Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Larry's Southwestern Sauces in the Times Union

New York Acquires a Southwest TasteLarry Sombke plans to find a national market for his sauces.

The idea of Mexican cooking sauces made in upstate New York catching fire across the country might seem improbable, but Larry Sombke is trying to make it happen.

Sombke, a cooking and gardening expert from Delmar who has authored six cookbooks, developed his own Mexican sauces years ago when he was a chef at a natural foods restaurant in Missouri.

It wasn't until about two years ago that he realized that there aren't many -- if any -- authentic Mexican cooking sauces on supermarket shelves.

Sombke was reading a recipe for a pulled-pork dish in a lifestyle magazine that used salsa as the main seasoning for the meat. Salsa is usually used in Mexican foods as a condiment, but more complex sauces are used for simmering meat and in recipes for classics like huevos rancheros.

That's when it hit Sombke that there may be pent-up demand for Mexican cooking sauces. His wife suggested he make a business out of it.

"All right, there is a market here," Sombke remembers saying.

After reading a newspaper article about a local restaurateur who was bottling his own marinades and sauces, Sombke turned to Nelson Farms in Cazenovia outside Syracuse.

Nelson Farms is an agricultural-business incubator affiliated with Morrisville State College. It works with people starting their own food businesses -- helping with everything from coming up with a concept to preparing and packaging the product to sales and marketing.

"They helped me through the whole process and how to take a home recipe and make it into a store product," Sombke said.

Sombke developed three sauces. His mainstay rancheros sauce is made from tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro and spices. A chipotle sauce has smoked chili peppers and a mole made with cocoa. They sell under the name Larry's Southwestern Sauces for between $5.99 and $6.99 a jar.

Sombke started hawking his sauce at local farmers markets and pitching the product to supermarkets, big and small. That effort has been so successful that Larry's Southwestern Sauces are now carried in 75 stores in New York and New England, including 26 Whole Foods. Price Chopper in March started carrying sauces in 10 of its stores. He's targeting New York City and has a broker in Colorado to market the sauces in that state as well as Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, hotbeds for Mexican cuisine.

Sombke is now producing and packaging his sauces at Casa Visco in Schenectady, which in addition to making its own pasta sauces bottles private label products.

Adine Viscusi, an owner of Casa Visco, says most of its private label business is pasta sauce, but the Mexican sauces are a good fit since they are both tomato-based.

"We're glad to help him out," Viscusi said. "We started out as a small business too."

Despite the grand plans for expansion beyond of the Capital Region, Sombke says his going to local farmers markets is invaluable. He spends time each week at those held in Delmar, Voorheesville and the Empire State Plaza in Albany.

"It's a perfect marketing tool," he says. "You can get feedback. You learn about pricing. They are just the perfect way to get the product into the market."

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