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How an ex-General Motors exec and his Marine son became salsa kings

From left, Tom Smith and his son David Smith of Jar Head Salsa on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018 in Davison, Mich. David started the company with his father Tom in 2009. The company gets its' "jar head" name from the Marines, where David served as a cook. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Only five people know the top-secret recipe to Michigan-made Jar Head Salsa.

“It’s kept in Grand Blanc, Michigan, and guarded by a Marine,” said Tom Smith, 67, the COO of Jar Head.

The Marine is David Smith, 48. He’s Tom Smith’s, son, business partner and creator of the salsa recipe. He came up with it about 20 years ago when he was cooking for some 3,000 U.S. Marines a day at Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

“We went to visit him and he told us to try the salsa he created. It was wonderful,” said Tom Smith. “We started bringing back coolers of his salsa.”

Those coolers turned into a company in 2009. Today, Jar Head Salsa, made in Davison, Michigan, is sold at 10 local farmers markets, three stores and Detroit’s Eastern Market. It’s on track to do $400,000 in sales this year, but the Smiths aren’t in it only for the money. They give 10 percent of the net revenues to charities that support veterans.

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For Tom Smith, who retired from quality control at General Motors in 2008, this is his shot at a dream.

“I had this entrepreneurial desire that was pent up all those years at GM,” said Smith. “This doctor, who kept ordering the salsa and giving it to his friends, said we should go into business. That’s all I needed to hear.”

Tom Smith, the chief operating officer of Jar Head Salsa, scoops mild salsa with a chili lime tortilla chip on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018 in Davison, Mich. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

BEAT THE JAPANESE

Tom Smith joined Buick in 1969 at age 18. He attended GM’s Kettering University, studying industrial administration. But, he had two passions: marketing … and girls.

“One day a beautiful girl came by our fraternity house with her friends and it was love at first sight,” Smith said about his wife, Sandy.

The two married in 1972 and raised three sons over their now 47-year marriage.

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Meanwhile, Smith earned an MBA from Michigan State University and in 1982 he moved into a new engineering job at Buick City Assembly in Flint. GM built the front-wheel drive LaSabre sedan there. He started studying statistical process control.

“At that time, the American auto industry was way behind Japanese vehicles in quality,” Smith said. “I was gung ho! It was competition against the Japanese.”

Smith applied statistical process control to improving the electrical system quality while the car was in the assembly process. It resulted in GM winning its first J.D. Power Initial Quality Award, he said. His success landed him in corporate quality in the late 1980s where he traveled to GM plants across North America, he said.

But he still he had a bug to do marketing and, “I had a desire to be an entrepreneur all my life,” said Smith. At the time, he could not afford the risk of an entrepreneurial venture because, “I had these three boys I was raising.”

Then one of those boys started cooking up some salsa.

5 MILLION MEALS

Smith’s son David graduated from U.S. Marine Corps boot camp in 1998 and quickly worked his way up to gunnery sergeant running the food service for some 3,000 marines stationed at Camp Pendleton.

“There was a lot of Mexican food down that way,” Tom Smith said. “The Marine Corps food services has a taco bar … it’s like a buffet.”

But David Smith thought the government-issued salsa tasted bad. He thought the nation’s elite warriors deserved better.

“When he was in Iraq, he had to go out in the field to deliver food to the guys. It was dangerous as hell,” Smith said. “His buddies said, ‘Hey, Gunny, I’m going with you.’ They’d put themselves in harm’s way out of camaraderie and love. So he wanted to give them the best he could.”

David Smith took to experimenting with creating his own salsa. It took a few tries, but he found the perfect recipe and his Marines loved it. When his parents started sharing it with colleagues and friends, they knew it was a hit.

“My wife took it to work where a doctor loved it so much, he bought $3,000 worth of it,” Tom Smith said.

David Smith saved that money. When he retired in 2008 from the Marines, he’d made more than 5 million meals. He used the money to fund Jar Head Salsa with his business partners — his mom and dad.

Jar Head Salsa with sea salt and chili lime tortilla chips on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018 in Davison, Mich. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

SPECIAL SOMETHING

The moniker Jarhead, as applied to Marines, originated in World War I.

“The Marines were the first service to get their hair cut universally short. It was short on the sides with a little on top,” said Smith. “The other services said their heads looked like jars.”

The nickname could be seen as derogatory if used by civilians, but most Marines embrace it with each other. It was the right name for this salsa. The next challenge was finding orange bell peppers each week.

“My son wouldn’t let it be made without orange peppers because we want you to see the green bell peppers, the jalapenos, the orange peppers so that people see it’s not just pureed tomatoes,” said Smith. “It’s something special.”

Their produce supplier managed to secure the fresh peppers each week, Smith said. They started by making 40 pints of salsa. Tom Smith and his wife can it by hand to ensure freshness.

They launched the company in May 2009, first selling it at the Grand Blanc Farmers Market.

“We started right away to get customers who would come back once a week,” said Tom Smith, who went on to joke, “We have a phenomenon called Jar Head Salsa withdrawal. It’s a very serious condition and we have the cure.”

The Smiths have expanded Jar Head Salsa to farmers markets in Clarkston, Frankenmuth, Mount Pleasant, Midland, Beaumont Hospital’s farmers market and some special events such as gun shows. Tom Smith takes pride in handing out sample trays of salsa and Jar Head-branded chips, which are made in Detroit’s Mexicantown.

The salsa costs $7 for a pint, the chips are $5 a bag and any leftover salsa is used to make a Bloody Mary mix that sells for $7.

The samples are essential to sales, he said, which is why he hasn’t tried to sell it in grocery stores. “We give out generous samples. We can’t do that easily at a store, so it sits on the shelf and gets old,” said Smith.

In 2013, Jar Head Salsa went into Eastern Market. It’s now sold by independent distributors at farmers markets in Grosse Pointe Farms, Brighton, Holt, Davison, Bath, and Bay City. It is also sold in J. Deans Sausage & Jerky Co. in Commerce Township, Oliver T’s Market and Colony Quality Meats both in Grand Blanc.

Jar Head Salsa with sea salt and chili lime tortilla chips on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018 in Davison, Mich. (Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

CAN’T TOUCH IT

The Smiths’ produce supplier and his crew make the salsa to order each week in a kitchen at the Davison Odd Fellows.

“When all the markets are running in summer, it’s about a thousand pints of salsa, 600 pints of queso dip and 800 bags of chips” each week, said Smith.

The company does not have any employees nor own any facilities, a lesson he learned from his days with GM.

“I didn’t want to have any fixed costs,” Smith said. “I saw GM struggle with fixed costs.”

It took awhile for Jar Head Salsa to be profitable, and it only recently paid off its debt, said Tom Smith. “But nobody’s in it for the money,” said Smith. “It’s something I love doing. I love writing the checks to the veterans’ causes and I love the reaction of our customers.”

The company has donated $46,800 since 2009 to charities. Smith wants more distributors to sell the salsa in southeast Michigan and Toledo. Jar Head Salsa ships salsa to most of the 50 states, Smith said.

“We’d like to clone what we’re doing in other states, then it’s something big,” said Smith. “But we don’t want to lose what we have going: We’re distributing fresh salsa. Nothing can touch our fresh salsa.”

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© 2018 Detroit Free Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.