By Katherine Yanney
El Gringo Loco
Rick Kazdan can't hide from anyone. When residents of Summerlakes see the neon green and bright purple van carting around the neighborhood, they know it's Rick. Rick owns El Gringo Loco Mexican Fusion with his partner Sharon Pelecki, and he thinks of his van-painted to match his company's color scheme-as a mobile billboard. "It's fun," he says. "But really, I can't hide!"
What is El Gringo Loco? "The micro brewery of salsas," Rick says. "We call ourselves a Micro-Salsaria!"
Each recipe uses fresh, natural ingredients. Nothing artificial taints Rick's creations. The products are manufactured locally, in Union, Illinois-in small batches. Moreover, El Gringo Loco boasts the promise of unusual flavor combinations. Sweet Island Heat, for example, fuses Mexican flavors with the exotic influences of Jamaica and India into a barbeque sauce. It includes habanero peppers, real ginger, garlic, and mango. "I'm like a Mad Scientist," Rick explains. "Nothing I create is normal.
'Normal' is for the other guys."
At age thirteen, Rick started at a French restaurant in Morton Grove. He gained experience, working as an assistant waiter, then an assistant chef. He managed a Taco Bell as a teenager, and eventually moved on to full-service Mexican dining. Rick experimented. He came up with new recipes, put together menus. He loved sauces. "Whether it was French or Mexican, I was always making them," he says. Rick's early days in the French kitchen popped up in his experiments-he began mixing the richness of french ingredients with the traditional pep of Mexican ones. The responses Rick received encouraged him.
In 2003, Rick met Sharon through Match.com. The two hit it off immediately. Sharon, who holds masters degrees in both Marketing and Finance, had the experience to support the launch of an independent brand. The time seemed right for Rick to move from the corporate food industry to his own business. In May of 2005, Rick and Sharon introduced El Gringo Loco's first product. Now, with ten unique products and a successful online store shipping around the country, El Gringo Loco has carved its mark into the world of culinary salsas. It continues to grow. Two more sauces come out this season: Cornutopia and Sweet Apple Harvest.
El Gringo Loco--which translates to "the crazy American," a nickname given to Rick by his "second family" in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico-is built around what he loves: sauces, Mexican culture, pairing wild combinations, and people. Rick spends the colder months in his test kitchen, mixing and stirring up his latest creations. He describes the process as interactive: when new versions of the latest batch are ready to try, he and Sharon give out samples for feedback-a perk to being Rick and Sharon's friend. He also has a core of regulars who frequent his booth at farmer's markets in the area. These regulars get first tastes of the prototype, also.
"Each one, as it's born, is like a new child," Rick says, of a new product. "I'm at the label factory and I'll shed some tears. I've always gotten choked up because you work so hard."
To do you own taste-test of El Gringo Loco products, stop by the Warrenville Farmer's Market, Wednesdays 3-7pm. Or visit www.elgringoloco.net to learn more about the company, hear more of the El Gringo Loco story, or order products via the online store.