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Spicy in Idaho 

Salsa is making an unlikely surge in the Panhandle.

click to enlarge The mild version of Banditos Salsa, made in Rathdrum, Idaho. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • The mild version of Banditos Salsa, made in Rathdrum, Idaho.

Lee Kaiser wasn’t afraid to open a salsa company in North Idaho. Sure, the Panhandle might not have a strong Latino population, but does that even matter anymore?

“We weren’t really concerned,” says Kaiser, who opened Banditos Salsa in Coeur d’Alene this year. “Salsa is enjoyed by a wide variety of people, in a wide variety of foods.”

Kaiser makes a good point about the how foods previously regionalized by ethnicity like pizza can become ubiquitous, creating new markets in the process.

Case in point: Kaiser’s is only one of two salsa startups in North Idaho in the last year. And a third has been booming here since 2003.

Kaiser’s company, Banditos, makes pico de gallo-style salsa, which is typically chopped tomato and onion, a squeeze of lime, cilantro or other herbs and some level of chili heat.

Their recipe comes from Kaiser’s father-in-law and business partner, Vince Telles, who followed Kaiser’s relocation from Los Angeles nearly 12 years ago. They use local produce to make pint-size tubs of mild, medium and hot salsa (about $5), which they sell locally at Super One, Yoke’s, Rosauers, select Huckleberry’s, and both Pilgrim’s Market in Coeur d’Alene and Winter Ridge in Sandpoint.

Like Banditos, the Coeur d’Alene Salsa Company, also opened last year, is family-run. While founder Tony Gerimonte works his day job as a mortgage loan officer, his father, John, runs the store. Having spent 14 years with the Albertsons grocery chain and possessing a finance background, Tony Gerimonte’s approach to salsa is rooted in market research.

Prior to opening Coeur d’Alene Salsa, Gerimonte was hunting for a business venture that was healthful — salsa is gluten-free, fat-free and favored by Weight Watchers — and underrepresented in the Panhandle. Using his long-time recipe for habanero salsa as a springboard, Gerimonte contacted two companies to manufacture for him.

He also polled six gourmet salsa companies nationwide to fine-tune the formula for his store’s success. He found that cultivating market appreciation for a gourmet product was key. He opted not to sell through grocery stores, focusing instead on developing a range of gourmet salsa and sauces he could market directly to restaurants and the consumer through advertising and word of mouth.

In Coeur d’Alene, the Beacon, Porky G’s Barbecue, and Dangerous Dog have picked up his products Gerimonte has 20 sauces (about $4) manufactured for him, ranging from Vidalia onion to habanero relish, as well as 30 types of salsa ($5 for a 16-ounce jar). The storefront carries the complete line, the most popular of which are the habanero, mild black bean, serrano, peach mango and the ridiculously hot bhut jolokia, or ghost pepper, (rating nearly 1 million units on the Scoville scale, the standard by which chili pepper spiciness is measured).

Coeur d’Alene Salsa is the only north Idaho location to carry DeLeon’s chips and, says Gerimonte, future plans include adding breakfast burritos for carryout.

Banditos and Coeur d’Alene Salsa are only the newest additions to the local salsa scene, which started to simmer when Juanita Carmack opened Taco Chic in 2003. With her trademark Harley and effervescent smile, Carmack was a regular fixture at the farmers market, where she and husband John still sell bottles of mild, medium and hot salsa ($6 for 16 ounces).

Assisted by son Patrick, Carmack uses a century-old family recipe to make fresh and bottled salsa at a renovated historical building in Rathdrum she calls the Salsa Factory. That’s where they used to serve lunch, including what I believe to be some of the best rice and beans in the world, but their service is now limited to special-order tamales.

Carmack’s success was trumpeted by The Today Show and Country Living magazine, both of which recognized her as a top female entrepreneur in 2008. Since then, Taco Chic’s popularity has grown beyond the border of Idaho, where her products are carried at Super One, Trading Company, select Yoke’s and Rosauers, and Pilgrim’s Market.

In Washington, Taco Chic Salsa can be found at Main Market, Huckleberry’s, URM, and even DeLeon Foods. The product is also selling well in Montana.

The success of the area’s salsa makers might be due to the very thing that distinguishes them: taste. In an unofficial throwdown recently, several of my fellow school teachers were treated to Banditos, Coeur d’Alene Salsa and Taco Chic salsa, as well as a fourth by a local restaurateur Orlando’s who we hope will get the hint and start selling the heck out of his salsa (maybe even delivering it door-to-door).

The results of the blind taste test? All over the board. Some loved Banditos’ tomato taste. Others liked the h-h-h-otness of Coeur d’Alene Salsa’s habanero. The tang of Taco Chic’s salsa was appealing, while plenty oohed over Orlando’s fresh cilantro and onion.

“I put salsa on everything,” especially eggs, said one participant.

In other words, hold the
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