When Johnny Cafarella was promoting a Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) event a few years ago in Oklahoma City, he and a GLOW performer stopped in a Mexican restaurant, which served Enid-based Maria Rae’s salsa.
That experience eventually changed his life.
The GLOW performer, a huge salsa fan, ranted and raved about it.
Cafarella began looking for a new business venture after the COVID-19 pandemic knocked the Netflix show “GLOW” out of production, and he remembered that salsa experience when he saw Maria Rae’s was up for sale.
“I liked it so much that I brought the company,’’ he said. “It was just a recall of that event when I was looking at the business listings.’’
The deal was closed with owner Mary Buthman on Jan. 29, and made final on Feb. 1. Cafarella plans to keep the Maria Rae sales office in Enid and the manufacturing plant in Tahlequah. Buthman will stay with the company for at least a year as a brand ambassador. The sales price of the company was not disclosed.
“She is in her 70s and was ready to get out of it full time,’’ Cafarella said of Buthman. “She will be a great brand ambassador. She has nurtured relationships not only in Enid but places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa and (with) all the distributors.’’
Buthman started the Maria Rae’s salsa brand in 1991. She could make about 48 jars of salsa on a good day, but the business grew to 1,200 12-pack cases a month, Buthman said in a previous Enid News & Eagle story. She had created and served the salsa while operating a restaurant in Enid from 1981 to 1987.
Maria Rae’s boasts six levels of salsa, or spicy-ness. Level 1, the original, and Level 2 and 3, spicier and spiciest. Then there are Avocado Salsa Verde, Peach Salsa and Black Bean and Corn Salsa. The brand also includes imported tortilla chips.
Buthman’s presence will help with the transition, Cafarella said.
“We get along great,’’ he said. “She has been very, very helpful in explaining things to me, which is great. She is happy, and I am happy and it’s working out well for everybody.’’
“I think he is the perfect person to buy Maria Rae’s,’’ Buthman said of Cafarella. “He likes the product. Maria Rae’s has been around long enough for people to know about it. It has a good foundation. It just needs someone who knows how to market it and has the knowledge to do it, and that’s exactly what he has.’’
Buthman said she is excited about staying with the company as a brand ambassador. She has introduced Cafarella to various vendors and has advised him on the grocery business. She said it took her awhile to understand how it works and how to meet people’s expectations.
“I was ready to sell,’’ she said. “I still love it, but I was growing weary of the business side of it. I like for it to be a little more fun for me. I still care about it. I want it to succeed. I hope it’s wildly successful. I’m really looking forward to my new role.
“I will help him any way that I can. I honestly think I have taken it as far as it could go. He has the marketing skills to take it to the next level. This has been a constant part of my life for 30 years. This is a good way to ease out of it.’’
Cafarella said he plans to keep the products available now, and maybe add some.
“We’re going to keep what we’re doing,’’ he said. “There may be some line extensions and some different categories. I have a couple of ideas. The chips and salsa are just wonderful. We won’t get rid of any products. We may add an extension or two.’’
Cafarella has started an aggressive local marketing campaign with radio ads and billboards to increase visibility. Cafarella, who lives in Edmond, plans to be in Enid two or three times a week. Jumbo Foods and Walmart still will be the local distributors. He hopes the product can go from a mom-and-pop to a national brand. Buthman herself had been stocking her salsa at Jumbo.
“The cost of living here is great,’’ Cafarella said. “I’m meeting a lot of nice people. We’ll keep the Maria Rae’s base here, but we want to expand the five-state area nationally with Walmart, Kress and other retailers that I have connections with. We are on the cusp of being a national brand. We have the marketing that can bring that into reach.’’
Buthman said it “would be a dream come true’’ to see the product go national.
The salsa has been marketed in Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas. Walmart carries it in every store in Oklahoma, and every Sprouts location in Tulsa and Oklahoma City carry it.
The marketing will include some new slogans to promote the product.
Before he officially brought the company, Cafarella was sent various Maria Rae’s products that he shared with his nieces and nephews.
“My nephew said this is ‘scary good,’’’ Cafarella said. “We came up with the slogan of ‘scary good.’”
Another slogan is “Guac That Rocks,’’ for the Holey Guacamole Fiesta Blend mix
“They never had a slogan, and we wanted to do something different,’’ Cafarella said. “Our salsa is the best and the freshest, and we wanted to come up with something colorful and different that would get your attention and be memorable.’’
Geiko’s Gecko marketing was one of Cafarella’s inspirations to try a new campaign. Maria Rae’s will use dancing skeletons to push the product being “scary good.’’
‘We wanted an idea that would stick in people’s minds,’’ Cafarella said.
Cafarella said he hopes to use his Hollywood connections to get a celebrity endorser “to help drive this nationally.’’
Cafarella, a native of Excelsior, Minn., had started the GLOW production with a friend with a $500 investment.
“I was a young guy back then, and I was looking for a way to meet girls,’’ he said. “I loved wrestling and I came up with stage events. The Riviera Hotel got wind of it, and pretty soon we got up and running nationwide. It was a very humbling beginning.’’
He has roots in the restaurant business. His father, Vern, was one of the founders of Olive Garden, the idea for which came from the salads off the family’s table.
“I have always wanted to get into some manufacturing of food products,’’ Cafarella said. “Everybody loves salsa, and I thought it would be a good category to get into. Getting into Italian (food products) would be a little tougher.’’
Cafarella admits to being “over 50 but under 65.” He is taking a page from the history of Col. Harlan Sanders, who opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken with his first Social Security check.
“Some people wonder why I could change careers at my age,’’ he said. “But Col. Sanders was older than I am when he founded KFC. It worked out well for him. I know it’s a little bit of a major undertaking at my age ... a lot of my friends are retiring, but this is a proven product. It’s a lot easier than starting from scratch. I just hope people like it as much as I do.’’
Buthman said the sale will allow her to spend more time with her two sons in Oklahoma City and her grandchildren.
She said she didn’t know what to expect when she started 30 years ago.
“I was so naive,’’ Buthman said. “I didn’t know what it would take to formulate a product or how to bottle it or how to get onto the grocery shelves. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have done it.’’
She said she appreciated help from local businessmen Paul Allen and Lee Henry.
“It was quite a learning experience,’’ Buthman said.
She said she was surprised when she got the call from Cafarella. She thought the buyer would be from Oklahoma or the region.
“I was a little shocked when I found out who he was,’’ she said. “I wondered how he knew about it. It was pretty exciting when he told me the story. It must have been something that he liked or he wouldn’t remember it.’’