Salsa, salvation, and Homeboy Industries

by Joe Ferullo

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The hottest-selling food item in Southern California's largest supermarket chain is made by a Jesuit and his team of ex-gang members and their girlfriends.

It's called "Homeboy Salsa," and went on sale at the beginning of the year in Ralph's markets all over the Los Angeles area. According to The Los Angeles Times it is outselling pretzels, cheese puffs, bagel chips and their various cousins.

This is music to the ears (fire to the tase-buds?) of Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle -- who's been helping young people move out of gangs in L.A.'s poor neighborhoods for the last twenty years. Boyle runs Homeboy Industries, which puts ex-gangster to work making t-shirts, tortillas, and salsas.

It always been and Mom-and-Pop operation, and Boyle has struggled to keep the doors open. But then, last year, Ralph's markets agreed to distribute Homeboy salsa and chips -- they hit the shelves just a few weeks ago and have been flying off those shelves ever since.

We've seen the delivery vans -- the Homeboy logo painted brightly on the side with their motto "Jobs Not Jails" -- all over our part of town, and we have a container of their green salsa in the refrigerator right now. (It's become the late-night snack of choice for my 17- year old. I prefer the red salsa, but that's an age-old argument here in the Southwest.)

For Boyle, this is a huge step and a big business deal. With the help of volutneer advisers, Boyle contracted with a local large-quantity food proucer to make the salsa based on recipe from one of his "Homegirls," and contracted with a distributor to get the product into supermarkets.

It's the real world of real business in one of the most competitive arenas around: snack food.

But the success means a little breathing room for Boyle and his anti-gang programs -- and he may actually be able to think about expanding their reach. This just a year after he had to lay off more than 300 people from Homeboy Industries and threaten to shut its doors.

Call it the "Miracle on the Supermarket Aisle," call it whatever you want -- it will still taste very sweet to Greg Boyle.

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