California cracks down on 10-year-old's salsa business

Sacramento BeeMarch 23, 2010 

Diego Bartolome just wanted to start a salsa business to help his mom after she lost her job. What the El Dorado County fourth-grader didn't expect was a crash course in red tape.

The 10-year-old co-founded a hot little salsa company, grossing $1,000 from his Diego's Awesome Salsa by December and landing accounts at grocery stores. The salsa boy also got a taste of the media spotlight, with a profile in The Bee and an appearance on Channel 31's "Good Day Sacramento."

Then the food police paid him and his mom a visit. An inspector from the state Department of Public Health noticed in a TV segment that Diego's Awesome Salsa wasn't labeled properly, and there were possible temperature-control issues.

The inspector told the Bartolomes that they needed a Processed Food Registration, a basic health permit for processing, manufacturing and distributing food in California. The permit's base fee is $350 a year.

"While (the department) encourages entrepreneurial spirit, we are most concerned about the health of Californians and want them to have confidence that the products they consume are safe," said Ronald Owens, a department spokesman.

Let's just say Paula Bartolome, Diego's mom and business partner, turned hotter than a habanero pepper. She thought they'd been in compliance with business regulations as they sold the $5 salsa jars in person at local bakeries and markets.

"I was just an absolute witch, telling the guy, 'You're no better than the mafia,' " said Paula Bartolome. "I ran a travel agency for years, and we all know that California is just very business-unfriendly. It's hard. I apologized when I called him back and told him I'd scrounged up the money."

The paperwork and bills are piling up. After fees for inspections, new labels and jars, UPC codes, an El Dorado County business license and similar expenses, the family has forked over about $2,000 to keep Diego's Awesome Salsa on store shelves.

Some good news for Diego: Owens said the health department has no further issues with Diego's Awesome Salsa. "It's been a lot harder than I thought," Diego said. "But the business is helping me with my math and speaking."

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