TAUNTON DAILY GAZETTE
By Jordan Deschenes
Locals may remember Richard “Dick” Johnson for his 10-year tenure as the city’s mayor, but more recently, he and his son have earned a reputation outside of politics for their grape tomato-based salsa.
Several summers ago, Johnson said that he had been gifted several tomato plants, which grew more of the sweet fruits than he needed and felt that instead of letting them go to waste, there was no better opportunity to try making his own salsa.
After having tested numerous batches with the help of his son, Ben, Johnson finally created the perfect recipes that are now sold wholesale on Cape Cod under the brand “My Fathah’s Salsa.”
“You get a lot of tomatoes out of just one plant. My wife, Karen, went online and found 10 recipes and I combined some and experimented on my own, which took the better part of the summer,” said Johnson, 77, who lives with his family in Sandwich.
“We decided we wanted ours to be with mostly vegetables and just the right amount of other ingredients,” said Karen Johnson, My Fathah’s Salsa’s CFO.
“I was looking for that sweet tomato and ‘vegetable-y’ flavor...but today, lots of people just like it hot.”
Ahead of his entrance into the local salsa industry, Johnson served as Taunton’s mayor from 1982 to 1992 and then as Lowell’s city manager before taking a part-time position for a division of Suez North America, according to a 2017Gazette article.
“I’ve always had a garden. My grandfather was a commercial gardener. It’s therapy for me, especially when I was making my cucumber relish before,” said Johnson.
“We’re known for the consistency of our salsa and the way the heat hits you, which is different than other brands,” said Ben Johnson, 20, who took the steps to start My Fathah’s Salsa company in his freshman year at Bryant University and serves as CEO.
On Sunday, Dick, Karen and Ben set up shop at the Taunton River Festival to both promote and sell their salsa, now available in medium and hot varieties and made using three different types of peppers.
Coincidentally, the festival also fell on the former mayor’s birthday.
At first, the father-son duo said that their company started out small selling jars of salsa at farmers markets around the Cape after receiving the necessary certifications and licensing with the help of Ben’s newfound entrepreneurial know-how.
When an article was published in the Cape Cod Times in May highlighting the father-son duo’s efforts, Johnson said that the Christmas Tree Shops then reached out to them asking to sell jars in its stores on the Cape.
The Johnsons’ salsas are sold in 8- and 16-ounce jars in Christmas Tree locations in Hyannis, Falmouth, Sagamore and Dennis, as well as other local stores and farmers markets in the region.
Ben said he personally delivers shipments to each of the different locations once a week, which can take up to several days.
“I decided to start the company as an LLC last summer. There were some challenges getting the proper permitting and licensing to sell the salsa, so we were only allowed to sell at farmers markets for awhile,” said Ben.
“Now, here we are a year later selling out of 12 stores on Cape Cod.”
Ben said that he started the company after completing a semester-long project for a mandatory business class for which he was tasked with writing a business plan to sell a product.
“Everyone had always told my dad and I that we should be selling our salsa.”
“We got an ‘A’ on the project — my professor absolutely loved it,” he said.
Naturally, Ben made a plan to “sell” his father’s salsa recipe (for the purpose of the class) to his professor unaware that he would soon take steps to ensure it would eventually be sold to thousands of customers.
Ben said that he later applied for and received a $4,000 Bryant Goss Grant that he and his father used to pay fees to get their business started and sell at farmers markets throughout last summer.
“It paid for certifications and the first one thousand jars as well,” said Dick.
Due to the increased demand and legal requirements that came with wholesaling and the required licensing, the Johnsons no longer prepare their salsa at their Sandwich home and instead rent a commercial kitchen at Hope and Main in Warren, Rhode Island.
Ben described Hope and Main as a type of “incubator program” for companies looking to grow and get their products on shelves in stores.
Although the Johnsons occasionally cook batches like they used to using the homegrown tomatoes from their garden, they procure their fresh ingredients from the international wholesale food distributor Sysco.
“Before, we were buying all of our stuff from Market Basket,” he said.
Typically, Dick said that cooking is done once a week and an average day entails getting up at 6:30 a.m. to go to the kitchen and then cleaning and sanitizing equipment before 8:30 a.m. strikes.
“By then, we’re cleaning and sanitizing equipment before Sysco shows up with the food, and then we’re there for the whole day pretty much,” he said.
“Cooking at home it was a much longer day than it is now,” said Ben.
The two then spend the day cutting and processing ingredients, including the most important ones, the tomatoes, which are combined and cooked for over two hours before they are emptied into jars at 194 degrees Fahrenheit.
“You can buy everything pre-cut, but we don’t like to do that,” said Dick, adding that he learned many leading salsa brands use pre-cut tomatoes for their ingredients.
Before cooking their salsa, the two said they have found that the best taste comes as a result of cutting the tomatoes more finely than the rest of the vegetables.
“Ben wears ski goggles when he’s cutting up all the onions.”
Once all of the preparatory work is done, Dick said that the two are capable of cooking and packaging up to 300 pints of salsa in approximately six hours.
“When you cook in a crock pot versus a vat that holds up to 40 gallons, it makes it easier to make multiple batches. The first batch we made, we lost because we didn’t have enough rental time left. Now, we reserve it early in the morning,” said Dick.
“It’s great because we get to use this big equipment and its good experience.”
In the coming years, Dick and Ben said that they hope to further grow the company on the Cape and eventually expand into a new market, in particular the Taunton area.
With an expansion will come the need for the company to find its own commercial kitchen space, Dick said.
“We’re hoping that as we spread it to smaller markets, a bigger one will come along and present itself. Right now, we can still control (the company’s growth) before it gets too big,” said Dick.
“The company is looking to grow and expand and I want to help bring business back to the Cape and create jobs,” said Ben.
Another goal, Ben said, is to gradually reduce the cost of individual jars of salsa sold at farmer’s markets — currently priced between $4 and $5 for 8-ounce jars and $8 to $10 for 16-ounce ones.
In light of the price, customers are paying for an award-winning salsa, which won first place at a salsa contest on May 4, 2018, at Cape Cod Beer in Hyannis.
“It’s relatively not that cheap at the moment, but I’m expecting that the price will go down as we continue to grow,” he said.
Dick said that among other Taunton-area retailers, the two might take a proposal to Trucchi’s Supermarkets about the possibility for Silver City locals to see My Fathah’s Salsa-labeled jars on the shelves in its two stores in the city.
While Sunday’s visit to the Taunton River Festival provided the perfect opportunity to introduce their salsa to those in the city first-hand, the Johnsons also enjoyed catching up with old acquaintances — particularly the former mayor.
“Even though we moved to Sandwich, my whole family has stayed close with the Taunton community. The old man is always talking to someone when he visits,” said Ben.
“It’s good to be back in Taunton and to have the opportunity to bring the company’s business here for the day.”
“It means a lot to be here, because (the Weir Village Riverfront Park) was one of Dick’s projects while he was mayor,” said Karen.
“This has all been very exciting.”