandmother, Cora Vasquez, spend 10 to 14 hours washing and chopping vegetables and mixing salsa in a commercial-grade food processor.

On Wednesdays, they pour it into jars and prepare to send it to stores.

On a recent Tuesday, Keefe washed 70 bunches of cilantro while her grandmother scrubbed habanero and serrano peppers. By the end of the day, they would make some 200 jars of salsa with 180 pounds of tomatoes.

"Lauren is so conscientious," Vasquez said. "She will only use the best ingredients, the best jars. She researches every little detail."

In February, Keefe plans to move to a permanent kitchen on Fort Worth's south side and will consider introducing new products, including a bruschetta.

"For the longest time, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

"I was just busy and happy being a mom," Keefe said. "Now I feel like I've found my thing."

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

Twitter: @sarahbfw