Biz Beat

Modesto-based Amalia’s Cocina finds secret for its sauces

It started as a conversation around one family’s annual tamale-making day.

If you haven’t taken part in tamale-making, it can be an arduous and messy process. I found spots of sauce on my kitchen ceiling one year.

“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody put this sauce in a jar?’ ” asked Brenda Noel.

That question sparked Amalia’s Cocina, a business run by five women from one Northern San Joaquin Valley family – Amalia Portillo, her daughters, Noel, Ida Norwood and Stephanie Jourdan, and Ida’s daughter, Jamie Norwood.

I met Jamie Norwood five years ago, when she took part in the Valley Apprentice program sponsored by Modesto businessman Dan Costa, the Gallo Center for the Arts and The Modesto Bee. She emerged after the 13-week competition as one of four winners. She invited me to come out last week to meet her partners and learn about Amalia’s Cocina.

The company had a fairly humble beginning – with a sauce sold at local farmers’ markets. Within a few years, more sauces were added.

“We compare it to pasta sauces,” Jamie Norwood said. “There used to be just canned sauce, and now you have a gourmet category.”

All of the recipes were kept true to Amalia’s original versions, with authentic ingredients. “You’ll see chunks of tomatillos in our chili verde sauce,” Norwood said. One small concession – “Sometimes Grandma likes a little too much salt, so we have a second taster.”

Eventually, Amalia’s landed a contract with Raley’s, which suggested making the sauces available in smaller jars. That helped open the door to other stores, such as Save Mart. The products now include green enchilada and chili colorado sauces.

Most recently, Norwood said, Amalia’s landed a contract with grocers in Chicago and New York, taking the company nationwide. The secret, other than a good product, came from Costa himself, an accomplished restaurateur and Norwood’s boss (he hired her as his assistant after the Apprentice competition concluded).

“He told us to find an unmet need,” Norwood said.

They found it at the rotisserie chicken display.

Rotisserie chickens are the fallback of many a busy parent eager to get dinner on the table quickly. But what if you could do more than just throw the chicken on the table, or into a salad, just a couple of minutes?

That was the thinking behind marketing “Rotisserie Mix-In Sauce.” The idea, Norwood said, is that you could pick up ingredients – a chicken, tortillas and the sauce – for about $10. And, with the addition of some staples likely already in your refrigerator – lettuce, cheese, tomatoes – you could get dinner on the table within 5 minutes of arriving home.

Jourdan demonstrated the concept for photo director Joan Barnett Lee and me on our visit to the Amalia’s test kitchen in north Modesto. For the record, it wasn’t a 5-minute meal. It took her 2 minutes and 1 second. And it was mighty tasty.

The sauces aren’t just for rotisserie chickens – they also make a great set-it-and-forget-it meal with a crockpot and a pork roast, Norwood said.

Best of all: No sauce on the ceiling. The products retail for $2.99. For more information, go to

Elsewhere around the Business Beat:

I got a voice mail message from a reader who let me know I neglected to include the addresses for Country Market and Cobblestone Bakery in my last column. She didn’t leave a phone number, so I can’t call her back, but she was absolutely right. They are, respectively, 2816 Ladd Road, Modesto and 6601 Third St., Riverbank.

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