Salsas, Relishes, Jams and Jellies
Alexis Lucas knew what she wanted to do and she knew she could do it. With confidence and determination, she launched Chip Magnet a little over a year ago by cooking up one batch of a family recipe for salsa and selling it at a local farmers’ market—all of it. After quietly starting with just one batch, then two the next week, then more flavors and many, many more batches, Chip Magnet quickly attracted the attention of salsa critics in the area, especially here at the Willy Street Co-op.
Willy West Grocery Manager, Matt Hofstede was visiting the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers’ Market with his family last spring when he spotted the Chip Magnet table full of colorful bottles of salsas and a sign that read “No GMOs.” “I knew these were my people,” Matt said. After tasting the salsa, Matt says he was eager to bring in this new product to our Co-op.
Although not a certified organic product, Alexis focuses on local produce whenever available and organic ingredients as much as possible; they are always non-GMO. Alexis says, “If I wouldn’t buy it, or eat it, I won’t use it in my salsa. No exceptions. I have a true passion for what I do, and I think everyone who has tasted my salsa can tell.”
Motivated by a lively family of five children, ages 3 to 19, with initial hopes of simply lending a hand in her family’s finances, Alexis and now her husband Jim are both happily working full-time to manage the growing line of Chip Magnet products. “When I wanted to do something to earn some extra cash, cooking made sense. I chose salsa because it is so versatile. I have been cooking and canning with my grandma since I was a little girl. She taught me how to peel rhubarb and blanch tomatoes. We made salsa together every summer,” she recalled.
With moxie and a sense of humor Alexis likes to takes a relaxed and fun approach to her business, and she praises her employees for their great attitude. Working with her since the beginning, her three full-time employees make up the kitchen production team and they’ve recently hired another part time employee. The 1,000 sq. ft. kitchen in Eau Claire’s Banbury Place also houses the company’s office, storage and production facility. In production five days a week, Alexis initially chose to work with conventional kitchen equipment: stoves and large pots, to prepare batches of salsas, jellies or jams. Through her trials and tribulations, Alexis has adapted her production by investing in a small army of slow cookers to produce reliable and consistent 30-pint batches.
Purely practical packaging
To package her salsas, Alexis selected the standard Ball mason jars, but because the textured surface of the jars didn’t lend itself well to a slick label, she chose only minimal labeling on the lid of each jar. This allowed for a clear, unobstructed view of the ingredients of each jar. What once seemed like a hurdle, the lack of a label around the jar has helped to set this product apart from other salsas on the shelves, and any former ideas to apply a label around the jar have been dashed over the preference for a clear view.
You can still find Alexis and Jim attending the local farmers markets around Eau Claire, but at Willy Street Co-op, the unfussy, fresh ingredients in Chip Magnet salsas are available every day in a variety of flavors and offerings:
Cilantro Lime Salsa
Black Bean/Corn Salsa
Wildly Delicious Salsa
Mango Habanero Salsa
Fiery Fruit Salsa
The Bigger Picture
With the demand for locally sourced and produced foods getting stronger with each passing year, the picture of local food production in southern Wisconsin has been getting better and brighter. Local fresh fruits and vegetables have a strong presence in our food system, but more slowly, and with growing excitement, we’re seeing more and more prepared and packaged local options on our grocery shelves. Central to that progress however, remains the accessibility of commercial kitchen space for producing value-added products like Chip Magnet salsas.
In the very beginning, those first few batches of Chip Magnet salsas were made in Alexis’s home kitchen, but to grow her company she knew a commercial kitchen space would be necessary. Banbury Place, a restored relic of hard-core manufacturing complex in Eau Claire, is providing the ideal kitchen space for Chip Magnet.
Since being restored by the Kaiser family and somewhat of a magnet itself, Banbury Place has attracted 130 other local businesses that in all employ 1,100 to 1,200 people in the multi-block cluster of former factory buildings. With the first building being built in 1905 for manufacturing International Harvester equipment, the Gilllete Tire Company later occupied it, and Uniroyal later expanded the complex. At its peak in 1967, the complex employed over 4,500 people from the area and when it closed in 1992, more than 1,300 workers lost their jobs.
From the newly developed commercial kitchens, a Habitat for Humanity training Center, Senior Center, a daycare center, gym, restaurant, art galleries/studios, conference center and apartments, this once-blighted property is once again an economic engine, exemplifying everything that’s right with entrepreneurialism while improving the local food picture.