KALAMAZOO — Blanca Cardoza’s recipe for success almost went up in flames with her home.
A hairdresser and single mother, Cardoza had been working for almost two years from her home to perfect a salsa recipe which had been in her family for generations. An electrical fire this past summer which began in the basement left her with no home and no money to move forward with plans to produce and sell her salsa.
However, an $8,500 grant she received in October through the Can-Do Kitchen operated by Fair Food Matters helped Cardoza launch her salsa business – Fiesta by Blanca. Her three varieties of salsa are now being carried by Tiffany’s Wine & Spirit Shoppe, The Natural Health Center, and Harding’s Marketplace on Kalamazoo’s west side.
“It was really nice for me to be able to apply for the grant and get moving again,” Cardoza said.
Cardoza is one of the first four recipients of a “Launch-It” grant which is funded by $60,000 in Community Development Block Grant money through the city of Kalamazoo. The grant program began in September and will go through June, said Lucy Bland, Can-Do kitchen manager. Members of a selection committee are in the process of selecting the three final “Launch-It” grant recipients.
“The goal is to always have a scholarship program moving forward,” Bland said. “We were seeing how much people are limited by a lack of capital. That was just really holding people back. We wanted our services to be accessible to people who don’t have start-up capital.”
Space rental at the Can-Do Kitchen ranges from $15 to $25 an hour depending on factors such as the time of day and how long a client has been working at the facility. The kitchen can accommodate between 12 and 15 clients at a time and is open 24 hours a day. Bland said there are a lot of openings during the overnight hours.
The Can-Do Kitchen is mainly a shared use kitchen with an incubator component, designed to be a low-risk environment with low financial risk for people who have always wanted to start a food business or are looking for another career. Dips, spreads and baked goods such as granolas and energy cookies make up the majority of food products made out of the kitchen.
“It takes a lot of capital to renovate or build a facility,” Bland said. “Even if they have the money, they may not want to risk it on an idea that might not fly. We help them through the initial process of business planning. It’s pretty overwhelming and there are a lot of regulations.
“But the big thing people want to do here is test their product to see if people really want to buy it.”
The recipe Cardoza uses to make her salsa has been passed down from generation to generation and unlike some other salsas on the market, the Fiesta by Blanca brand is a pureed salsa which her grandmother taught her how to make as a young girl growing up in McAllen, Texas. Her three salsas come in mild, medium and hot varieties and include fresh ingredients such as pineapple, corn, black beans, peaches and cilantro.
While making an actual batch takes little more than one hour, Cardoza said prepping the vegetables and the process of weighing and packaging the salsa is time-consuming.
The reality, Bland said, is that in addition to perfecting their recipes, clients also need to plan for costs such as graphic design work, labeling and packaging. Many of them need to make a profit after the first sale which is not easy, Bland said.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that lot of people who are still in the early idea phase are not ready to come into the kitchen and start selling,” she said. “The goal is that businesses grow here as much as they can and we graduate them.
“There are a few different indicators that are used to figure out when they’re ready to go. The most important is that their financials show they can support such a move.”
Additionally, if a client needs more time, space or specialized equipment than is available at the kitchen, they will most likely be ready to move on.
So far the Can-Do Kitchen has had four graduates: Mike Kruk, who makes Mike Famous Michigan Bean Dip; Kara and Denise Steely, owners of the Dough Chicks, based in Kalamazoo, who make granola, energy bars and snack-size baked goods; Mukta Joshi, owner of the Kurry Guru in Portage, which makes Indian food; and Kathleen Fagan Riegler, owner of the Cheese Lady headquartered in Muskegon, which produces artisan cheeses.
Bland said she thinks there will be more graduates as the demand for locally-grown and produced food increases.
“People really want to know who’s making their food,” she said. “One of the challenges is competing with the big food companies. But, more people are seeing the see value of handmade produces and they like knowing what’s in it and where it came from.”