Her Name is SalsaQueen

This article was published in the Spring 2022
By Emily Fonnesbeck

“I just really love food. It brings people together and makes them happy, you know?”

When Maharba Zapata talks, you can hear the smile in her voice. Also known as SalsaQueen, her thick Spanish accent, with its rolling “r’s” and selectively softened consonants, exudes joy. Even if you can’t see her, listening to her voice paints a vivid picture of a strong Latina woman with a wide smile and big personality, and the conversation is comfortably casual in a way that makes you feel like an old friend. Maharba talks with her hands, and although she could be telling you about the hardest times of her life, she’s able to look back with a laugh, a smile, and a wave, saying something like, “Well, but what are you gonna do, you know? You have to keep going, so that’s what I did.”

Maharba grew up in Mexico, one of three siblings in a close-knit family. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but in Mexico, we weren’t poor or rich, we were just normal.” She grew up surrounded by extended family, and the life of the party was in the kitchen. Her mother and father were both very present when it was time to prepare meals, so Maharba was welcomed into the fray early on. “I don’t remember being taught how to cook per se, but I was in the kitchen at a very early age,” says Maharba with a chuckle, telling how, when she was asked to make rice, she accidentally subbed sugar for salt. While a more common dynamic might be the mother teaching the daughter, for Maharba, it was her father who took the time to foster her skills in the kitchen. With her father standing by, she learned that making delicious food is about the taste, but also about the feelings it brings.

“In Mexico, our culture is that, when you go visit friends or family, you don’t give them a call or text them or anything—you just show up, and I loved it. Any time we went somewhere or had someone come over to our house, we immediately started cooking. Burritos or tacos—usually tacos—get soda pop from the corner store, and just kind of have a party. That’s how we showed our love:through food.”

Joy, family, togetherness, and at its heart, the food.

Her memories of cooking with both parents, but especially her father, are the ones that shaped her into a cook that prepares meals with instinct, and to taste, rather than using a recipe. “I remember one time my aunt came over and I had prepared some beans and she kept eating them and saying, ‘Wow these are so good, how did you do this?’ and it’s just something I didn’t even think about, I just do it.”

When Maharba was 17 years old, her family moved to Utah. It was a big change for them, and they worked extra hard to make ends meet. Those early days taught Maharba the importance of hard work, and her tenacity and drive kept her going through many of the struggles and hard times that would come her way in the following years.

In 2012, Maharba was a single mother of seven children, living on food stamps and wondering how she’d manage to keep going. With no job experience, no prospects, and not even a high school diploma, things seemed bleak. With an outside nudge from her then-boyfriend and now-husband Jim, Maharba decided that her passion—food—was going to be her answer. She started with European pastries, but eventually pivoted to something that spoke more to her past, her culture, and her life: fresh salsa. She got to work and utilizing the colorful and vibrant tastes of her youth, created new recipes that could be made in large batches.

In those early days, most of her business was done on Facebook and by word of mouth. Maharba would recruit her seven children and they would blow up the kitchen—chopping, measuring, and packing containers late into the night and in the early morning. Weekends were spent delivering, and Maharba laughs as she tells how she and Jim would meet people in parking lots, like “salsa dealers” to deliver the fresh salsa. In addition, they spent their time preparing and delivering salsa to offices, parties, and parks all over Salt Lake City.

Pretty soon they decided that it would be better if their buyers came to them, rather than running around the city delivering. Farmer’s markets were the next logical step, so Maharba went for it. Initially, she was told to take 50 units, that way it wouldn’t be wasted if it didn’t sell. Maharba decided on 100. Within two hours they were sold out, and things continued to go that way at every farmer’s market.

“I remember holding that money in my hand after the first farmer’s market day and being so excited,” recalls Maharba. “I just thought ‘Wow! I could really make a living doing this!’”

After a few years of farmer’s market success, Jim started thinking about selling the product in stores and suggested it to Maharba. “I thought he was crazy! I just didn’t see it! But he planted those seeds in my head and so, I went for it.”

Maharba set herself to the task, and after a few well-timed meetings and an overwhelming yes to her salsa, Salsa Queen products can be found in stores all over the western United States and now moving into the east.

The journey to get to this point was fast and furious, outgrowing kitchens and scrambling to fulfill orders, but one that has been full of joy for Maharba, who legally changed her name to SalsaQueen when she became a U.S. citizen.

“To me, it’s very important, food is important no matter where we go or what we’re doing, it can bring us together, and I enjoy that.”

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