They say that the strongest trigger of sense memory involves our sense of smell. This is, in part, due to the fact that the olfactory nerve is situated very closely to where memories are stored in our brains. For Mark Sorenson, it was relying on sense memories – the smells from his childhood of his mother and grandmother cooking tamales or chile rellenos and the joy that helping them cook gave him – that helped him to create the first batch of tomatillo salsa in 1992. That eventually lead to begin his own salsa business, Santipapas Salsa, named after Santiago de Papasquiaro, the town in Mexico where his mother is from.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking and those are some of my fondest memories as a child,” he said. “It’s like an olfactory blueprint. I can close my eyes and remember the smell of a Halloween bag of full candy when I was five years old or the smell in the kitchen during tamale season. We’d crank out 220 tamales or something. I distinctly remember that. I think it’s innate in all of us that we have things that we gravitate toward that we like, and it’s the smell, at least for me, that’s everlasting.”
Mark started cooking as a child, often helping his mother prepare meals for guests. He quickly picked up on the “powerful and intimate exchange” that his mother was able to provide through food. “I found that really attractive and that’s what naturally kept me interested in cooking.”
Ironically, neither Mark’s mother nor grandmother made homemade salsa when he was growing up. Instead they used Embasa jalapeños, kept in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator, for adding spice to their meals, he said.
Mark’s began creating his own salsa as an accompaniment for tamales. After his grandmother passed, the tamale making tradition in his family came to a halt. His mother had never gotten into tamale making, so he decided to “pick up the ball” and make chicken tamales for the holidays.
“I wanted to break away from the red sauce pork, and I thought well what would go good with chicken? I think a green tomatillo salsa would work well with the chicken tamale,” he said.
From there Mark started serving his salsa with his mother’s recipes when he would have friends over for dinner parties, never measuring anything, always creating by smell first, then taste, then smell again.
“Salsa to me is like making a soup. It’s very delicate, very exposing to the person making it. The nuances are extremely subtle, and it takes some practice,” he said.
It was a friend who worked in the co-packing industry that first planted the seed of selling the salsa with Mark in 2006. The friend encouraged Mark to talk with a co-packing industry veteran even though Mark was working a full-time job as a registered nurse. Despite the encouragement and compliments that the co-packer gave him, at the time Mark found the idea of taking the product to market and getting commercial kitchen space “overwhelming.”
Instead he began doing research, reading the book “From Kitchen to Market: Selling Your Gourmet Food Specialty,” from “front to back cover,” he said. Along the way he learned about consistency and formed his first salsa recipes, including his kids in the process. With his son as chief taste tester, Mark nailed down the right combination of dry and wet ingredients for what is now known as his “Green Hot” salsa.
After perfecting his recipe, Mark thought he would leave it at that. But after moving to Oakland in 2012, a fellow nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland encouraged him to join her in putting together a booth for the Oakland Art and Soul Festival, she making handbags, he making his salsa. Together they made a New Year’s Resolution to focus on their products. After a good reception at the festival, he started talking about his product with restaurant and bar industry people in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland, where he lived. Mark received such positive feedback, he was encouraged to take things further.
“I got this immediate response and enthusiasm from people. I could have been fashioning sweaters, it didn’t matter. There’s this certain kind of rallying in Oakland that people have that’s absolutely legitimate and sincere,” he said. “So I just followed this thread of these people who were encouraging and very generous in their advice, and the next thing you know I’m at a commercial kitchen that just opened up.”
After getting his commercial start at Kitchener Oakland, things began to snowball for Mark, and he found himself in a “wonderful, supportive, encouraging network,” he said. That led to launching the Santipapas salsa line at a dry goods store in Temescal Alley, as well as First Fridays in the alley, where he began consistently selling out of the product. Not ready to quit his day job yet, he continued on and began developing a small business around his salsa.
In January 2013 he met Mark and Jason Scott, who own Authentic Bagel Company in Jack London Square. Already fans of Mark’s salsa, the brothers had been putting his Green Mild on their bagel dogs and sandwiches. They asked if he’d like to share their kitchen space with them, and he’s been cooking salsa out of their kitchen ever since after quitting his nursing job.
“I still have a passion for nursing, but this is my mid-life crisis kind of, but in a more productive way than buying a Corvette or having a 22-year old mistress or something. I’m enjoying the excitability of having a product and having people like it and the excitement of the future, which is unknown. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’ve just followed this thread, if you will, and I’ve been quite fortunate. I want to continue till the wheels fall off or the tomatillos disappear or what have you.”
Although Mark’s “original recipe” salsa is tomatillo based, he’s since developed three other incarnations. His tomatillo based salsas come in both Green Hot (the original) and Green Mild, and he’s also created Red Hot and Red Mild varieties, which he uses San Marzano or Roma tomatoes for instead of the tomatillos. He currently sells at outlets such as Bi-Rite, Good Eggs, Farmer Joe’s and Star Grocery and has gotten calls from specialty shops in Manhattan, Chicago, Seattle and Laguna Hills. Mark also hosted a pop-up taco stand at the Olde Depot in Jack London Square last fall where he served a variety of tacos, beans, roasted vegetables and his mother’s rice recipe. He would like to saturate the Northern California small specialty markets with his salsa as much as he can and may eventually go the co-packing route, although he wants to continue making the product himself, he says.
“What I really like is that it’s something that’s pure. It is what it is. It’s called Santipapas—that’s the town where my mom’s from in Mexico. The reason it’s called that is because of her inspiration and my experiences with family that inspired me to enjoy food.”
What drew you to food?
It was one of my favorite past times as a kid. I love eating! Food and family equal happiness, and it still does for me.
Because it was uniquely my own, I think. It was an example of what I learned from my grandmother and my mom – the smells in the kitchen influenced my salsa. I have a very unique flavor profile, but the ingredients are not uncommon whatsoever in Mexican cooking. It was from a conglomerate of smells, these blue prints that I have, that I walk around with, that I experienced as a kid being in the kitchen that helped the design of the salsa. And it became mine. But it is representing where my mom came from, where I came from.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
One of the great things about Mexican culture is the food. You know, my father’s Norweigan, and [my parents] met working at Safeway. She worked bakery, he worked produce, he fell hard for her and she fell hard for him—and she was four years in country, and back in the 60s in California that was not that typical. It was like Richie Cunningham and Rita Moreno together walking down the sidewalk. Now the immigrant families loved it—they were like ‘Oh my god, here we go,’ because it was back in the assimilation era.
Anyway, I grew up in San Jose, East San Jose, in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood and – plus the fact that I was the firstborn grandchild and my grandparents lived in San Francisco – I grew up around that culture. My uncle had a taqueria in Redwood City, my Nonna and Papa had a Mexican bar in the Mission, my Papa made menudo every Sunday. The first thing about that culture wasn’t as much the language for me, as it was the food. The food for me is my tradition – that’s what I’m handing down to my children. As well as the history that your grandmother and her family made some serious sacrifices going back and forth over the border and some were illegal and the whole thing, and here’s some flavor from that, this is handed down.
Like keeping the tamale tradition going. I do it every year, ever since ’92. It’s how I identify with that part of the culture. There wasn’t Scandinavian culture around me—there just wasn’t…this was the culture that was familiar to me. And it helped me enjoy and appreciate cultures, I wouldn’t consider myself ethnocentric whatsoever, if anything it helped me appreciate food and the importance of understanding, if I’m in [another] country – and when I travel I eat, that’s how I travel – what’s your favorite food, your favorite place and take me to it. A lot of that came from my experiences growing up in Mexican culture.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
If what you’re doing works, don’t change it. Stick with your mission. If you’re successful now, you’ll just become more successful later. That doesn’t mean [don’t] tweak things but if you have something that’s well received and you’re doing one thing and you’re doing one thing well, stick with that. That’s the best piece of advice I’ve gotten.
There’s been some caterers I’ve met, and they have a menu—I’d freak out. A menu with 15 items on it that they’re presenting every time they’re in public. I don’t know how they do it but that’s what they do. That would be absolutely challenging, I think, to make sure every one of those 15 dishes are on point. And I got a little taste of that when I was working at the taco stand, and I have to say everything I was putting across the counter was on point. It was simple. It was my mom’s recipe for the rice, the beans—I mean I could to this in my sleep—and the guacamole recipe, I’ve been making since I was 15. Roasted vegetables, I came up the marinade—basically it was the same marinade I was using for the chicken and the carne asada. It was simple and consistent but expanding into something else is not where I want to go. I want to continue to work with what I have and be successful.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve face thus far?
The biggest challenge is understanding and embracing the unpredictability of the future of this product—that’s my biggest challenge. Being focused on a goal that’s not 100 percent clear yet. It’s kind of like a surprise ending.
Four days ago I was cold called by [the head senior buyer] of all Northern California Whole Foods [who] called and reached out to me. Wait a minute—what just happened here? ‘Can you bring your products by? We’re interested.’ Wait, I wasn’t even thinking about you guys—not yet! So it’s this unpredictability and being able to embrace that and to handle that. Whether it’s because I’m a Virgo or my son’s the year of the horse, I have a structure for the things I do! But I also feed off that, too—it’s exciting, it gets me motivated. But that’s my biggest challenge—embracing the unpredictability of the future of Santipapas.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Geeking out on food. I get to hang out with people who are into food. Exchanging absolutely genuine experiences around an art form that is simple but is absolutely more meaningful than any TV series or anything that’s out there. I mean it’s a part of humanity that I’m glad I’m a part of. It’s soulful. It is.
Having people come over and learn to make tamales—they’ll come over to my house and we’ll sit and we’ll talk. That kind of exchange is just genuine. I learn so much about myself, I learn about more the people around me, and I get to eat great food.
Hanging out with [Mark and Jason] and learning from them, whether it’s the efficiency, I’ve learned a lot from these guys. Mark and Jason – I want to make that very clear – I’ve learned so much from them in how to be extremely efficient on a very tight budget. We give each other shit all day long – I go in there and I know I’m going to get it all day. But I really admire their ability to work together as brothers – I mean that’s like a fantasy to have family in the business. And I’ve learned a lot about the business from them. So I would say I’m learning the business from the professionals around me, particularly Mark and Jason.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
Green Hot. The Green Hot is the godfather design. Everything came from this—it’s not Green Hot, it’s just salsa. But actually my runner up is the Red Mild. I put it on everything. I mean pasta dishes with the Red Mild? Absolutely fantastic.
My knee jerk reaction is going to be Mark and Jason absolutely. I admire their work ethic – I’ve learned a lot about that…these guys are sleeping, what, four hours a day for the last two years? I’ve learned what it means to make a business happen, all the sweat and commitment it takes. It’s one thing to have a good product, it’s another to take it to the next level. I admire their work ethic and their food – they have the best corned beef I’ve had. They have the bagels and the corned beef, and I’m not a huge sweets fan, but my wife’s a huge fan of their cookies.
Mani [Niall] from Sweet Bar Bakery. The Grilled Cheese Guy. I’m going to list pretty much everyone I’m in contact with—I admire all of them. All the artisans at Kitchener Oakland that I’ve worked with and done pop ups with, I greatly admire because they are a community that has supported me and I’ve supported them. But absolutely Mark and Jason have they’ve really done a lot—I mean they’ve given me a chance and been supportive.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Pizza, of course! [laughs]
My last meal would be my mom’s classic Mexican dinner. Flautas – chicken flautas – chile rellenos, beans and rice. And Santipapas Green Hot. And I’d be fine.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Right now, as of last night, I was absolutely blown away by Box and Bells. Last night was a gastro experience like no other. It’s been the best—I mean I’m no food critic – but a friend who’s also very much into food, he has cacao farms, he likes good food – he and I just went on a three-hour fest last night there. And right now that is my all-time, I mean it’s the best in everything. It’s the best in what Daniel Patterson’s doing or what [Mark and Jason] are doing and taking the best of it and kind of just putting it on one menu. I appreciate the program there and was absolutely blown away. I have to go back at least three more times so I can try the rest. It’s a great concept that they have there. That, as we speak, is my favorite right now.
Photos courtesy of Mark Sorenson, Santipapas Salsa.