After eight years away from her product line, beloved Blue Smoke Salsa maven Robin Hildebrand has returned.
ROBIN HILDEBRAND HANNIGAN WAS HOME IN FAYETTEVILLE one day last August when she got an interesting call. A surprising call. A not necessarily welcome call.
It was about her old product line, Blue Smoke Salsa. Hildebrand had created it from scratch in her own kitchen in the early 1990s: developing the recipes and sourcing quality ingredients, then building the brand over a couple decades. Her picture on the jar had been a seal of approval people trusted, and she’d taken pride in the fact that her brand reflected well on West Virginia. “Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass always called me ‘West Virginia’s cheerleader.’”
But by 2012, the growth potential had outpaced Hildebrand’s financial means. She’d sold to distributors who kept her on as president but gradually eroded the quality of the salsas. When the disappointment got to be too much, she’d left in 2015. Later owners took the brand even further from her original recipes. It was a lot of heartache. “I was always accused of only using the highest end ingredients. That’s why the product was so good—but they would say, ‘That’s why you never made any money.’ That’s true, too. But I built a brand with a great reputation.”
As hard as it had been to see her brand undermined, she was gradually making her peace with it. So that August 2022 phone call stirred up unwanted feelings. “The new owners asked me to consider coming back to the brand and taking it back to the original recipe,” she recounts. “My first notion was ‘No, absolutely not! I’m too emotionally tied to the product.’”
Those new owners were New River Brands: a group of West Virginians who believe in West Virginia products and were assembling a number of them under one umbrella. They had Yoder’s Country Kettle, for example, which had been making its popular jams, spreads, and pickled products in Monroe County since the 1990s, and Bluegrass BBQ—now Bluegrass Gourmet BBQ Sauce—founded in Summersville in 2004. Hildebrand was disarmed by the quality of the brands and the integrity of the mission. “I liked what they were about,” she says. And she had a long, trusting relationship with New River co-owner Mark Oliverio—familiar to West Virginians as the third generation owner of Oliverio Peppers of Clarksburg. “Mark and I go back 25 years,” she says. “He always called himself the Pepper King and me the Pepper Queen.”
The New River Brands team won her over with genuine respect for what she’d built: Not only would they go back to her sweet Roma tomatoes and Vidalia onions; they would even return to her original suppliers. She joined the group in October 2022 and quickly got in the mix. “I was right there beside the kettles, seasoning, double-checking the ingredients, and making sure it was just like it used to be.” In November, they re-released her original five varieties: mild, medium, hot, triple X, and peach—with her photo once again on the label.
Meanwhile, Chef Paul Smith—well-known in West Virginia as a 2023 regional James Beard finalist and the culinary mind behind 1010 Bridge in Charleston—had an idea for some zesty new varieties of Blue Smoke mild. Hildebrand and Smith rejected the first two test batches. “And the third time, we said, ‘This is it.’” So on West Virginia Day in 2023, 30 years after the birth of Blue Smoke Salsa, New River Brands released three gourmet flavors: Blueberry Jalapeno, Cherry Chipotle, and Pineapple Habanero. “Everybody loves the new salsas,” Hildebrand says. “It’s brought a new excitement for Blue Smoke.”
But fundamentally, it’s the Pepper Queen herself that has brought a new excitement. “I’ve gotten countless emails and phone calls saying, ‘Oh, when I heard your picture was going back on the jar, I knew it would be great again,” she says.
The prepared foods market has changed dramatically over the decades. “When I started in 1993, salsa wasn’t even cool. If I’d had the resources at the time, Pace might have been working for me!” Hildebrand is a little amazed at where this journey has led, but she’s taking a lesson from it. “Don’t ever give up on your dream.”
Hildebrand’s favorite makers of West Virginia prepared foods
- J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works
- Uncle Bunk’s
- Oliverio Peppers
- Dark Hollow Foods