QUEEN OF THE SAUCE
by Jackie Dale
images by Frankie Leal
Tomato sauce, that is! Organic heirloom tomato sauce to be precise. Amber Balakian, at only twenty six years of age, has taken a recipe for making tomato sauce that has been in her family for over 100 years and parlayed it into an incredibly successful business venture. A 4th generation farmer and armed with a Masters degree in business management from Harvard, Amber is running a tremendously successful business selling her completely made-by-hand, organic, heirloom tomato sauce. Touted as a superior, healthier, organic replacement to factory processed canned tomato sauce; Amber’s sauce is quickly gaining nationwide notoriety.
Amber’s work life back east consisted of modeling and working in high-end retail fashion. There were no thoughts of tomato sauce dancing in her head. “A year ago I never thought I would be where I am right now,” said Amber. Upon returning from the east, Amber began thinking about practical ways she could use her education to economically benefit her family’s farming operations.
The Balakian family has been farming in Reedley since 1925. Balakian Farms grows over eighty kinds of tomatoes, adding the heirloom varieties in 1999. They always save their own seeds to ensure they consistently maintain the best level of taste and quality from year to year. Amber noticed that perfectly edible (and delicious!) tomatoes which were only slightly blemished were being tossed. The somewhat knarly look of the heirloom tomatoes was also causing a large amount of the tomatoes to be discarded as un-sellable to stores. Thinking that red tomato sauce was a little ordinary and commonplace, Amber chose to focus on six colorful heirloom tomatoes: the Cherokee Purple, Yellow Roman, Green Zebra, Orange Strawberry, Pink Oxheart and the very popular Marvel Striped. The Marvel Striped is also known as the rainbow tomato. Although yellow on the outside, the flesh inside is a deep red. The result is a sweet, pale, orange sauce with a ‘confetti’ look. The Marvel Striped is one of Amber’s top sellers.
The tomato sauce business is a seasonal one, so during the tomato season Amber works long days canning sauce. She must stockpile as much sauce as possible during this window period because when the tomatoes are gone, sauce making is over. Her total for this season was approximately 14,000 jars of sauce. Amber has a right hand man by the name of Javier Mateo Ramirez. Mateo, as he is known, was already employed at the farm when Amber discovered he was a quite the good cook. She asked him to give tomato sauce making a try and he liked it. Amber employs an additional helper during the busy season and grandma Stella still comes in occasionally to give a hand as well.
Interestingly, it was grandma’s cooking that inspired Amber. “Armenians cook a lot,” she laughed. “I particularly remember my grandmother’s spaghetti. I always thought my grandma made the best spaghetti. It was so good and whenever I would eat spaghetti somewhere else, it would never taste quite as good. As a kid I didn’t understand why, but as I got older, I realized it was the sauce.” “I think,” said Amber, “if you went to Italy, that is the kind of spaghetti sauce you would get there.”
Amber is looking to expanding her line of delicious goodies. She is currently experimenting with Armenian bread and butter pickles, which will soon be sold at farmer’s markets around the state to gauge customer response. Also in the works is Armenian style pickled vegetables known as “Tourshi” and a “V-8” type of juice drink that utilizes the same colorful heirloom tomatoes Amber uses in her tomato sauces. With the undeniable health benefits of tomatoes, apparently some customers are even drinking the heirloom tomato sauce like tomato juice!
Amber is currently experimenting using a white tomato with the intention of creating a white tomato sauce. Amber was visibly excited when she talked about finding out about an elusive black tomato while doing online research. Apparently only one person holds the seeds to the black tomato and he lives somewhere overseas. Amber hopes to locate this person with the intent of obtaining some of the black tomato seeds.
Meanwhile, Amber continues to sell her sauces to large retailers such as Crate and Barrel and Williams-Sonoma. Locally you can find the scrumptious sauces at David’s in Reedley, in Fresno at the Sierra Nut House off Blackstone Avenue, and at ‘The Market’ on Herndon and West. Amber sheepishly admitted to making plenty of mistakes when she first began shipping out her sauces. “I had a lot of broken jars of sauce. Now I have specially made packing boxes,” said Amber. “ People frequently order from me directly and just pick up their orders at my house,” she added.
Amber recently hosted a successful dinner featuring her sauces at Jon’s Bear Club in Reedley on November 4th. Each one of the five courses in the one-of-a-kind gourmet meal featured a different tomato sauce. Two of the courses included a crab cake and baby arugula salad with yellow tomato vinaigrette and a filet mignon with ‘marvel’ tomato jam and balsamic syrup. The sure fire hit of the night was the heirloom tomato ice cream with candied basil. You can find the recipe for the ice cream, along with other yummy recipes, on the Balakian Farms website.
After visiting earthquake-ravaged Haiti in 2010, Amber decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from her tomato sauce sales to help rebuild an orphanage in Haiti that was severely damaged in that terrible tragedy.
Amber’s tomato sauces can be ordered from the website at www.balakianfarms.com. If you have questions or if you wish to place a phone order you can call Balakian Farms at 559-638-4095. You may also email Amber directly at firstname.lastname@example.org (preferred method). Christmas is just around the corner and Amber’s unique sauces would make wonderful gifts.
Don’t wait too long to place your order! Amber is expecting to run out of this season’s sauce before the end of the year. Order now!