Rocket Science: Tommy Byrnes
Jalapa Jar’s co-founder on proving your audience, improvising with flavors, not falling in love with your own product, and UT football.
Tommy is the co-owner of Jalapa Jar. Born & raised in Texas, by New York parents, he’s mixing the hustle & flow of NYC with the flavors of Texas into a fresh salsa that’s growing across the country.
We have an idea for a condiment. What is the first thing to do as a founder?
The first thing we did, and I would certainly pass the same advice on, is to go prove your audience. Go make sure it’s not just friends and family who think your condiment’s great. Go make sure it stands out to the average customer at a farmer’s market or a food fair.
In our case, we did the Austin Hot Sauce Festival to sample it and see if random salsa lovers loved our product. Afterward, we felt stronger about investing our time and our money to get the business off the ground. I think any founder, no matter the product, should test the market in some capacity before putting blood, sweat, and tears into it.
There are a lot of ways to bring a product to market. Every maker thinks their thing is better or different or unique for the sector it’s going into. But you’re fighting against the Frito-Lays or the Nestles or whoever is the bigger player. I’m not sure Steve and I would’ve started the business if we didn’t feel like we could put this product in front of you as a non-salsa fan and you’d go, “Wow, that’s awesome and better than what I’m eating over there.”
Whatever you do, just make sure you’re not falling in love with your own product.
What was your biggest challenge as you grew the brand?
I guess our biggest challenge, like our biggest calling card, is the fact we’re fresh. We’ve had some course corrections, like when we tried to run a taco business at the same time. You learn a lot of lessons that way.
But the constant, core challenge we face is figuring out how to make a truly fresh product and distribute it. It’s also our biggest opportunity. We feel like if we can figure out how to continue to make and distribute a fresh product, then it will be a better choice on the shelf.
There’s a reason why everyone else just pasteurizes it. You extend shelf life and mass production becomes easier and cheaper. But solutions can be found. Recently we expanded within Whole Foods to three new regions. We’re in the Boston area, in Texas, and now all the way out in California. Much to our surprise, we’re also in Hawaii!
For years we got unsolicited advice, “Well, how are you gonna distribute it? You’ll have too short of a shelf life.” Now we can point to it and say, “Look, we make it here in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and it went all the way to Hawaii and into our customers’ refrigerators in plenty of time.” That’s a big feather in our cap.
Have you thought about opening up regional plants elsewhere?
Maybe. It just depends on funding and opportunity. One of our ideas was setting up regional pods for production and distribution, maybe even making regional batches of certain flavors, then funding test kitchen ideas out of the New York kitchen.
But, you know, it’s also more costly. And the production quality has to stay at a high level. So, we want to be smart about it before committing.
What’s the flavor creation process when you make a new salsa?
The original recipe came from my buddy, Joel, who I grew up with in Texas. He and I were down in Austin together, and he was the one who went to culinary school. So, we would always riff on different ideas.
We complained all the time about gimmicky salsas. Always some unique pepper to make it super hot, almost like it was a dare. We both felt pretty strongly about the value of good, fresh salsa. It doesn’t have to be super spicy. That was the impetus for the creation of an original recipe.
As I mentioned, we now have this test kitchen, so we experiment constantly with seasonal ingredients. We follow the calendar. It’s summertime, let’s mess around with some pineapples and make a sweet heat pineapple blend. Last fall, we did a butternut squash-based salsa.
So, we lead from our guts and palates, then tinker with the science. It’s like a jazz musician. Know where your progressions are, then from there you get the chance to improvise.
The New York City scene for food makers is really robust, how does being based here help the company?
It’s a great ideation place. It’s a great testing ground. Obviously, you have a wealth of people from different walks of life who will give you pretty direct feedback on your product here. There’s Smorgasburg, where we got started … if you can get into something like that, there’s a wealth of different opinions to crowdsource from.
It is more expensive to be here, and sometimes we think we’re a little crazy for having started this in the heart of probably the most expensive city in the country. But on the flip side, if we were based in Upstate New York or remote Pennsylvania, we’d still have to turn around and truck it into a city to help position and market it. So, there’s some give-and-take.
To be in a condensed area with a lot of exchange of ideas and energy benefits you more than what you might save just on your pure P&L to mass produce it somewhere else. I wouldn’t say the geography was totally purposeful. I mean we just started this, my cousin and I, because we were living here.
It’s also worth mentioning that the city is really involved in trying to support the growth of small businesses, especially manufacturing businesses. It helps offset some of the sticker shock.
What’s a food trend we should be paying attention to?
When we started, we saw the early signs that distribution channels were evolving, making it easier for businesses like ours to get to end-users. Consumer started saying, “Look. I’ll even pay an extra dollar or two for the best version of a product.” Grocery chains are starting to see that too, slowly but surely.
Direct consumer opportunities have grown too. Small brands can fulfill orders way easier than they could 20 years ago, distributing directly to customers. Now your entire business doesn’t have to be reliant on the whims of the buyers at the grocery store level. Food distribution often runs up against stodgy middlemen still hung up on old logistical thinking.
I’ve also seen some fun ideas with “refilleries,” plastic-less places where you can go and fill jars with grocery-level products. That’s exciting and obviously great for the environment. Doing it at scale is a challenge, but there’s a way.
You see lots of little ideas but they have a hard time getting past the middle range to become big ideas. But those ideas put pressure on conventional grocery stores to find ways to reduce waste and offer something valuable to the customer.
What’s your favorite wall decoration in your home?
Kurt McRobert is an artist (Very Fine Signs) who did Jalapa Jar stuff for us. For our wedding, we said, “Hey, you do some unique signs and things. Would you basically make an old poster wall on this giant wooden slab?” Sort of like a construction site with the green walls covered in movie and concert posters – but for us, it’s a wall of a poster my wife had designed for our wedding.
He printed a bunch of versions of the poster and plastered them all over this big wooden panel, it looked really legit and it’s now leaning up in our living room.
What’s your favorite outdoor space in New York City?
We spend a lot of time at the splash park at Pier 51 over on the Hudson River side, around West 12th Street.
We have a 15-month-old & she loves going over there. During the heat of the summer, it’s a good place to go early in the morning to get her to run around and enjoy it and cool off a little bit. So, we probably spend most of our outdoor time there more than anywhere else. Also, Abingdon Square is another fun little park near us. Very old, very small, and beautiful.
Very different answers than I would have given before having a child, that’s for sure!
Do you have a work desk? And if you do, what does it look like?
Technically, yes? I have the corner of our counter at the taco shop at the Navy Yard. The electric plug is just close enough, so I can sit at a little bar stool at the edge of our counter and keep an eye on whatever’s going on at the shop in case anybody has questions or somebody wants to talk about our salsa brand or whatever. So, yeah, I guess that’s my desk.
What’s something non-digital you own that has really good design?
My wife bought me a Smeg espresso maker. My coffee nerd friends would probably tell me that’s not the best coffeemaker, but it’s definitely the sleekest. It looks so good on our counter. I use it every day. I make my wife & myself some Americano and hit the road.
You’re a University of Texas graduate. Should UT have joined the Southeastern Conference?
That is a very interesting question because it’s a very hot topic to get wrong. Point blank answer: yes, out of necessity, but yes.
I’m a bit of a sucker for tradition. It’s a little unfortunate all the old rivalries and traditions are being broken up. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I’m not a Yankees fan. I grew up in Texas, so you grow up kind of rooting against the Yankees.
But I understand being a Yankee fan a little more because with the University of Texas, you’re kind of the Yankees of something else, right? You’re the fans who think it’s a championship every year or bust, regardless of previous form, everything starts and ends with whatever we think is most right, all the other fan bases root against us. So UT gets the look from the SEC that maybe our recent history on the field doesn’t warrant, because of off the field reasons – and it may sting a little bit until there’s some on-field success.
That said, going to the premier conference means better recruiting, more national TV exposure, and playing against the best of the best. It’s hard to ignore the upsides – but is it more fun to have an annual series vs Mississippi St instead of Texas Tech? Probably not.
My two brothers ended up moving to Oklahoma, and so, of course, their kids are now Sooner fans. I hear 1st hand what it means a lot to knock off the “Yankees” of college football, or at least the brand that likes to present itself as the Yankees of college football.
This self-image definitely will be tested when Alabama or Georgia comes to town annually. We’ll be the new kids, and the established SEC teams will want to show who’s boss. Beats going to the Big 10, that’s for sure. Should be a lot of fun, I can’t wait.
HBO called, you’ve got your own show for a year, carte blanche, no notes. What would your limited series be about?
It would be really cool to revisit 1930-something New York and look at the city through a baseball lens. The Giants fan base versus the Yankees versus the Dodgers. Back when the city had all those teams all so close together and baseball was the only big sport in the country.
A storyline following the different cultures and different sub-cultures within each fan base, because they represented different sets of working-class versus the elites and whatnot.
There could also be a show on the Navy Yard. My grandfather was actually there and helped build ships. He ended up on the USS Brooklyn just before World War II. I’ve tried to dig into the archives a little bit, and they’ve been very cool about giving me the opportunity to research.
I found this newsletter that went around the Yard, you know? Sort a propaganda-filled newsletter saying, “Hey, we’re winning the war. Everyone’s doing a great job.” It has softball scores and the ongoings of everyday life back then … a window into what life was like back then in the Navy Yard. A lot of life happening.