Growing up in New Orleans, Sherie Grillon was taught at a very young age that food is love. It’s no wonder she has worked in restaurants since she was just 14 years old! During her time in Texas for school is where she learned to make traditional salsa fresca, and she was instantly hooked.
When she moved to New England to start her new life, Sherie left a lot of things behind – favorite foods, traditions, and family – but one thing she took with her was her famous salsa recipe along with her undeniable joy for cooking. When friends and colleagues started requesting Sherie’s salsa left and right, she realized this side passion could turn into a business. Shortly after, NOLA’s Fresh Foods was born, where Sherie gets to hand-craft authentic Mexican-style salsa on the regular. We met up with Sherie to chat about her unique salsa style, the perks of having community support here in New England, and a massive wakeup call she had 11 years ago that changed her business mindset forever.
R.K: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
S.G. The salsa fresca has been my personal recipe since I was 21 years old. I’ve cooked my whole life and worked in restaurants since I was 14 years old in New Orleans. So when I went to Texas for school, I learned to make salsas, and the one I make for NOLA’s is a very authentic Mexican recipe. I tweaked it to make it how I like it! I really try to get people’s juices flowing, and educate them on how to use it as a staple – beyond just chips and salsa. It’s a staple down in Texas like ketchup is here!
R.K: How did it all begin? What was the first thing you did when starting off?
S.G. When I first moved to New England, I was in social work making salsa on the side. When I got out of retail, I wanted to open my own business with my knowledge of food, and I decided I couldn’t do retail anymore. I said to myself, “I can’t do another Black Friday.” So I quit my job, but didn’t know exactly what I’d do. People said, “You need to make your salsa.” I thought, “That’s ridiculous, there’s no market for that.” I thought they were just being nice. So I gave it to people who didn’t know me, and the response was consistent in that it’s the best salsa they’d ever had. So I said, “Alright, I guess I’ll start a wholesale salsa company.”
I did some research, made some phone calls and here I am now. I left my job in October 2011, and by December 2012 we were in stores. Fast and furious…it’s my personality!
R.K: What’s your favorite salsa flavor?
S.G. I love roasted corn and tomatoes, and I knew I needed more than just one type of salsa. So I created a black bean and corn specifically for NOLA’s and decided it would be my additional flavor. There’s absolutely nothing like it here!
R.K: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any challenges along the way?
S.G. I’m still learning to this day! I’ve bootstrapped the company all on my own money, so there never was a Plan B. There was no other option for it to work. Maybe I’d have changed that as it’s hindered our growth a bit as far as demand. Within one year of opening, we had stores all over New England wanting us! We had to pull out of some of them because we didn’t have the man power as far as branding goes. It’s easy to get on the shelves, but it’s hard to continue. Now I am starting to look at what investment would look like. It’s really just been me and two others, and the first year in business it was just me and a good friend who needed a job. There have been lots of late nights and an insane amount of hours!
RK: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
S.G. Yes and no. One extreme challenge is customer education, like simply explaining that you can put salsa on eggs. But on the flip side, there’s no competition as far as the product we create. You will not find our salsa fresca.
I enjoy giving people food, and feeding them. For me, food is everything. I love it. It comes from within and it’s how you show people you care about them. Food is love. At the end of the day, I’d rather have no company than a subpar company that I don’t believe in. It’s taken us longer to grow because I won’t compromise!
R.K: What would you love to see in the New England wellness scene that you don’t now?
S.G. Honestly, just more education and more exposure to the Mexican culture! Realistically, Boston is growing in its culinary scene but I think there could be more exposure, especially to Mexican food.
I do cooking classes, demos and create recipes because I want people to get back to cooking, since we’ve lost touch with that a bit. I create recipes so people can feel more confident in the kitchen; I want people to share that! Food truly brings people together. My son is just three and he loves to cook with me. I want him to have that love for food that I grew up with.
R.K: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
S.G. There are so many great people out of CommonWealth Kitchen! 99% of the brands truly care about the food they are producing, like Apotheker’s, who create delicious chocolate and marshmallows. They are truly amazing people and care about every ingredient they use, like using raw honey versus sugar in their recipes. Heather at Top Shelf Cookies got her idea from her grandma because they used to bake cookies together. I’ve got to see her grow from the beginning! Fresh Food Generation is another wonderful company, on a mission to bring local, fresh food to people who don’t have access to it.
Owning your own business can be super isolating and tough, so it’s amazing to have the community at CommonWealth to vent, laugh and cry. We all feel like a failure at some point, but there’s always someone who says “This is why you’re doing it.”
R.K: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
S.G. There’s not just one! Realistically, my mom has been my number one support, and has instilled in me that I can do anything I set my mind to. I grew up with two brothers and about 35 cousins on one side – mostly boys – but my mom has always given me confidence. Also, my friend Patty will come to anything I need her help with, and was one of the first people in the kitchen. She refused to get paid and still refuses to get paid. She truly believes in everything I do!
R.K: What’s your favorite quote or business mantra?
S.G. I constantly say, “It is what it is.” 11 years ago, my mom suffered a massive heart attack the day Katrina hit New Orleans. She was up visiting for my birthday, and we found her in a hospital. I had to get in touch with my family, and move everything. She was here for a couple of months, and had to undergo a massive surgery.
Since going through that, it’s really changed my perspective. If a store wants to drop us or something like that, I think “If this is the worst thing that happens, we’re good.” Having perspective is huge. Everything else really pales in comparison. At the end of the day, it is what it is.
R.K: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
S.G. We are expanding which is great, so I’d love to see my brand in a couple more chains throughout New England, and starting in the North Atlantic region with New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. We’re looking to start a new product, and also working on getting into some institutions!
R.K: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness or food business?
S.G. You have to know there is nothing else in this world you could do in life, because when everything else is telling you not to do it, you need to have the courage to say no! I know I’m willing to do everything possible to make this company successful. It’s going to suck and be the hardest thing ever, but know it’s all worth it when you make it successful. I now am working a full time job on top of running a business and being a mom to a three-year-old, so it’s not easy!
R.K: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
S.G. I am extremely honest to a fault. You know what I’m thinking immediately. I treat everyone with respect and dignity, but I give completely honest feedback. I don’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. You can’t expect someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, and I expect that from others as well.