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Back in the Salsa


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  • | 11:24 a.m. May 27, 2011
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The last time Fred Lewis launched a salsa business, he did it with a $3,000 loan from his mother.

He cooked up the salsa in a vat in his kitchen sink, where he put a fan in the window to blow out the onion aroma. The secret ingredient that made the salsa stand out was black-eyed peas. At first, he sold the salsa out of the trunk of his car.

That was 22 years ago. The Clearwater-based company Lewis founded, Little Freddy's Gourmet Foods, grew to $1.5 million in annual sales and 10 employees before he sold it in 2001.

Lewis, 53, is now back in the business, with Best Brand Bottlers Inc. The model, says Lewis, is to provide private label contract production and packaging of a variety of private label sauces, condiments and salad dressings.

In doing that, says Lewis, Best Brand will perform the four integral tasks for a client in the sauce or salsa business. The company will batch the recipe, blend it, pack it and then, at the end of the process, palletize it.

The salsa startup certainly beats a job in sales, which is what Lewis sought the last few years. He worked in real estate and sold hurricane shutters after he sold Little Freddy's.

“I got tired of sending out resumes,” Lewis says. “I decided I needed to do something entrepreneurial, which is what I'm all about.”

Lewis says he's also all about making sure his business is well capitalized. So he has spent the past four months on a mission to raise money for it.

Lewis seeks $300,000 to get Best Brand going. He says that should be enough to lease space, turn it into a processing plant and buy equipment. “I don' t want to do this halfway,” Lewis says. “I want to do it right or not do it at all.”

Lewis has already raised a chunk of the money, mostly by offering shares in blocks as little as $9,000 apiece. He declines to say how much he has raised so far.

While the recession makes recruiting investors a challenge, Lewis is still confident in his timing. For one, he says a group of old Little Freddy's customers told him they would provide business when he opens. Lewis also says the market lacks a middle ground: There's a handful of big distributors and there's another handful of hyper-niche small players.

Lewis wants Best Brand to occupy the space in between. He says he needs about 3,000 square feet of space in the early going. The space would be split between production and office. He's interested in a few buildings in Venice, in the area of Jacaranda Boulevard and Interstate 75, but he will hold off on a lease until he raises more startup funds.

A native of Indian Rocks Beach, Lewis was an emergency medical technician in his first career. He went into sauces and salsa in 1989, when he was 31. By his early 40s he was out — a move he came to regret, mostly because he lost the ability to make his own decisions about a business.

That spirit is what drew Lewis back. “It's hard to go out on a limb,” says Lewis. “But you have to go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is.”

 

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