What do easterners know about spicy, Southwestern foods?
It's a question Gayle Garivaltis, who co-owns a new line of Southwestern spices and seasoning mixes, hears whenever she talks to West Coast people about her products.
"I tell them the good news is that we had a New Mexican chef," the 40-year-old Columbia resident said between chuckles. "Obviously, the proof is in the taste. Once people taste it . . . I do believe they will definitely go for it."
In January, her brother George Garivaltis, owner of Route 66 Southwestern Spices and Seasoning Mixes, asked her to become a co-owner and manage sales and marketing.
Garivaltis agreed, giving up her $50,000-plus job at Monumental Life Insurance Co. in Baltimore. She was an assistant vice president of marketing at Monumental before she risked becoming her own boss.
In her basement office on Swan Point Way, she works long hours contacting potential clients and the media about Route 66. She also visits area stores to offer merchants and customers free samples.
She's optimistic that her family's Two Guns Taco Mix and Chile Rub, Panhandle Chili Mix, New Mexican Red Chile Sauce, and Jalapeno Flakes will become a success and generate profits to compensate for the salary she relinquished.
Meanwhile, the company's production and distribution are handled by her brother and his wife, Hilary, who live in Florida, Mass.
"I write up the orders and fax them to my brother, who ships them out," she said.
Ten months ago, George and Hilary Garivaltis purchased the food line from a New Mexican chef. They kept the Route 66 title, named for the 2,448-mile highway that first connected Chicago to the West Coast.
The Garivaltis family also kept the original logo, a Route 66 road sign, but redesigned the packaging. Then they began mailing brochures to the country's top 300 natural food stores. The products have no cholesterol, preservatives, artificial flavoring, chemicals or caking agents, which distinguishes them from competitors, the family says.
Almost a year later, Route 66 products are now in more than 100 U.S. stores, 40 percent on the West Coast, Gayle Garivaltis said.
The three-person company has sold 15,000 boxes of the mixes, sauces and jalapeno flakes, which retail between $2.25 and $3.99.
The mixes are made at spice companies in Colorado and Massachusetts, then are wrapped in soft, pastel packaging depicting a New Mexico landscape.
Garivaltis said she projects $275,000 in gross annual sales by 1995.
To trigger growth, the family plans to target the gourmet and specialty foods industries next, she said.
"I don't see why we couldn't be on a shelf next to El Paso [a popular competitor]," said her brother in a telephone interview from Massachusetts. "We certainly have a better product."
Like Gayle Garivaltis, he and his wife left the corporate world (in Boston) in 1984 and started the Bear Meadow Farm Preserves and Condiments, a natural foods company.
As with the preserves, the spicy blends of Southwestern flavors in Route 66 must first satisfy the family's taste buds before the products are mass-produced.
"It's obviously for the Tex-Mex aficionado," said Gayle Garivaltis. The chili, for example, gets its "distinctive flavor" from coca and orange peels, she said.
While Southwestern foods are the norm on the West Coast, the Garivaltis family members said they hope the appreciation will be duplicated on the East Coast.
Easterners haven't yet acquired the same enthusiasm for hot, nTC spicy foods as their Western counterparts, but the Garivaltis family says there is a trend toward spicier foods along the Atlantic.
To date, Route 66 products are sold in two stores in Howard County: Avanti International Gourmet Delicatessen on Route 40 in Ellicott City, and David's Natural Market in Columbia. But Garivaltis said she plans to "hit" the local stores soon.
Michael Sambuco, co-owner of the Avanti deli, said the spices and seasonings are tasty and are reasonably priced.
Sambuco said his customers seem to like the products, too.
"Half of what I've purchased is gone and that's a good indication that people have been buying it," he said.