Sizzling salsa success prompts owner to write book
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Maggie Cook's basic salsa recipe is pretty simple -- fresh Roma tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lime juice, cilantro and a special secret ingredient. It's processed and packaged without preservatives or any five-syllable ingredients.
The path that led to her salsa's placement in the refrigerated sections of food giants Walmart, Whole Foods and Kroger is also straightforward.
She shares her business and life philosophy in "Mindful Success -- How to Use Your Mind to Transform Your Life," a book she wrote and launches this week. In it, she describes a spiritual awareness that guided her remarkable journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in her parents' Mexican orphanage to collegiate athlete to interior designer whose cottage salsa business evolved into a multimillion-dollar business.
Cook, 34, expanded beyond salsas and pico de gallo to add queso dips, now her best-selling item, and is introducing four new products: pineapple mango salsa, chipotle queso, chile con queso and spinach artichoke queso dips.
Her first production facility was a small kitchen in her home where she made gallon-sized batches of fresh salsa. As business grew, she moved several times, most recently landing in a 15,000-square foot warehouse in St. Albans where 16 employees convert fresh ingredients into 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of salsa three to five days a week.
Her route to success from humble beginnings is paved with perseverance.
Cook's West Virginia native father and Mexican mother ran an impoverished orphanage in Mexico. They had eight biological children, adopted more than 60 orphans and have cared for more than 200 other abandoned and abused children since 1979.
Determined not to favor their own biological children, her parents often neglected their children's needs.
"They never hugged me or said 'I love you,'" she said. "I grew up with a lot of fear, neglect and abuse and lived through a lot of pain."
She said she was a tomboy and leader among her siblings. Her basketball skills earned her a spot on the Mexican national team until an injury voided the offer. Her luck changed when her family was traveling across the country seeking support for the orphanage when they stopped on the University of Charleston's campus.
The university's women's basketball coach saw her playing a pick up game with her brothers and offered her a scholarship to play for UC. She graduated from UC with a degree in interior design.
After graduation, she found herself homeless and ashamed of her circumstances. She lived in her car for about three months before someone noticed and helped her find lodging. A job followed.
She was working for an interior design firm in 2004, when her friends for whom she frequently made her fresh salsa, urged her to enter it in a salsa contest at Capitol Market. She won the contest and decided to start a business, using an $800 donation from a friend.
"Someone who gave me the money wanted me to start a business. I wanted to make something of myself," she said.
At first she chopped her ingredients by hand and sold her salsa mostly in Capitol Market, while she continued working full time at a design firm. She invested the money from those sales back into her business while she pursued larger contracts.
"When I started, I made a list of 90 stores and approached them all about selling my fresh salsa. They all said no," Cook said. "They didn't understand fresh. The biggest obstacle was the 15-hour shelf life of fresh salsa."
Undeterred, Cook inverted her list, which had been from smallest to largest retailers, and approached Whole Foods. A representative asked her if she could bring samples to a meeting the next day in Maryland.
They tried the salsa and she left with an order for 10,000 pounds of salsa. She and a friend made it and delivered it a week later. Even the delivery was a struggle. The petite Cook couldn't quite reach the pedals of the rusted old truck she used for delivery, so she used duct tape to secure blocks of wood to the bottom of her shoes.
"I didn't even take them off when I stopped at gas stations," she said of her eight-hour drive to make her first Whole Foods delivery.
The Whole Foods order prompted her to quit her job in an interior decorating firm and move into full production that keeps growing.
She expects to begin delivering further across the country because a new piece of equipment enables her to increase the shelf life of Maggie's all-fresh products to 60 days, still without the use of any preservatives.
As her success grew, Cook wanted to share her story and motivation. She struggled intermittently to write her book for 10 years, but couldn't quite get past the bad memories of growing up in extreme poverty in her parents' orphanage.
Eventually, she was able to forgive, accept and understand her parents and siblings and proceed with the book. She dedicated it to her parents, Dr. John Charles Cook-Lawson and Maria Lucia Garcia Romero De Cook, her siblings and the residents of the orphanage.
"A lot of bad has happened to me, but I persevered. I feel like when you're at the end and you have nothing else to give, that's when the big break happens. People quit too soon," she said.
"Mindful Success" chronicles her journey with anecdotes from her past that illustrate the strong-minded determination she had as a child and the meditative, spiritual and visualizing techniques she uses to reach her goals.
"My aspiration was to get in the biggest grocery in the world. I visualized it with so much passion. In 29 days, I got a call from Walmart," she said. "We're in Walmart now. If you only understood how hard it is to get into Walmart."
In addition to the inspiration she hopes her book will provide, Cook also reaches people through speaking engagements in schools.
"All throughout my life, I knew I was destined for something big. The salsa business is great, but I knew it wasn't my purpose," she said. "My goal is to inspire, coach and transform people."
Cook will celebrate the launch of "Mindful Success" with a dinner gala from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Charleston Town Center Marriott. The $75 ticket includes formal dinner and wine service and an autographed copy of "Mindful Success: How to Use Your Mind to Transform Your Life." Visit www.mindfulsuccessbook.com to make a reservation or call 304-550-5460.
The book is available on Amazon.com for $24.95, but Cook hopes to have it in local bookstores soon.
Reach Julie Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1230.
Green Taquito Enchiladas
1 cup of canola oil
1 cup of grilled shredded chicken
4 medium size corn tortillas
1 cup Maggie's Salsa Verde
1/4 cup low fat sour cream
1/2 cup Mexican blend cheese
HEAT oil in a frying pan.
STUFF tortillas with chicken and roll them up to form taquitos. Stick a toothpick through the middle of a set of three taquitos to keep them from unrolling.
FRY taquitos in oil until crispy. Remove from pan.
DRAIN the taquitos on by paper towels and place them on a plate.
SPREAD taquitos with some sour cream and Maggie's Salsa Verde and sprinkle with shredded cheese.
TOP with lettuce and serve.
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup of white rice
2 cups of chicken broth
1 cup of Maggie's Salsa
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
HEAT oil in a non-stick medium sauce pan over low heat. Add rice and toss until it turns gold color. Do not let it burn. Add chicken broth; bring to boil.
LOWER heat, cover and simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
COVER and keep warm until liquid is absorbed.