All Hail the Salsa Queen

Salsa Queen’s castle may be in an unassuming West Valley office park, but inside, this royal salsa company’s HQ is as bright and colorful as their pico de gallo. Immediately, you see vibrant Day of the Dead murals, a nod to the brand’s signature glam and ghoulish Sugar Skull logo. In the back, a heaping barrel of tomatillos confirms that even as the business grows, the ingredients are still fresh. And then there’s the Salsa Queen herself. She has striking blonde hair, a custom silver Salsa Queen necklace and an unmistakable voice. You’ll recognize that voice if you follow Salsa Queen on Instagram or TikTok (@salsa.queen and @salsaqueenofficial, respectively.) Her videos are kooky, charming and totally removed from branded Instagram content conventions.

She literally skips into a Sprouts supermarket, recreates the Rocky training montage on a trip to Philadelphia and cooks Mexican lasagna with her son. In one promotional clip posted with hashtags including #happy, #thankful, #sunshine and #family, she apologizes for mispronouncing Tooele and declares “summer is here!”…in March. Who are we to question the queen?

For Salsa Queen, who was born Maharba Zapata, things were not always #happy and #sunshine. 

She came to the U.S. more than three decades ago as an undocumented immigrant. When she tried to enroll in her local high school, they asked for paperwork; she assumed they meant legal documentation, so she never went back. Years later, she was a single parent to seven children and relying on food stamps and Medicaid. “I was very grateful that we had help, but that wasn’t a lifestyle I wanted to live,” she says.

Things started to turn around when Zapata met her now-husband Jim Birch. When the couple started dating, Birch told her that she needed to provide for her seven kids on her own. Zapata admits she was offended at first, but in hindsight she feels grateful. “That’s the biggest gift he could have ever given me, because I have my independence,” she says. 

Zapata was inspired to turn her love of cooking into a money-making opportunity. “In my country, we show love through food,” she explains. “What’s a better way for me to show my love of food and people than by creating some recipes that the whole family can enjoy?” She started small, developing recipes in her home kitchen. The salsas came from inspiration and experimentation: “a little bit more of this, a little bit more of that, the Mexican way,” she says. 

It was Birch who first suggested the name Salsa Queen, and Zapata was immediately dismissive. “I said, ‘that’s a stupid name,’” she laughs. Clearly, the name stuck, as did the brand’s Day of the Dead-inspired logo, which she chose to honor her son who passed away at 19 months old from leukemia. Salsa Queen debuted with containers of homemade salsa at Wheeler Farm’s Sunday Market. A friend advised her to only take 50 containers, but, ever the optimist, Zapata prepared 100. They sold out within two hours. Soon, Salsa Queen became a fixture at other local farmers’ markets. 

Still, the revenue from these markets was not enough to support her family, especially during the winter months. She began selling salsa at The Store, where she gave out samples in a literal crown. After expanding to three other local grocers, Zapata made a cold call to Smith’s. She showed up to pitch her product with a pink flower in her hair, an apron around her neck and high heels on her feet. Zapata struggled to contain her nerves—“Oh my gosh, what am I doing?” she thought. But once the buyer tried his first bite of pico de gallo, he told her, “you’re in.” Later, Salsa Queen also moved into Harmon’s, Associated Foods and, most recently, Sprouts stores nationwide.  

As the business expanded, Salsa Queen transformed into a one-woman operation to a business with more than 50 employees before the pandemic. Her children, who helped prepare the salsa for the first farmers’ markets and accompanied Zapata on her first grocery store deliveries, are still heavily involved in the company. Birch also works for Salsa Queen full-time as its General Manager. “My kids are able to see that anything is possible. They didn’t hear it from somebody. They saw it right in front of them and they were part of it.” To celebrate her hard-earned success, Zapata legally changed her name to SalsaQueen after earning her U.S. citizenship. (Now that’s branding.) “Besides my kids, this is the biggest accomplishment of my life,” she says. 

Today, the Kitchen. Tomorrow,
the Milky Way? 

Salsa Queen recently developed portable freeze-dried versions of their classic salsas. The packages declare they are “perfect for camping, road trips and space travel.” General Manager Jim Birch says his pie-in-the-sky dream is to be the official salsa of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. (But, for the rest of us, it’s a good snack for a backpacking trip.)

This story was part of our September/October 2021 issue. Subscribe to Salt Lake for more.

Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen is the former Digital Editor of Salt Lake magazine, where he covered local art, food, culture and, most importantly, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. He previously worked at Utah Style & Design and is a graduate of the University of Utah.

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