Nola

By Shannon Mullen / Photos by Kristin Teig

It was June of 2011 and Sherie Grillon was already worried about Black Friday. She was putting in 70 hours a week as manager of a retail outlet store in Wrentham, Massachusetts and couldn’t stomach planning another holiday shopping season as summer was just getting underway. “I was missing out on my own life,” she says. “It didn’t make me happy and the money wasn’t worth it.” A few days later Grillon gave notice that she was quitting her job with no plan for what she’d do next.

The 38-year-old New Orleans native says she’s long been famous among friends for her homemade salsa fresca. In those first uncertain days many suggested she should go into business. “More and more people told me I should sell it because there’s nothing like it here,’” she says. Grillon came to Boston by way of Austin, Texas, where she worked in kitchens to pay her way through college. “Salsa fresca was the first thing I learned to make and I tweaked it to come up with my own recipe,” she remembers. “I subbed jalapeños for serrano chillies, took the oil out and added more garlic, and I’ve been making it for my friends forever.”

By popular demand Grillon says she’s always brought her salsa to parties and holiday meals, but she wondered whether it would sell. “I figured, I’m feeding these people for free so they’ll say anything. So I took my salsa and tried it out on people I didn’t know, and they said they couldn’t stop eating it. I thought, alright I’ll make salsa.”

Never mind that she knew nothing about the wholesale business, finding commercial kitchen space or keeping up with health codes. “I just started cold-calling all sorts of people to find information,” she remembers. “I showed up at the health department in Jamaica Plain with all these questions written down. I started piecemealing everything together.” Three years later her salsa is on shelves at dozens of stores in five states, and her company, NoLa’s Fresh Foods, is poised to outgrow its current home at the CropCircle Kitchen, a culinary incubator in Jamaica Plain.

Food has always has been at the center of Grillon’s life. “My whole childhood, that’s all I remember. I love food and eating so I always wanted to be in the kitchen helping my grandmother. She was 4’11” and she’d get on a little stool and make huge pots of gumbo with a giant wooden paddle. If I wasn’t out playing in the street I was cooking with her.”

Grillon grew up within blocks of her entire family—dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins—in sultry Chalmette, the county seat of St. Bernard Parish, which was among the areas of New Orleans that were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Her heritage is a mélange of Sicilian, French, Spanish, and German, and she was the first person in her huge family to go to college. “It wasn’t even an option,” she says. “It’s very hard to get an education and find a good job in New Orleans. There’s a lot of poverty and I grew up in family that was pretty poor. So my mom was always telling me I was going to college.”

That mission took her to the University of Texas, where she studied social work. On the side she soaked up Mexican culture and its culinary traditions. “It’s very similar to what I grew up with,” she says. “They’re hard-working people who are very close and enjoy life, and they love food.” Grillon learned to cook authentic Mexican food and fell in love with its rich flavors.

Southern weather, on the other hand, was getting old. Grillon says she’s never liked the heat of the south, and after seven years in Texas she was looking for a change. A friend suggested that she visit Boston and the idea took hold. “I said any time you want to move someplace you should go at the worst possible time of year there and see if that’s actually where you want to live, so I booked a trip in January.”

When she arrived Grillon was immediately charmed, especially by the North End with its narrow streets and historic brick buildings. “It felt like New Orleans, but with cold weather. I thought—this is where I’m supposed to be.” Now that she’s settled here Grillon is also doing what truly fulfills her—making good, fresh food for lots of people. She lives with her wife in Roslindale, and as both a local and a small business owner, she feels a deep sense of commitment to her community. “Some people might wonder what does Boston know about salsa? But this is my home now—where I live and where I hope to provide jobs.”

That’s important, Grillon says, because the New England seasons she loves make it challenging to source locally grown ingredients during much of the year. She chose Boston-based produce supplier Katsiroubas Brothers because the company supports the region’s growers whenever possible. Last summer Grillon says Katsiroubas sourced tomatoes and jalapeños from farms in Western Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The list of ingredients doesn’t take up much space on the label of either of NoLa’s preservative-free products. Grillon’s famous Salsa Fresca is made with fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, fresh squeezed lemon juice, jalapeños, garlic and kosher salt. It’s delicious as a topping for eggs, chicken or fish, or savored by itself, right out of the 16-ounce tub. The same goes for NoLa’s Fire Roasted Corn & Black Bean Salsa; it has the same base recipe, plus roasted vegetables and cumin for a warm, nutty kick. Fair warning: neither will last long with an open bag of tortilla chips nearby.

Grillon’s company is growing fast, adding new stores every week. “It’s exciting and terrifying,” she says. Her goal is to scale up carefully so the process doesn’t affect the taste of her products or the company’s integrity. With only two employees Grillon admits she’s working longer days than she did years ago in retail, but she delights in being her own boss now. “I’m guiding the ship, I know exactly where it’s going and I trust my instincts,” she says. “I’ve hired friends who are working with me. It’s great to offer people jobs in an atmosphere that’s fun. And I’m feeding people. It’s what I love doing.”

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NoLa’s Fresh Foods nolasfreshfoods.com

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Shannon Mullen is a film producer and freelance public radio reporter whose work airs regularly on Marketplace, All Things Considered, and other national programs. Her culinary experience includes stints as chef aboard a 1929 wooden motor yacht based in Newport, RI and as garde manger in the kitchen of a French bistro in Portsmouth, NH.