Condiments come with a side of Hollywood history
Viola's Gourmet Goodies, available at specialty grocers, is making a new push in local farmers markets. The family business has its roots in a grandmother's recipes for 1930s celebrity parties.
Nancy Rowland at her Viola's Gourmet Goodies stand at the Brentwood farmers market. (Ann Johansson, For the Los Angeles / May 13, 2010)
Today, her granddaughter, Nancy Rowland, is carrying on the local cocktail condiment tradition with her own versions of her grandmother's recipes. The Los Angeles native has kept Viola's Gourmet Goodies plugging along by keeping a sharp eye on her sales plan and relying on a supportive network of family and friends. A heaping dose of determination has helped too.
"[Viola] always had work, even during the Depression," says Nancy, slathering a generous teaspoon of amber jelly on mini toast squares on a recent Sunday at the Brentwood farmers market. "People might cut back a little, but they're always going to entertain."
Today she offers her own take on Viola's jalapeño jelly, two relishes (a salsa-like tomatillo relish and sweet fruit chutney) and sauces (a rum-guava and sweet jalapeño-lime version) in a business she started with her mother Dorothy and father Steve (Viola's son).
When she arrives home from her day job as a substitute teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Viola fields online orders from customers and her local distributor, who keeps many of her products stocked at Bristol Farms and specialty retailers such as Irvine Ranch Market in Costa Mesa. On weekends, she packs up her condiments to make the early-morning drive from her home in Koreatown to whichever farmers market she has been testing for its condiment-friendliness (most recently, Gigi's Farmers Market at Americana at Brand in Glendale on Saturdays and the Brentwood farmers market on Sundays).
For Nancy, the trickiest part of the condiment business has not been the daily schedule-juggling but deciphering her grandmother's recipe scribbles. "She left out ingredients on some [recipes], and others weren't labeled, so I had to make them to find out what they were," she says. Nancy and her mother began cataloging and testing the recipes shortly after Viola died in 1969.
Nancy tweaked each recipe to suit her palate and compensate for difficult-to-find ingredients. In that jalapeño jelly, she simply increased the ratio of jalapeños to green bell peppers to give it a spicier kick. But some recipes got a complete makeover.
"It's hard to find half-ripe mangos here," says Nancy of the firm fruits required to make her grandmother's mango chutney that allowed the diced chunks to retain their shape when cooked. She swapped out the mangoes in the recipe for more readily accessible oranges, apples and tomatillos, and renamed the sweet condiment "California Relish." The Baja Relish, her most popular tortilla-chip snacking relish (essentially a sweet tomatillo salsa amped up with jalapeños and cilantro), was a corn relish in its former life.
The experimental versions of her grandmother's condiments soon became the recurring special at Nancy's parties, where family and friends served as eager taste-testers.
"Nancy would always put out cream cheese with the jalapeño jelly at her Christmas parties, and we'd devour it like piglets," recalls Romelle Greer, a retired schoolteacher who has been friends with Nancy since the two attended Los Angeles High School together more than 40 years ago. Baked apples glazed with the jelly, potato salad with a few spoonfuls of Baja Relish and a green salad with sweet California Relish dressing (blended with oil and vinegar) were also likely to make party appearances.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to retired schoolteacher Romelle Greer as Nancy Greer.
Friends like Greer finally convinced Nancy in the 1980s to expand her Mason jar collection beyond the small stash in her Koreatown pantry. Soon, the entire family was involved, and in 1989 they turned Grandma Viola's Hollywood cocktail party treats into a business.
It wasn't quite as easy as that, of course. Adapting the jalapeño jelly, the first Viola's Gourmet Goodies product, for a commercial kitchen was trickier than Nancy had expected. "When you make a batch of 12 jellies [at home] and they're not quite set, you can leave them in a closet for a year to gel," she says, noting that most customers aren't exactly keen on waiting so long for their jelly to set up.
When they finally mastered the jelly, Nancy, along with her mother and aunt, Laverne Jones, made several batches by hand in a small commercial rental kitchen every Friday (the relishes and sauces were later additions). Her father often staffed the cornflower blue wagon-wheeled cart at the Santa Monica Wednesday farmers market.
But when Nancy's parents became ill, the jalapeño-chopping assembly line came to a sudden halt so she could refocus her energy on caring for them (her father died in 1994, her mother in 2000). Jones, now 82 years old, couldn't keep up the jelly-making on her own. "Basically, I had to start over."
Not having the extra kitchen help prompted Nancy to commission a Norwalk manufacturer to make the relishes and sauces (jam producer E. Waldo Ward in Sierra Madre makes the jalapeño jelly).
For the schoolteacher, it was a natural progression to the next level. "I always thought we'd be at the [Santa Monica] market just a little while, then expand to retail stores." But landing on Bristol Farms' grocery shelves came with its own challenges. "I can only return sales calls during recess," she says, noting that she soon hired a distributor.
And attending the requisite industry trade show can get pricey even with free relish-slathering help from friends like Greer and the next generation of family members (a moderately sized booth at January's Fancy Food Show in San Francisco was $3,300).
In recent years, the recession has taken a substantial bite out of specialty product sales at grocery stores, prompting Nancy to refocus her sales strategy back to direct customer sales.
When school was back in session, Nancy packed up her condiments to give the Glendale and Brentwood weekend markets a whirl.
"People seem to come here to buy gifts," she says, nodding toward the two dozen clothing and jewelry retailers at the Brentwood market. "Everything of mine can be gifts."
Sales are still sluggish. Nancy is giving both markets until the end of the summer to turn around. But if the relish tasters don't turn into buyers, she'll be calling up friends and family to help come up with the next jalapeño jelly game plan.
"Call me stubborn, but I just don't want to give up. I started this with Mom and Dad."