Mary Ritley-White is the yin to Eli Rakis’ yang. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
“We’ve been friends for three years,” says Ritley-White.
“It feels more like 20,” says Rakis, adding “or maybe 200.”
How ever long they’ve known each other, they’ve found the right recipe. It all started with salsa.
“We are both salsa snobs for sure,” they agree.
The duo’s business, the Sauce Queens, has taken off in just a few months with their products now in five Whole Foods stores.
They have branched out from the Old Town store to Arlington, Fair Lakes and Charlottesville in Virginia and Foggy Bottom in Washington, DC.
They met through the Washington Street Preschool in Old Town and both Old Town residents have kids at Lyles-Crouch elementary school.
“I like to cook,” says Ritley-White, “which is good,” Rakis chimes in because “I like to eat.”
“I could never find a salsa I liked in the store so I started making my own, bringing it to the pool, parties, any where,” Ritley-White recalls.
Rakis got the idea to sell it when they were both at a birthday party after people kept asking for the recipe.
They sold the first three jars for a total of $15 at a baby shower and the Sauce Queens was formed.
The duo submitted a plan to Whole Foods around Halloween of last year. The grocery chain cautioned them that their chances of seeing their products on the shelves were “slim.”
But Ritley-White, her day job with a large consulting firm, wowed them with a Power Point presentation. More importantly, they both presented their excellent sauces.
Whole Food initially said “we’ll take everything but the salsa,” but allowed the Sauce Queens to demonstrate the salsa in the store. It sold out in 20 minutes.
“So, they said they’d sell our salsa,” Rakis says. Their products require refrigeration and are available near the hummus and tabouleh at Whole Foods, not with the canned salsa and bagged chips.
“We’re all in it together,” says Ritley-White.
“We have our ups and downs. It’s emotional,” says Rakis.
To keep up with demand, they rented a commercial kitchen off Telegraph Road in Alexandria so they can make their sauces, which include salsa, horseradish sauce and a yogurt dip.
They both say their husbands are supportive. Their significant others often shuttle the kids around and buy the ingredients while Ritley-White and Rakis are busy making their goods in the evening.
“We try to support local farmers where ever we can,” Rakis said. “Whole Foods has stringent requirements, and I want my kids to be able to pronounce every ingredient that’s in our products.”
They also use ASAP Printing in Del Ray for their products’ labels and packaging.
The two said the city has been “amazing” in helping them walk through the permit process and other administrative matters.
The business is self-funded and is profitable thanks to a check from Whole Foods every week.
They’ve been approached by the television show about entrepreneurs “Shark Tank” and say they’re pondering the idea.
Rakis maybe wants a reality show. Ritley-White muses over having a storefront. They plan to talk to My Organic Market and Balducci’s in the meanwhile and hope other opportunities will open up.
They are so busy with their home lives, kids and making sauces in the evenings, they are just trying to stay one step ahead of it all.
“Our long-term goals are to have a sustainable brand that is made up of quality products so that when you sit down with your friends and family, it makes your meal a little bit more special,” Ritley-White says.
“We are who we are. We’re moms. We have children and busy lives. We’re honest and reliable and this is our sauce,” Rakis says.
“I think it’s all worth it,” says Ritley-White. “My daughter said: Are we going to be the bosses of Sauce Queens some day? That made me feel good - like a good role model. We can do it."