by Emilie Woods, HFM volunteer
“There was a real need for it,” says Portland’s Nikki Guerrero about the lack of quality, fresh salsa in the city in 2008, the year that she formed Hot Mama Salsa. Now with the variety of local purveyors in Portland, Oregon, it is hard to imagine a time when such a food item would not be available. There has been a major shift in Portland over the last decade to food companies that source their ingredients locally, their products available in grocery stores all over the city. Nikki has been an important player in this movement.
Before Hot Mama Salsa, Nikki was involved in everything but the food industry. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, she first headed to San Diego for school, where she studied photography at the University of California, San Diego. In 1999, she moved to Portland, where she pursued photography with Virtual Tours Real Estate.
As a freelance photographer and also a student of nutrition at Portland’s Nutritional Therapy Association, Nikki had just had her daughter, Chavela, when Hot Mama Salsa began to take shape. Nikki first started selling her salsas with the encouragement of a friend who co-owned Cherry Sprout Produce in North Portland, where the Hot Mama Salsa kitchen happens to sit at the back of today. She began working with Cherry Sprout, and soon after made her way into the Alberta Co-op Grocery and small markets around town including the Hollywood Farmers Market. For the first three years, Hot Mama Salsa maintained its small-scale nature, with Nikki as its owner, chef, and manager.
Today, Nikki sources many of her peppers from Morgan’s Landing Farm, a pepper farm on nearby Sauvie Island. When farmer Grey Horton and Nikki met at the St. Johns Farmers Market in 2011, Grey was mostly farming melons, with just a few peppers thrown into the mix. “I had been trying to grow tomatillos and chilis myself,” says Nikki, which was incredibly difficult. So with a little persuasion, she was able to convince her new farmer friend—who had come from Kentfield, California to rejuvenate an old family farm—to try his hand at more chili peppers. Grey was skeptical at first, mostly because peppers need a hot climate to grow in, and Portland’s wet seasons are far from this. “But he planted them without telling me, just to see if they worked,” Nikki tells me, and they did. Lo and behold, Grey soon became a pepper farmer, growing over 60 varieties on his farm each year. And as for Nikki, she had just landed her own personal supplier for her growing business.
“I think I always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” Nikki tells me. When she was just nineteen, she started her own jewelry business. Nikki describes her work approach as one of a “just do it myself and get it done” attitude. She tells me that she is still learning how to shake this tendency and have her employees take on tasks that she traditionally would step in and do herself. “Really, I do everything the super hard way,” she says, and laughs. “I had to figure it all out.”
When Nikki first started Hot Mama Salsa, there wasn’t the small business support in Portland that exists now. But now that the city’s population grows with nearly 100 new residents each day, small business owners have more resources. Nikki is currently enrolled in Portland State University’s 10-month business development program and also has an advisor through the school. Ten years later, she is constantly trying to improve her business model.
As someone who has worked at both Morgan’s Landing Farm and in the Hot Mama Salsa kitchen, I have always been impressed by the quality of Nikki’s product. More so, though, I have been in awe of the grace by which Nikki approaches her business. She arrives each morning to her kitchen that is shared with a local vegan company, Eatin’ Alive, where she and her staff gather around the calendar to discuss the week’s events. Afterwards, the endless chip frying, tomatillo peeling, onion chopping, and container labeling proceeds. On some long summer days, in the midst of her appointments, preparations for markets, supermarket demos, and food festivals, Nikki would cook us all lunch. When I would work her stand at farmers markets, Nikki would lend me her truck, always leaving me detailed instructions to make sure that I was fully prepared for the day ahead.
People in Portland know Hot Mama Salsa not just because of the incredible food, but because Nikki performs her work as a way of life. She brings a tireless and joyful attitude to her business each day, no matter how busy or slow the season at hand.
Hot Mama Salsa has evolved over the past decade into a staple of the Portland food scene. In 2018, it is a vendor at five farmers markets and is on the shelves of New Seasons, Whole Foods and smaller groceries such as Sheridan Fruit Company, Ps and Qs Market, and Green Zebra. Nikki also sells through her online store and brings her products all over the country to food festivals such as the Arizona Hot Sauce Expo and the Seattle Street Food Festival. Hits include Gramal’s Chilie (the Guerrero family recipe, a jalapeño and garlic salsa), Chilie de Arbol (a chili oil), and Femme Fatali (a hot sauce made from fatalii peppers and sweet potatoes). Hot Mama Salsa chili oils, hot sauces, salsas, and chips can be found on tables at Portland’s Sweedeedee, Widmer Brothers Brewing, and Skyline Tavern, to name just a few. Portland farmers market regulars know Nikki, and return each week to stock up on the “Salsa of the Week” before it quickly runs out.
Nikki credits her continued excitement for Hot Mama Salsa to the wealth of pepper knowledge that she has gained over time. “I’m thinking a lot about being able to pass it [the knowledge] on,” she tells me. Perhaps we will find Nikki one day with a memoir or teaching around the country, but until then, it is safe to say that she has already given so much to Portland.
In the words of farmer Grey Horton, “Nikki has the best food sense of anyone I know…As a farmer, collaborating with Nikki is a constant exploration of varieties, traditions, and new possibilities…Nikki knows that good food, like collaboration, is ever-changing, looking both forward and into the past.”
From the community that she has gathered at farmers markets to the recipes that she has inspired with her food, Nikki Guerrero has given a whole lot of joy to this city. From all of Portland, thank you Nikki. You are an inspiration.