The California story is syncretized in the origins of Casa de Comer salsa, in which an immigrant woman from Tepatitlán, Jalisco, named Mama Lidia teaches traditional Mexican recipes to her new son-in-law, a white man of Irish descent raised in the San Fernando Valley. He can barely handle the heat, but enjoys the process of charring tomatillos and chili peppers on the comal, and combining all of the ingredients into a condiment that’s used on everything from eggs at breakfast to chips ’n’ salsa at lunch to marinade for chicken dinner.
But given his knowledge of grilling tri-tip Santa Maria–style over red oak in that classic Central Coast way, the son-in-law brings his own flavor to the party. He figures out how to naturally impart those smoky essences into the salsas, and Casa de Comer’s Smokin’ Good Salsas are born. The name plays on the word “comer,” which means “to eat” in Spanish, but it’s really just the last name of founders Sean Comer and Silvia Franco-Comer, the daughter of Mama Lidia, who passed away a decade ago before seeing her reimagined recipes in official action.
“Our purpose is for our family to keep traditions,” said Silvia, who is the mother of four kids, aged 3 to 12, all of whom she’s homeschooling during the pandemic. “Quality time with our family usually revolves around food,” she explained, to which Sean quickly added, “We’re always at the dinner table.”
“The salsa is part of that,” continued Silvia, who believes the smoke element fires up memories of campfires and family barbecues. “When people try it, they have reminiscences of their childhoods.”
The couple met in Santa Barbara, where Silvia had come to study at UCSB in the late 1990s and Sean had moved to take care of his grandfather while working in the restaurant business. His jobs at Starbucks, Anchor Woodfire Kitchen, and various catering gigs led to the creation of a food truck called Street Level Cafe in 2012. It didn’t last long — the food-truck craze was short-lived in Santa Barbara due to lack of volume and unfriendly regulations — but the truck is where Comer perfected his tri-tip and tested out other ideas. “That’s where we validated the salsa,” said Silvia.
Fast-forward to 2018, and Casa de Comer’s fresh salsas are being sold at about 10 markets around Santa Barbara, including Tri-County Produce, Gladden & Sons, and I.V. Food Co-op. Then, in August 2019, as part of Silvia’s enrollment in SBCC’s Scheinfeld Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, they participated in a pitch competition — and won. Gelson’s agreed to stock Casa de Comer in all 27 of their Southern California grocery stores, tripling demand overnight.
“We weren’t ready for it, but we were able to hustle and scale from 10 stores to 40 stores,” said Silvia. They bought new equipment for their commercial kitchen on Aero Camino near the airport in Goleta and signed a distribution deal, and their product landed on those new shelves within two months. Most proudly, they didn’t change the ingredients or small-batch process despite the growth.
Though other ideas are in the works, Casa de Comer currently produces three flavors, which usually cost $6.99 for a 12-ounce tub. There’s the original, Signature Red, which they describe as bold and rich. “The vegetables are filling, so people feel like that can have a meal of chips and salsa,” said Silvia. “It’s fulfilling.” The tomatillo-based Golden Green zips with a citrus character, and the Salsa Taquera Ahumada packs the most kick. “It’s hot, but you can’t stop eating it once you start,” said Silvia. “You start to feel your nose running.”
All three show the smoke influence in varying degrees, but that doesn’t come from the use of liquid smoke, a curious ingredient often used in barbecue sauces. “It’s 100 percent natural,” said Silvia, who gets the liquid-smoke question a lot.
Though the pandemic presented the usual trials and tribulations for the young company, it seemed to trigger even more growth, as new customers found the salsas when other products were missing from the shelves. They’re facing some growing pains right now, needing more space and equipment to meet increased demands. “The stores are asking us,” said Sean. “They want new products.”
As the name implies, Casa de Comer is a full-family affair, with their four kids pitching in to husk tomatillos at the crack of dawn, wash hundreds of pounds of vegetables, package salsas, and serve as the faces of the brand on social media. “Instead of a lemonade stand, they had a salsa stand,” laughed Silvia, whose son Jude also started his own company, Hammer Head Hand Planes. “It’s taught them this amazing work ethic,” said Sean. “And we get to spend time with them, too, which is really awesome.”
There’s plenty more to do before Casa de Comer becomes a household item across California, but the Comers already feel like a success. “I honestly can say we’re proud of this,” said Sean. “Time is meaningful, and this gives us purpose,” said Silvia. “It’s okay to work hard because you feel satisfied at the end.”