By Jennifer Crain
For many years, Yazna Ruiz made yearly trips to Olympia to visit a friend who was close enough to be family. After her visits, she would return to Costa Rica and, for a number of years, to the neighborhood grocery store she ran out of her cousin’s building.
Every week, customers would come through the small store and stock up for the week on fresh vegetables, sausage, salami, grains, ice cream, and other items. The business was humming when she sold it to move to the United States.
Once stateside, she settled in Olympia where she became part of the local community. Among the friends she had made through the years was Amando Hidalgo, the owner and founder of Tierra Bonita. Hidalgo, a marine biologist, student of ecological agriculture, and advocate for sustainable food systems, started Tierra Bonita in 1996. For the next thirteen years he sold fresh salsa and garlic sauce at the Olympia Farmers Market where his products and his voice for ecological change became fixtures in the community.
When Hidalgo became ill, eventually losing his ability to speak, Ruiz stepped in as his assistant and bought the business from him in 2009. Hidalgo passed away in 2011.
Ruiz’s experience – she owned and operated several businesses before buying Tierra Bonita – prepared her for the daily ins and outs of enterprise. Learning to produce a product, however, was new territory. But Hidalgo was a great coach and the sauce she sells today is made using the same techniques and ingredients that have distinguished it from the beginning.
Tierra Bonita Garlic Sauces retain the characteristic punch, creamy texture, and full flavor that has landed them on eggs, tacos, and (yes) pasta for over a decade. Ruiz says the sauces contain a bounty of raw whole ingredients, including tomatoes, garlic, onion, and cilantro. Vinegar is the only preservative.
The full line of sauces includes Olympia Salsa in three heat levels and Garlic Sauce in original, garlic and cilantro, garlic and pepper, and vegan. Plans for an organic line are in the works.
The salsa will last for up to six weeks but still, she says, “I need to make it every week to keep it fresh for the customer.”
In 2010, following the completion of Enterprise for Equity’s entrepreneurial program, (read their profile of her here), Ruiz designed a new label highlighting the star ingredient, with images of both the clove and the bloom of a garlic plant.
She also did some field research with market customers, adjusting the amount of peppers in the salsa until the heat level was pleasing to the local palate. Reducing the heat doubled her salsa sales. Olympia Salsa is now available in mild, medium, and hot.
Ruiz says she received a lot of support during her seasons at the Olympia Farmers Market from fellow sellers who helped with her children during the long days. Though she continued selling her sauces there through the end of last season, she decided to pursue an alternate business plan to accommodate for her two young children. Enterprise for Equity consultant and graduate, Sash Sunday (co-creator of OlyKraut), has assisted Ruiz in securing new placements in local grocery stores, an effort that’s paying off.
“The thing about Yazna is that she is incredibly tenacious,” says Lisa Smith, Executive Director of Enterprise for Equity. “She took on Amando’s business with integrity and incredible diligence. She’s really done every bit of her business plan by the book. I just think she’s a treasure.”