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,” Ritley-White said.
“It feels more like 20,” said 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 said.
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 Alexandria store to Arlington, Fair Lakes and Charlottesville in Virginia and Foggy Bottom in Washington.
The two Old Town residents met through an area preschool and both have children at the same elementary school.
“I like to cook,” said Ritley-White. “Which is good,” Rakis chimed 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, anywhere,” Ritley-White said.
Rakis got the idea to sell when the two were at a birthday party and people kept asking for the recipe. They sold their first three jars for a total of $15 at a baby shower and the Sauce Queens was formed.
The pair submitted a plan to Whole Foods around Halloween of last year. The grocery chain cautioned them that the chances of seeing their products on the shelves were slim.
But Ritley-White, who works at a large consulting firm, wowed them with a PowerPoint presentation. More importantly, they both presented their sauces.
Whole Foods initially said they would take everything but the salsa, but allowed the Sauce Queens to demonstrate the salsa in a store. It sold out in 20 minutes.
“So, they said they’d sell our salsa,” Rakis said. 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,” Ritley-White said.
“We have our ups and downs. It’s emotional,” Rakis said.
To keep up with demand, the two rented a commercial kitchen off Telegraph Road in Alexandria so they can make their sauces, which include salsa, a horseradish sauce and a yogurt dip.
Both say their husbands are supportive. The guys often shuttle the kids around and buy ingredients while Ritley-White and Rakis are busy making their goods in the evening.
“We try to support local farmers wherever 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.”
The two said the city of Alexandria had been “amazing” in helping walk them 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.
Rakis and Ritley-White said they have been approached by the television show “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 meantime and hope other opportunities will open up.
They are so busy with their home lives, children and making sauces in the evenings, they are trying to stay just 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 said.
“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 said.
“I think it’s all worth it,” Ritley-White said. “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."
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