Robert Price

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:44 PM

Salsa man looks to kick it up a notch

By Robert Price

Once upon a time, long before the advent of the billion-dollar salsa industry, Bud Karrer whippedup picante sauce just for the fun of it.

He'd toss tomatoes and onions and peppers, and whatever else might happen to suit him at the moment, into a blender, "pulse" the mix for five or 10 seconds and, presto, a new culinary achievement.

But the salsa savant labored in obscurity. His legion of fans didn't go much beyond the guys down at the power plant where he worked, near Tallahassee. Those 12-hour shifts got tedious, and the guys would fire up the barbecue to pass the time.

Karrer's homemade salsas made their pork ribs and Southern-style sausages special, and that was success enough.

Twelve years later, the world has changed. Campbell's Soup, Pepsico, Nestle, Hormel and Pillsbury are all in the salsa business, and Karrer is most definitelyout of the power-plant business.

His salsa blenders are bigger and faster and stronger than before, and his fan base -- including half the population of Taft, his adopted hometown -- has grown exponentially.

Suddenly he's becoming a player in the salsa business -- a bug on the corporate posterior of Campbell's (which owns Pace, his avowed nemesis) -- but a player nonetheless.

And now, after a succession of salsa-competition prizes and 40-plus product-placement conquests in independent stores, he's finally got a shot at pushing Bud's Saddlesore Salsa into the big time -- the shelves of 320 Albertson's grocery stores from San Diego to Las Vegas to Tulare.

He finds out Tuesday if they want him.

Hopefully, Albertson's execs aren't expecting some suit-wearing, MBA-touting business wunderkind. Karrer, 49, is more the ball-cap and blue-jean type.

For the Albertson's meeting, he'll switch to a Stetson, but he'll stick with one of his company's trademark chili-pepper shirts. "I will tuck it in," he says.

His "just folks" approach is no act. Karrer values unpretentiousness, and his cowboy poetry -- he's been writing it for 15 years -- serves as proof.

"It gives me an outlet," he says. "I've not always been this good at talking to people, at explaining myself."

He has been performing his work -- from memory, not from a text, mind you -- for about two years.

His life has provided rich source material, both for his poetry and his business.

There was Vietnam, 1971 to 1974. Exotic ports of call included Hai Phong Harbor, where 3rd Class Petty Officer Karrer and his colleagues had the distinct displeasure of participating in Operation End Sweep, a mine-removal mission. Sure, it was nerve-wracking. "The whole damn war was nerve-wracking," he says.

Afterward, he tried newspaper work for a year, but soon realized he preferred fiction to non, and, in particular, poetry to journalese.

Karrer bought an 18-wheeler and became a long-haul trucker. He wore a beard and shoulder-length hair -- like his hero, Willie Nelson -- and went through two wives. He drove trucks for 13 years.

He married again, resolved to settle down, and in 1989 went to work for a Florida power plant. That's when he began to evolve as a salsologist.

In 1991, his company offered him the opportunity to transfer to California. He'd never heard of Taft, which is saying something, because, after all those years behind the wheel of a big- rig, he'd seen much of the country. But when his wife, Carolyn, realized Taft was near L.A., her hometown, the deal was done.

Fortuitously, the guys at the Taft power plant -- Edison's Midway Sunset co-generation plant, to be specific -- were every bit as enthusiastic about barbecuing as the Florida boys. Karrer put his blender back to work.

It was Mike Williams, a co-worker at the co-gen plant, who first told him his salsas were truly worth marketing.

"'Man, you gotta figure out a way to market this stuff,' he told me," Karrer says.

In July 1999, Karrer bit the bullet and quit his $80,000 a year job. Within a year he was selling 200 cases each month. The 16-ounce jars of salsa, in three fresh varieties and three "kettle" flavors, were selling briskly for $3.49 a pop.

The company is hitting the 300-case plateau consistently now, thanks largely to its contract kitchen in Modesto. The Albertson's deal would more than triple that to 1,000, further justifying the company's expansion plans: Within a few months, Karrer will be cranking out salsa ingredients (and new products) at Taft's old post office on North Street.

Bud's Saddlesore Salsa -- yes, the name has a second level of meaning -- is a family operation. Bud (Gordon on his birth certificate) is president; Carolyn is vice president/retail; son Nate handles marketing. Bud's mother, Toy, and grandson, Joshua, are involved too.

And Williams, still working at the co-gen plant, is vice president in charge of operations.

Men of fainter hearts might dread the sort of obligation that awaits if Albertson's says yes to Saddlesore Salsa. One of Karrer's cowboy poems, "Dammit Jim," tells about such a man:

"But now we shore got trouble/ and pard I'll tell you straight/ Come sundown we'll be wishin'/ we'd closed that cussed gate."

Not Karrer. He stands ready to fling the gate open wide.

"We're excited and ready for more," Karrer says. "We're looking forward to doing something for the local economy, and we feel like we've got something to prove. Bring it on."

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