Dave Merten's enthusiasm and warmth is apparent the moment you meet him. A natural salesman, he once owned a successful car dealership in New Richmond, Wis., but when the Department of Transportation moved the highway exit, his business was doomed. He built his next career on Snappy Dog Salsa, a family-run enterprise, and co-founded Croix Valley Foods, a co-packing plant for like-minded entrepreneurs.

Merten took the fork in this road seven years ago when he and his wife, Maurine, saw the opportunity for him to stay home with their three young children. Maurine, who travels for work, suggested that he start selling the salsa, based on a recipe from Maurine's family, that Dave had been making for gifts.

Merten began at the indoor St. Paul Farmers Market, and the mild, medium and hot tomato salsas sold in a snap. The next summer, he had a booth outside and began offering seasonal salsas featuring the market's produce — raspberry, blueberry and more. He took Snappy Dog to festivals around the region and launched new flavors to match the events: apple salsa for the Bayfield Apple Festival, rhubarb for the Lanesboro festival.

"As Snappy Dog expanded, we outgrew our rented commissary kitchens," Merten said. He found a partner in Damon Holter of Croix Valley Foods, maker of BBQ sauces, rubs and mixes. Holter created Snappy Valley Foods. Within weeks, other small businesses in need of a co-packer came calling.

The secret to this saucy success? "We've built the business slowly over time," Merten said. "Because we make the sauces in small batches with top-notch ingredients and we don't use any preservatives, they taste homemade and fresh. That plus persistence. We just don't give up," he added. "But I've got to tell you, it's a lot easier selling a jar of salsa than it is a car."

About $6 per 16-ounce jar. Snappy Dog's tomato salsas are available in more than 100 stores across the region (Lunds & Byerlys, Hy-Vee, Jerry's Foods, Whole Foods and Twin Cities co-ops). The fruit sauces can be found online, in specialty stores, at the St. Paul Farmers Market, as well as at food shows and festivals. snappydog-salsa.myshopify.com

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