By Bo Shaw
High above the noise and bustle of the streets, in an aromatic kitchen in downtown Eau Claire, WI, a woman diligently tends to a slowly simmering vat. This concoction will soon be built into a delicious treat, but for now the only hint of what will come is the soft scent of tomato and spice.
This is the home of Chip Magnet, a local company that specializes in a wide variety of homemade salsas, jams, and butters. The business has exploded since its birth in 2011, and their products can now be found in almost 100 stores in Wis., Minn., and Ill. However, this expansion had not been a goal when Chip Magnet started, and was totally unanticipated at their humble beginning.
“It has grown faster than I could have imagined,” said the creator of Chip Magnet, Alexis Lucas.
Lucas had been a stay-at-home mom for 20 years when she decided that she wanted to find a way to make a little extra money on the side. She had learned the craft of salsa making from her grandmother when she was a young girl. She loved being in the kitchen, and was taught how to can, peel tomatoes, and not be afraid to experiment with her recipes.
In 2011 she started making salsas at home and giving them to friends and family. Their praise encouraged her to start selling it, and word of mouth quickly made her a hit. As the demand grew she realized that she could make a legitimate business out of the project and her husband, Jim Lucas, joined the team as the financial and business leader.
“I would have never thought we would sell as much as we did off of an idea out of the kitchen of our house,” Mr. Lucas said.
Quality is a critical piece of the Chip Magnet mission. According to the Chip Magnet website, they only want to feed your family what you would feed them yourself. They ensure that their products are GMO-free, gluten-free, and vegan friendly. They also make great effort to only use organic and local ingredients. They are working to become certified through the Non-GMO Project at the moment.
“It’s important to me for people to have that option to pick up my jar and see the GMO seal,” Lucas said. “We have not made things because we have run out of [vegan-friendly] sugar…It’s very important.”
This professionalism carries into the kitchen as well, where it is joined by an overarching sense of play and true enjoyment for what the team there does. Pop culture posters and silly internet memes dot the walls and show the creative spirits behind the salsa.
“Everybody has a really good sense of humor but they know when it’s time to buckle down and work hard,” said the kitchen manager Leigh Yakaites.
The small team weaves in and out of vats of roiling tomatoes and towering stacks of jars, pumping out 650 jars of fresh salsa each day. The kitchen has the atmosphere of a group of friends having fun doing what they love, and the names of the salsas –flavors like “Corn Star” and the jelly “Cran Slam”—reflect this spirited attitude.
This outlook rubs off on her employees, as well.
“She’s something special,” said Nicole Mitch, a saleswoman for Chip Magnet. “She kind of flies by the seat of her pants…. She’s like the ringmaster of our circus.”
While the company has already exceeded her wildest dreams, Lucas still has goals in sight. Her husband is still working a full-time job in addition to Chip Magnet, and they would like to get to the point where he can retire.
Lucas encourages anyone who wants to start a venture of their own to jump into it with both feet and commit themselves entirely to it.
“The notion that you have to be 100 percent prepared for something before you do it is pretty ridiculous,” she said. “There are so many variables that you run into that can’t be taught. Whatever you think you’re prepared for…you’re not.”
Lucas also recommends forging your own path and trusting in your own methods. What works for one person might not work for the next.
“You need to get advice from all different kinds of people,” she said. “Take what you can use from each person and if it works for you, use it.”