Jobs and Personal Finance

Monday, November 12, 2007

Career Makeover

Sisters spice up life with salsa business

Brian J. O'Connor / The Detroit News

What do you get when you combine an ambitious Italian family with spicy Mexican salsa?

It could be the American dream.

At least Angela Plachta and Lisa Ruggirello, hope so. The Northville sisters launched their Little Diablo Salsa company in spring and are halfway to their first-year goal of placing it in 500 stores.

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"We spent about a year researching and developing the project," said Plachta, 39. "Right now we're in about 250 stores in Michigan and Ohio."

Where she came from: After graduating from Southfield High School in 1986, Plachta headed to beauty school and worked for 10 years as a licensed hairdresser, working at several salons in Birmingham.

"I loved it," she said. "I always wanted to be hairdresser from the time I was young."

After marriage and family, though, Plachta elected to stay at home with her two children. Her sister, also a hairdresser, had decided to stay home as well a few years before.

What changed: Part of the sisters' family tradition was their mother's fresh salsa recipe. Each fall they'd gather to make up about 150 quarts, divided up among the family.

"It's our mother's recipe and we've been making it with our parents for 20 years," Plachta said. "Every fall we make enough salsa for the whole year, and we still do that today with our kids and husbands."

The family favorite got wider attention in 2006 when their salsa was a winner in the Northville Fire and Ice salsa and chili competition.

"After that," Plachta said, "we started thinking about whether there was something more to this."

With all the kids off to school all day, the sisters found themselves with an intriguing opportunity. They spent a year researching and developing their business concept, then lining up the vendors, suppliers and support they needed.

Moment of truth: With backing from their father and sweat equity from the entire family, the sisters found a manufacturer, perfected the recipe and in March jumped in to the salsa business with gusto.

"We took a big risk and brought in 24,000 jars of salsa with no accounts," Plachta said. "We just wanted to get the salsa in the warehouse so we could start marketing it. We knew it was a go, and that's what you have to think. If you don't think it's going to happen, then it's probably not going to happen."

They arranged a meeting with Spartan Stores through a food broker and, in one visit, got their salsa on the shelf. The sisters moved on to make a distribution deal in Ohio. By the end of their first year in business, they hope to have the salsa in 500 stores. They project a profit in another six months, but will reinvest it in the business. Their ultimate goal is to make Little Diablo Salsa a national brand.

"We don't want to just sell a couple of cases a month," Plachta said. "We went into this thinking of our futures and our kids' futures."

Stumbling blocks: The sisters did a lot of homework researching the salsa market and decided to position Little Diablo as a fresh, gourmet salsa at an affordable price. They skipped cost-saving measures, such as using tomato paste and puree, but found that importing tomatoes from Mexico would have been too expensive. Ultimately, they found a Mexican manufacturer with year-round access to fresh produce who could keep costs down and help them hit their target price of $3.99 per jar.

"Some of the gourmet salsa are priced at $4.99 or even over $5," Plachta said. "In order to move volume we knew we had to absolutely keep it at $3.99."

Plachta and Ruggirello spent a lot of time finding the right adaptation of their mother's recipe.

"It kind of got lost in translation when it became a manufactured product," Plachta said. "Regardless of it being manufactured it need to taste fresh and be fresh. So, they would send a sample and we would tell them no, they would send more samples and we would tell them no. It was a long process."

One approach that didn't work was in promotion, where they put money into advertising, only to find that in-store product tastings were more effective.

"You've got to get it in people's mouths. They just have to taste it," Plachta said. "Now we use most of our promotional money for demos in the stores."

Words of wisdom: Even though family is very involved in the business -- including both their husbands and all the children -- the sisters don't lose sight of the fact that Little Diablo is a business.

"My father backs us and supports us," Plachta said. "He's Italian and we work hard because it's not given to us. It's an investment for him and we all understand that."

Confidence and passion also turn out to be key ingredients in their salsa.

"The worry we try to keep to a minimum. It doesn't help," Plachta said. "If we worried, we would limit ourselves to being small. You've just got to believe in it. You can't question it and go in there with doubts. You've to stand behind it and be passionate."

You can reach Brian O'Connor at (313) 222-2145 or boconnor@detnews.com.

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Extras

    Have you remade your career?

    Did you switch from engineering to sales? Escape the boss from hell? Use your severance pay as seed money to start a small business? The Detroit News wants to hear from readers who've successfully remade their jobs, professions and careers for future stories. To tell your story, e-mail Personal Finance Editor Brian O'Connor at boconnor@detnews.com.

Angela Plachta

Home: Northville, married with two children
Born: Southfield, 1968
Education: Southfield High School, 1986
Old career: Hairdresser, stay-at-home mom
New career: Runs Little Diablo Salsa company with her sister, Lisa Ruggirello

Work tips

"What are you passionate about?" asks career coach Prudence Cole of Grosse Pointe, co-author of the book "Finding Power, Passion and Joy Being at Work" and author of the Web site http://www.beingatwork.com/. "Are you in a job that lets you express your passions? If you are in need of a career change why not follow your bliss? Motivation to change comes when you can do something you are passionate about."
Cole offers three techniques to rediscover your passion.
Dream a little: What would you choose to do if you could not fail and money was not an issue? What would you like your legacy to be? What contribution could you make to this world? I always have my clients write out their life purpose and then develop a plan to get to where they are meant to be.
Play a little: What do you remember playing as a kid, when you could pick your activities based on what you wanted to do in the moment, not what others told you to do? What are your fondest memories? One client remembered always organizing ball games to play with the kids in his neighborhood. For his career this has turned into being a great team player and loving a job with collaborative and supportive team members working to resolve issues together.
Celebrate a little: What are you proud of doing or accomplishing? What have you won awards for, or what talents and skills have others acknowledged? Your passion can be seen in what you do the best and what you are committed to. Make a list of the things about you that you are most proud. I have a friend who loves to fix living spaces that don't work, so she is always buying houses, remodeling and then reselling them. She has followed her bliss -- so can you.