Spice of Life

Struggle has been an essential element of success for this leading entrepreneur.

Written by Miriah Hamrick
Photos courtesy of Blue Smoke Salsa

Robin Hildebrand tears up when she gets to the end of her success story. “I see me in my basement 20 years ago, loading my pickup truck with jars,” she says. “Now I see a semitruck backing in beside my store in Ansted. It’s something I used to dream about, and now it’s reality.” Blue Smoke Salsa started in Robin’s basement two decades ago, but since its modest beginnings the business has become a West Virginia mainstay. Robin is widely recognized as one of the state’s leading entrepreneurs, but hers hasn’t been a linear journey to the top. It’s been a wild ride tinged with trials and triumphs, but the process has equipped her with a necessary skill—turning impossible challenges into opportunities for growth.

Robin grew her business for 10 years without borrowing a cent, meeting all orders with one 40-gallon pot and two stovetops. But in 2002 she faced the decision every small business owner eventually encounters—grow or go. So she took out a loan to move to a bigger building and install a semi-automated production line. Business was steady, but Robin worried about the financial risk she assumed. She tried to branch out—she installed observation windows and a gourmet coffee shop, marketing herself to tourist buses. “I took any opportunity I could. That’s what entrepreneurs do. They are scrappers and survivors,” she says.

Then, in 2008, the recession hit. Times got tough. She managed to stay in business with forbearance from lenders, but things didn’t get better. Specialty stores that sold her salsa closed. Sales dwindled. Yet she continued visiting business classes and women’s groups across the state, trying to encourage people to think like entrepreneurs. “I talked about the highs and lows of owning a business, how it’s all encompassing,” she says. “I tried to smile and stay positive, but meanwhile I was in the hardest fight of my life.” When Robin was denied another extension on her loan in 2010, she had no choice. A few months later, she announced that Blue Smoke Salsa would be closing the doors.

But then something incredible happened. State politicians stepped in as advocates, insisting this couldn’t happen to one of the best businesses in West Virginia. They reached out to her lenders, going as far as Washington to assure Robin received an extension. Even then, she was hesitant to face another two years of daily struggle. “I was so beat down, I didn’t know if I could survive the stress of making it work,” she says. Tamarack joined the fight, starting a “Save Blue Smoke Salsa” Facebook page. Orders poured in from across the Mountain State. That burst of support gave Robin the boost she needed to stay in the game—but not without a new plan.

Robin knew she needed to focus on distribution, on securing more accounts and expanding her brand beyond state borders. She decided to close the coffee shop and scale back on retail in order to focus on wholesale growth. By making this decision, Robin—the biggest employer in the tiny town of Ansted—had to lay off some of her employees. “That was incredibly difficult. These people were family to me,” she says. “I didn’t want to give any of them up, but I had to.”

Yet she still couldn’t break into untapped markets—not with the resources she had. “I had equipment that wasn’t operational because I couldn’t pay to get it fixed,” she says. A man she hired as a part-time consultant, John Yates, introduced her to the owners of White House Foods, a Winchester-based branch of National Fruit Product Company. John knew Robin needed capital to grow, and without taking on a partner or selling part of her business, her means of acquiring it were few. He introduced her to the owners of White House Foods, who loved Blue Smoke Salsa and wanted to see it grow.

In the spring of 2013, Robin joined forces with White House Foods. They immediately infused capital for renovations, and less than a year later, production levels have doubled. Robin has been able to hire back all but one of the employees she laid off three years ago, plus a few more. “We’re looking at a second shift of production, plus another production line,” she says. “White House Foods has treated me like a queen. It’s unbelievable how doors have opened.”  Robin is securing retailers in surrounding states every week—and she won’t stop until Blue Smoke Salsa is available coast to coast. She says she’s glad she reached out for help when she needed it, and she encourages others to do the same. “There are more people in your corner than you know,” she says. “Just keep the faith and don’t ever give up.”


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