Her sofrito is better, and it’s nothing personal

New tradition: Vivian Jarrett understands the sacredness of sofrito.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

From the Different Definitions of Success file comes Vivian Jarrett, who boasts a dynamite product and a lock-down strategy to keep it quiet.

She also has a compelling backstory and a noble mission involving centuries of tradition, all of which ties neatly into Jarrett’s master plan to keep her sofrito from the masses. For now.

As an entrepreneur, Jarrett is a cultural phenomenon of sorts, heavy on the culture, more interested in genealogy than bottom-line growth. On a whim, she created an ethnic-cuisine dynamo that regularly knocks off socks; on a dare, she bottled some and started selling it at farmer’s markets; on pure culinary skill, she built a ravenous following; on gut instinct, she refused a distribution offer from a major supermarket chain.

The innovator’s journey began in banking – she worked at Bank of America and later slid over to brokerage firm Merrill Lynch – but was sidetracked by parenting and the eventual passing of her mother.

In 2013, Jarrett was raising her kids and helping with the family business – her husband, Adam, owns Port Jefferson-based niche flooring enterprise Custom Stair Runners – when she noticed advertisements for a garlic-recipe competition at Riverhead’s Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market.

Always looking for “a creative outlet as a foodie,” Jarrett’s mind immediately went to her family recipe for sofrito, an aromatic staple of Puerto Rican cuisine that Jarrett likens to “grandma’s sauce” – everyone knows the basics, but every family has generations’ worth of dashes and distinctions.

Those basics – peppers, onions and enough garlic to orbit Dracula, pureed into a concentrated sauce – were perfect for the Garden of Eve cook-off, so Jarrett laced up her cloves.

Not only did her spin on the traditional sauce win the day, it lit a bulb. During audience taste tests, the crowd kept asking her what restaurants she was in, what stores carried her products.

“I said, ‘I’m a mom … this is just fun for me,’” Jarrett noted. “They were a little confused.”

Confused, but loving her sofrito, so much that the crowd cleaned out another company displaying at the Garden of Eve festival, Bay Shore-based A New Yorican Thing Ltd. That distributor deals exclusively in Puerto Rican cuisine, including its own brand of sofrito, samples of which vanished in a flash after festivalgoers tasted Jarrett’s.

“My husband’s eyes lit up,” she noted. “He said, ‘How awesome would it be if you just did that?’ And I said, ‘Come on, that’s crazy.’”

Perhaps feeling a little loco, Jarrett decided to give it a whirl, and unofficially launched Tainos Sofrito & Mojo – named for the Arawakan-speaking natives of what is now Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica and other Caribbean locales – in late 2013. Renting a few weekly hours of commercial kitchen space inside Stony Brook University’s Business Incubator at Calverton, she targeted festivals like the Garden of Eve event.

Green energy: The power of Puerto Rican culinary tradition, now in a jar.

The instinct to go small was more than a business decision, the entrepreneur noted, citing a cultural challenge perhaps best understood by Puerto Rican women.

“With Puerto Ricans and sofrito, especially with women, it’s a very competitive thing,” Jarrett said. “A man doesn’t taste another woman’s sofrito.

“So it’s such a risky thing to do, to go out there saying, ‘Buy mine, it’s better than the one your grandmother makes!’”

Jarrett admitted she sometimes gets “the look” from other women at weekend festivals, and has witnessed several near-incidents among potential patrons.

“The man comes by and he’s like ‘let’s try it!’” she said. “And the woman shoots a look that says, ‘You try it, you die.’”

Despite the challenges of marketing against hundreds of years of hardwired cultural instinct, Jarrett’s slow market entry (including a $3,000 investment, largely for labeling and kitchen time) quickly showed potential. Both her sofrito, which serves as a base for many recipes but also as a dip or dressing, and her mojo – a citrus- and cilantro-based sauce that’s basically “the salt and pepper of Puerto Rican cuisine,” according to Jarrett – were runaway hits.

Her theory: While the recipes are “sacred” to Puerto Rican women and their families, “times have changed.”

“My clients are working full time,” she told Innovate LI. “Their grandmothers are back in Puerto Rico. They have families and just don’t have time to make their own.

“It’s a hard sell,” Jarrett added. “But once they have it, they realize it’s better than grandma’s.”

The Whole Foods chain thought so, and offered to stock the sauces in 8-ounce jars as a sort of one-use base for traditional Puerto Rican cooking – a major score for a micro-scale startup like Tainos Sofrito & Mojo. But Jarrett, a self-described “control freak,” ultimately declined the offer.

It wasn’t the “several thousand” she’d have to invest to come up with new jars and labels, or the monthly appearances she’d be required to make at Whole Foods stores to hawk her wares, she noted, but an instinct to avoid retail’s no-win “middle ground.”

“I didn’t start this to become rich or to become the next Goya,” Jarrett said. “I did it to share a part of my culture.

“You stay small or you go big,” she added. “When you stay small, you have control and you can be profitable. It’s that middle ground, where you’re just pumping it out and trying to make volume and get your name out there – I was heading into that middle, and it wasn’t profitable enough for what it would take away from me.”

Besides, if customers know they can get a product at the supermarket, they’re less inclined to buy it at a farmer’s market, which is “much more exciting to me,” Jarrett noted.

“The minute you put a [universal product code] on a product, you lose that sense of uniqueness,” she said. “I love the feel of a farmer’s market find you can’t get anywhere else.”

To that end, Jarrett continues to prepare her 16-ounce jars in Calverton by hand, renting about eight kitchen hours per week during her “peak” summer-festival season and four during the winter, when her products are available exclusively at the Riverhead Winter Farmer’s Market. She’s also added a new product to her basket: an adobo dry-seasoning mix combining cumin, coriander, black pepper, sea salt, onion and more in a 4-ounce shaker.

But for now, the entrepreneur is content to lend a hand at Custom Stair Runners – the family’s “primary business,” she noted – and keep Tainos Sofrito & Mojo on the back burner.

For now.

“My children are young once,” Jarrett said. “Sofrito will always be there.”

Tainos Sofrito & Mojo

What’s It? Artisan sofrito, mojo and Puerto Rican spices

Brought To You By: Cultural phenomenon Vivian Jarrett

All In: About $3,000, mostly logo design and minor marketing

Status: No offense, but it’s better than grandma’s – if you can find it


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