Founded: 2009

Employees: Multiple contractors including product demonstration reps in major markets

Julie Nirvelli’s salsa is a national hit in an otherwise flat salsa market. Manufacturing help and green-only recipes keep growth hot

Originally dubbed White Girl Salsa, Winking Girl Salsa got its start – and its name – when Julie Nirvelli’s tomatillo-based salsas caught the attention of her Hispanic circle of friends and became a sought-after item at the friends’ family gatherings. Nirvelli launched the product commercially in 2009 and less than a year later won the Naturally Boulder Days “Pitch Slam,” a competition for promising natural-product startups.

By March 2012, Winking Girl Salsa was on the shelves of 50 Whole Foods a store, bolstered by that grocer’s loan program designed to help new vendors grow their businesses. Today Nirvelli’s salsa is “authorized” in 1400 grocery stores, including Safeway (as of last month), King Soopers, Natural Grocers By Vitamin Cottage, Lucky’s Market, Sprouts nationally, Ralph’s in California, and Whole Foods Markets in six regions.

Early on, Winking Girl Salsa picked up steam at farmers’ markets in the Denver area, an approach she recommends for any food-related upstart.

“You get so much great feedback from people, you can get your manufacturing down, and you can build a customer base,” says Nirvelli, who sold 5,000 jars of Winking Girl Salsa her first summer. From there, she gained space at Whole Foods and spent one more summer selling at farmers’ markets.

“At that point my goal was to educate people that they could buy it at Whole Foods,” Nirvelli says. “That was my strategy.”

The White Girl Salsa crew at Natural Products Expo West, March 7-9, 2014

A pivotal moment for Winking Girl Salsa came in March 2011 when she partnered with Louisville-based food packager Fresca Foods. “Going with Fresca was the best business decision I ever made,” Nirvelli says. “The capacity they have to manufacturer our product, the ability to talk about new product development and the way they run with new ideas has enabled us to be on our way to becoming a big national brand.”

For that she credits, among others, Lara Merriken, the creator of LARABAR.

“It was interesting because I had talked to three different people in a two-week time frame who said, ‘Have you ever met Lara from LARABAR?’ and I said no,” Nirvelli recalls. “She agreed to meet with me, and she asked what my biggest challenge was. I said ‘manufacturing.’ She said, ‘I’ll introduce you to the Fresca guys. You’re too small, but they like to get to know brands and watch what they do.’

“I think they saw a great opportunity,” Nirvelli says “We got along really well, and we thought we should explore working together.”

Along with her partnership with Fresca Foods, Nirvelli counts her hiring of “brand developer” Fred Neubauer among her company’s key moments. “He’s unique in the food industry in that he only represents products that are the best in their category or are a product totally unique to the competition,” Nirvelli says.

Winking Girl Salsa fits the bill for uniqueness. “We’re the only brand on the shelves that makes only green salsa – and we make multiple versions”, says Nirvelli. The green-only approach serves her well today. “Table share in a Mexican-style restaurants is 50% red and green; in the grocery store it’s about 2% green. The salsa category is flat – but there’s obviously huge growth opportunities for us.”

Her Smokey Chipotle flavor, introduced over a year ago, is the only smoked green salsa on the market. Other Winking Girl Salsa flavors are Cranberry Mango and the original recipe in mild, medium and hot. “Medium is the best seller,” she says, “but none of them are what I’d call a slow mover.”

Today Nirvelli’s focused on national distribution. “We now have our national broker network in place,” she says, “and we’re getting emails with new customer placements from broker reps I’ve never talked to – things are starting to happen. We currently have an outsourced sales team that’s doing an amazing job.”

Winking Girl Salsa is also exploring entry into the lucrative food service business. “Food service would be a nice business for us,” she says. “It would help us drive more volume. But it’s a challenge. Today we’re just sold in the glass jars so we may need to modify our equipment to begin shipping in gallon jugs.”

Given Nirvelli’s track record, it would be tough to bet against her.

Challenges: Managing growth. “It’s challenging projecting business as our national network grows and forecasting how much capital we’ll need to drive that growth.

“It’s especially difficult as we grow our network and retailers expect free product. There’s also a rub because the distributor gets paid on that free product as well. Managing our ‘marketing spend’ is a big challenge as well. We want to make sure we are successful in the retailers where we have placement so knowing the best way to allocate the marketing dollars is a bit tricky.”

Opportunities: “Getting a foothold in the food service business would be really exciting and drive exponential growth,” says Nirvelli. “And of course the growth in the green salsa market.”