When Kelly Towle started selling her homemade salsa, she wanted a name that reflected its fresh and simple ingredients.

Kelly Towle scoops mild salsa into a container while working at Fork Food Labs in Portland on Monday. She started making salsa for friends and family about five years ago before deciding to try to turn it into a business she named Plucked for its fresh and simple ingredients. The salsa is now available in about 30 Whole Foods stores and dozens of Hannaford locations, with sales recently topping $1 million. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

She came up with “Plucked” and stuck with it, despite her father’s warning.

“He was like, ‘There are so many ways it could go wrong,’ ” said Towle, who has embraced the name, even sporting a “get plucked” T-shirt recently.

Now the brand and its whimsical name can be spotted at dozens of Hannaford  and Whole Foods stores, as well as on colleges campuses, across the Northeast. It just passed the $1 million mark in sales. Not bad for a business that started in her kitchen, moved to her basement and then nearly cost Towle and her husband their home.

Towle started making salsa in her Windham home as a weight-loss snack about five or six years ago.

Other salsas didn’t taste homemade, she said, and Towle was looking for a tasty, low-calorie snack for dipping and something to add to chicken to give it a bit of zing. She focuses on seven simple ingredients and makes the salsa fresh and says that, unlike many jarred salsas, it should be kept refrigerated and has a shelf life of about a month.

Soon, friends and co-workers who had sampled it asked Towle to make it for them. She initially begged off, but it wasn’t long before Towle and her husband were dropping off containers at people’s homes, picking up $5 that customers would leave under their door mats.

“I kept saying, ‘This is a job’ and  I started to think maybe I could do this as a business,” Towle said, so she decided to ditch her office job and try to turn Plucked into a commercial venture. That meant no more making salsa in her kitchen or in the commercial kitchen she built in her basement. Now, Plucked salsa is made weekly at the Fork Food Lab, a shared commercial kitchen space in Portland.

Plucked is one of the mainstays at Fork, said Jenn Stein, general manager of the food lab. The lab, a nonprofit, offers commercial kitchen space to producers of consumer packaged goods such as Plucked, food trucks, caterers and others.

Chris Fawcett pulls a colander filled with tomatoes from a sink while working on a batch of Plucked salsa Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

To Stein, Plucked represents Fork’s mission and she’s been happy to see it grow. The location not only provides a kitchen and equipment for fledgling businesses, she said, it also offers storage space – including refrigerators and freezers – and provides receiving services, to accept deliveries of food and supplies while the companies aren’t on-site.

With Plucked it’s a bonus that Towle and her business partner, Chris Fawcett, are “a lot of fun to have around,” Stein said.

NEARLY LOSING THEIR HOME

The company is aiming for a slice of a national salsa market that reported sales of more than a $1 billion last year, according to IbisWorld, an analytical firm that performs market research on thousands of industries.

Chris Fawcett adds cilantro to a mixer while making a batch of Plucked mild salsa. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Over the past five years, the salsa industry experienced increasing revenue as per capita disposable income and consumer demand for Hispanic cuisine rose. Many consumers have begun to appreciate the taste of freshly made salsa and are willing to pay more for it, the firm said.

But all of that was unknown to Towle when she launched Plucked. Her early days were hampered by inexperience.

“I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I didn’t have any investors or any money to start it off.”

And the road she has followed has had its share of potholes, she said. At one point, Towle said, her home was in foreclosure because she and her husband were investing in expanding production after they landed an account with about 30 Whole Foods stores, along with about a dozen independent stores. She was able to save the family home after landing a deal to sell in Hannaford, which tried out Plucked in about a dozen stores. The account grew five-fold since then and now makes up about 65 percent of the sales of the 3,000 to 5,000 pints of salsa made weekly. A 16-ounce container of Plucked salsa retails for about $7.

That deal came about after she sat outside the Hannaford in Scarborough, asking customers to taste her salsa, Towle said.

“I remember just crying when (Hannaford) called” to say they wanted to start selling Plucked, she said.

In addition to Whole Foods and Hannaford, Towle’s customers include independent retailers and bars and, because salsa qualifies as a vegetable, even some schools and colleges, across seven states.

She said total sales have hit $1.2 million, including about $350,000 this year.

Kelly Towle fills containers with a batch of mild salsa while working with Scott Walton, right, and Chris Fawcett, background, at Forked Food Labs in Portland on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Towle said she and Fawcett are looking to find their own space to make the salsa and possibly expand their product line with items such as green salsa and hummus. Fawcett concentrates on production, Towle said, while she focuses on sales, although she’s still at Fork weekly to help produce and package tubs of salsa.

Towle said she feels more grounded in the business now and noted that the lack of investors had a positive side because it means Plucked is debt-free.

Bottom line, she said, is that she feels grateful that the business is on an even keel and growing.

“I sometimes think I made a big mistake, but it’s worked out well,” she said. “It’s still amazing to me that we have people buy it who I’m not related to.”

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