Seven years ago, Maharba Zapata was a single mother of seven raising her children on food stamps and Medicaid. She had no job outside the home (see: the seven children) and zero prospects of one. She couldn’t dream of winning the lottery because she couldn’t afford the tickets, and besides that, Utah doesn’t have one.
So she made her own lottery and won that.
Just in time for Mother’s Day, here’s the mother of all turnaround stories: How a twice-divorced Mexican-immigrant who didn’t finish high school and couldn’t speak English when she arrived with her family in Provo as a 17-year-old back in 1989 became the salsa queen of Utah.
Perhaps you’ve seen her salsa with the distinctive Day of the Dead sugar skull logo and the Salsa Queen brand proudly displayed on top. The product can be found in most grocery stores in Utah. It can also be found in stores in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, California and other Intermountain states. And as of this week, just in time for Cinco de Mayo, Salsa Queen has been picked up by the Sprouts network of stores across the nation.
It would be easier to say where Salsa Queen salsa isn’t than where it is.
All this from out of nowhere, or pretty close.
In the spring of 2014 Maharba, as she was then known, was raising her children — ages 3 to 18 — in a little house in Magna “where when it rained outside, it rained inside.”
Twice divorced, living on welfare, she was the recipient of a $3,000 windfall from tax proceeds from a former marriage.
She stared at the money.
“I thought, I can either go and blow this money on the kids and buy them things they really need,” she remembers. Or she could listen to her boyfriend, Jim Birch, who encouraged her to use the money to make batches of her homemade salsa everyone was always raving about, see if she could sell it on Facebook and maybe start to lift herself out of the welfare rut she was in.
She thought it over, fought back her fear of failure (“the thing I’m most afraid of, rejection”), bought enough ingredients to make 40 containers of salsa, and went for it.
She sold all 40. Quickly.
The seed was planted. Maharba could see that one, she had a product people liked, and two, she had a built-in workforce, namely the seven kids: Tané, Jordan, James, Leah, Jessenia, Emily and Eli. Plus Jim.
Soon, she had them all lugging big containers of salsa to farmers markets up and down the Wasatch Front. She started doing cooking segments on Channel 2. She’d arrange to meet online customers in parks, trading product for money — “like drug dealers, only with salsa.”
At Jim’s suggestion, she called her grassroots enterprise Salsa Queen. She was reluctant at first about the name.
“He said I needed something so people would remember me. I’m like, ‘That’s the stupidest name ever, that’s not going to be the name of my company.’ Then I went to an event and everybody said, ‘Hey, Salsa Queen is here,’ and I thought, ‘You know what, that’s the name.’”
After that, by the sheer power of a positive persuasive personality — think Sofia Vergara’s character on “Modern Family” — Maharba started talking local grocery stores into stocking her salsa. Independents like The Store in Holladay and The Market at Park City first let her in. Then came Smith’s, who gave her eight stores initially (now she’s in all 141), then Fresh Market, Dan’s, Macey’s and other Associated Food Stores, followed by Harmons.
The company kept outgrowing its facilities. Every year they had to find a bigger kitchen and hire more employees.
In 2016 the salsa queen married Jim. In 2019, she became a United States citizen, a milestone she calls “the highlight of my life, besides my kids.”
One of the things they ask you when you become a U.S. citizen is if you would like to change your name.
Maharba loved her first name — it is her father’s name, Abraham, spelled backward. But she also wanted to pay tribute to the life-changing event that got her out of “a lifestyle I never wanted to live. I didn’t come to this country to just be supported by somebody else.”
So she legally changed her first name to SalsaQueen. No space.
On her driver’s license, her Social Security card, her bank account, her credit cards, there it is: she is SalsaQueen Zapata. A one of a kind.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think about what’s happened,” SalsaQueen says.
She gives a mountain of credit to her husband Jim.
“One of the greatest things about Jim is that he really believes in you. I had no education, I had no job experience, I’m dyslexic, I spell horribly, I’m color blind, I have no studies to back me up, nothing. But he believed I could be something greater, something bigger. I tell him, ‘Thank you for giving me the wings to fly,’ and he says, ‘You had them all along, you just had to realize it.’ We all have the wings. It just takes somebody to believe in us and to grab us by the hand and give us a little kick and there you go.
“Jim is my king.”
But she is queen. And make no mistake.
“Even Jim gets in trouble,” she says. “If we’re having meetings and he forgets and calls me ‘Maharba.’ Just Salsa is also not acceptable, or salsa lady. It’s either SalsaQueen or Queen. Call me either of those, I’m OK.”