Maggie Cook-Garcia’s life reads like a movie.
That’s good, because a Florida filmmaker is doing just that — making a movie about the life of a 36-year-old woman whose life arc might be rejected out of hand as too improbable if shopped around as a completely fictional movie script.
“What you think, what you feel, you attract,” says Cook-Garcia, who has attracted a lot of success in her life given its humble origins in rural Mexico.
The tale of her success has been told many times through the years in multiple feature stories in the state, tracking the wild ride of her homemade “Maggie’s Salsa,” a product that originated with a Capitol Market salsa contest in Charleston in 2004 before going nationwide in a big way.
The subtitle of a 2013 book she self-published might be a shorthand for the arc of that improbable life story: “Mindful Success: How to Use Your Mind to Transform Your Life: From Orphanage to Millionaire.”
But much has happened since that book’s release, which detailed how a tiny homemade salsa outfit in Huntington and then Charleston went big-time after Whole Foods and then Walmart picked up her product line.
Maggie is no longer associated with the salsas that still bear her name. Her product line was bought in 2014, first by a company called Garden Fresh, the leading fresh salsa maker in North America, which also makes chips, dips and hummus. Then, in early June, Campbell’s Soup Co. bought Garden Fresh for $231 million. They folded it into the company’s Campbell’s Fresh division, as the Fortune 500 company looks to expand its fresh foods division into a $1 billion dynamo, according to news reports on the deal.
But while Cook-Garcia is no longer whipping up her salsa by hand, as she once did in West Virginia, her preservative-free salsas live on.
“Garden Fresh and Maggie’s Salsa do exist, but they’re a part of Campbell’s Soup and their operations now,” she said.
Cook-Garcia was speaking from Ferndale, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, where she moved about a year and a half ago. The city is home to the 25,000-square-foot salsa plant and a 28,000-square-foot site that produces hummus under Garden Fresh and other brand names. Campbell’s plans to invest more than $20 million into the plant, which employs 450 people, according to Crane’s Detroit Business news.
But as Campbell’s looks to make a bigger name for itself among fans of fresh, preservative-free foods like Maggie’s Salsa, Cook-Garcia herself has turned her attention to the streets of Detroit and anywhere else her message of spiritual self-improvement and service might resonate.
She spends most of her time these days working not with high-profile products but with low-profile people and coaching others on how to achieve their own dreams.
“I work with many organizations here, but mostly I go to the streets and work with the homeless,” Cook-Garcia said in telephone and email interviews.
As for the wealth she has accrued, she said she is intent on putting it to work for someone else other than herself.
“I have instead given away most of what I have to the service of the less fortunate. I live a very simple life by choice, and that makes me happy,” she said. “My biggest realization in life is that when you pass away, you don’t get to take anything with you. You only get to keep what you did to enrich yourself spiritually and what you did to enrich others.”
Her full name is Maria Magdalena de la Cruz Cook-Garcia and she grew up in Mexico, the daughter of a Beckley man raised in South Charleston and a Navajo woman with Hispanic blood.
Her parents had eight children and adopted about 60 more children through their missionary work, running an orphanage in Central Mexico in the state of Michoacan. The orphanage, a nonprofit organization now called Give New Life, was not an easy place to grow up, Cook-Garcia recalled.
“It was very chaotic. It was crowded. I experienced a lot of suffering,” she said.
There was no favoritism shown by her parents to their biological children — in fact, quite the opposite, she said.
“We were treated worse than the adopted kids because it was very clear that my dad didn’t want to show a preference, so they wouldn’t feel bad. It was harder for us.”
At one point, there were more than 200 children in the orphanage. “These were kids on the streets who were abandoned. I remembered my dad rescuing little kids that were days from dying,” she said.
As a youth, she would rise at 4 a.m. every morning. Girls would cook one week, boys the next. The family raised its own vegetables and cattle. Sometimes, she would help her father as he plowed fields with oxen, dropping corn into the furrowed Mexican soil.
As a youth, under her mother’s direction, she and the other kids would toil over making big pots of food — eggs and potatoes for breakfast, beans and rice for lunch, reciting a prayer before eating. At night, the children would retire to dorms filled with bunk beds, then arise in the morning and do it all over again, taking their meals at long dining room tables with their names affixed to their places.
“It was quite an unusual childhood. I always wondered what it would be like to grow up in a normal family,” Cook-Garcia mused. “Nobody noticed me. I really never got a lot of affection from my parents. But I also knew they were taking care of others.”
It took her years to forgive and accept her parents. It didn’t happen until after she’d come to America.
“For me to forgive and release, it took until I was here in the states. I had a lot of emotional issues.”
But she grew up strong, lithe and athletic in Mexico and was recruited to play basketball for the Mexican national team, she said. She waited months to hear back from them. Then one day, while playing football with some of her brothers, she fell and broke her collarbone.
“I cried,” said Cook-Garcia, recalling the moment. “Three days later, the national team called and I couldn’t go.”
But her dreams were made of sterner stuff.
Four months later, her parents, John Cook and Maria-Lucia Garcia Romero de Cook, loaded up a bus with her and her 60-odd siblings, a regular summer trip to the United States to raise funds for the orphanage. They stopped in Kanawha City for a picnic hosted in the family’s honor at St. Agnes Catholic Church.
Cook-Garcia said she has always believed that “when something bad happens to you, there is always something so much better” on the way.
That something better was waiting for her in Kanawha City that day.
“There was a basketball court there,” Cook-Garcia recalled. “My brothers and I ran to it and started to play.”
A coach with the University of Charleton’s women’s basketball team was there that day, saw her play, and told her father: “I want her to come play for me on scholarship,” Cook-Garcia said.
She started at UC in 1998, even though she spoke very little English. She often sat down with her teachers after class, making sure she fully comprehended the material she was studying in class and honing her language abilities. In addition to playing for the UC’s women’s basketball team, she also played soccer and rowed on the women’s crew team, earning scholarships in both sports.
But she had some struggles. At one point, she ended up living out of the white station wagon she drove, she said.
“I called it ‘the Maggie Waggie.’ I was homeless at the time and sleeping in my car. I was on the street for about three months. I just took my bag of clothes and sleeping bag and started sleeping [in the] station wagon,” she said.
She found benefactors who looked out for her. Donna Estep, who worked at UC in the cafeteria at the time, recalled how she and others at the school helped her out. “She was struggling, she had to sleep in her car. We would make sure she would have something to eat. We’d sneak food to her.”
But her hard work had paid off. In 2002, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interior design. From 2005 to 2007, Cook-Garcia was vice president of interior design at Ridgeview Home & Design Center while also serving as the West Virginia chairman of the American Society of Interior Designers.
But something had happened in 2004 that would lay the groundwork for the most sweeping changes in her life.
Keeping it fresh
As a youth, Cook-Garcia had tinkered with a salsa recipe. In Charleston, she made it for friends. In 2004, they signed her up to enter her salsa into the Summer Salsa Contest at Capitol Market.
“I didn’t want to go,” she recalled.
Good thing she did.
Cook-Garcia whipped up a batch, chopping up Roma tomatoes, sweet onions, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, wax peppers, jalapenos, plus her “secret ingredient,” a sauce made from dried chiles. Her salsa involved no cooking, just a mixture of chopped, fresh ingredients. She won the contest by a unanimous vote.
“Then everybody started to tell me that I should sell this stuff. Somebody came along and gave me $800, and that’s how I started the business,” she said.
She started locally, selling her salsa at Joe’s Fish Market and the Purple Onion at Capitol Market.
She began by making gallon-sized servings of her salsa in a kitchen at her home, hand-chopping the ingredients. As her business grew, she moved to bigger operations, first to a commercial kitchen at Buck’s Fruit in Huntington, a Charleston West Side locale and a St. Albans warehouse, adding employees along the way.
To expand her customer base, she compiled a list of 90-odd outlets, small to large, with small supermarkets at the top of the list and the big guys — like Whole Foods — at the bottom. This was in the days before preservative-free fresh foods with a shorter shelf life (in the case of her salsa, about 15 days at the time) were such a hot commodity.
“I was calling all these supermarkets and trying to get in. They didn’t understand the fresh concept of what we were doing. Everybody was telling me to give up. I wasn’t making any money,” she said.
“Finally, I turned that list upside down because I was calling from the smallest stores to the biggest because I was a little limited. I had never made cold calls.”
Flipping the list put Whole Foods Market, the country’s largest natural and organic food retailer, in her sights.
A cold call to them produced some hot results.
She remembers the exact moment. It was 6 p.m. on a Monday in 2007 when Whole Foods called. They wanted her to drive up to Maryland with some of her salsa.
“So, I literally packed up my Honda Civic with salsa and drove to Maryland,” she said.
At the time, she and her crew were making hundreds of pounds of salsa a week as she juggled her salsa-making with her interior design work. Whole Foods wanted a whole lot more than that.
“How much do you need?” she asked.
How about 8,000 pounds of salsa? Every week.
Cook-Garcia quit her interior design job in October 2007 to focus on the growth of the business. Her customer list came to include Kroger and Walmart. The product line expanded to include a restaurant-style white queso dip, pineapple mango salsa, chipotle queso, chile con queso and spinach artichoke queso dips. A new piece of equipment allowed her to expand the shelf life of her products to 60 days without needing to add preservatives.
In 2009, the U.S. Small Business Administration West Virginia division recognized the salsa company’s growth, naming Cook-Garcia the state’s “Young Entrepreneur of the Year.” Cook-Garcia spreads the credit around. “I had great people behind me,” she said.
Maggie’s Salsa and other products went nationwide, and could be found at thousands of Whole Foods, Walmarts, Kroger and Harris Teeter supermarkets among other outlets.
Her guaca-salsa, a mixture of fresh guacamole and salsa, was a hit at the 2009 New York Fancy Food show. A few years ago, Maggie’s Salsa had a booth at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association showcase in Houston. “Garden Fresh happened to be right across from us,” she said. She hit it off with the company’s owners, who last year purchased Maggie’s Salsa and then sold Garden Fresh to Campbell’s Soup this Summer.
Earlier this year, Cook-Garcia was inducted into the University Of Charleston Alumni Gallery of Achievement in honor of her entreprenurial business success.
These days, Cook-Garcia has some different goals from creating a multi-million-dollar business.
“The best contribution I can give is my spiritual contribution, to grow myself and help others. My ultimate goal is to enrich people’s lives and that’s what I want,” she said.
Her website, maggiecook.org, offers coaching and consulting and “the opportunity to get on the fast track and achieve success in both business and in your spiritual life as well.”
She is Rev. Maggie Cook at Renaissance Unity Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship, part of the ministerial team of the megachurch in Warren, Michigan, also known as “The Church of Today.” She became a minister there about four months ago, she said.
“It’s a New Age church, if you want to say to that way — it’s very spiritual centered,” she said. “I do services, I speak, I inspire people. I’m a servant.”
After all her worldy success, Cook-Garcia said she came to realize something.
“My biggest realization after I became a success and struggled with a lot of things and trying to obtain things in my life to give myself value, I realized having everything is not what’s worth it at all,” she said. “It’s all going to rot, it’s all going to end. You’re not going to take it with you
“When you go, when you transition and pass away, the only thing you get to take is what you did to enrich yourself and what you did to enrich others. So, my focus spiritually is to help others. As I’m helping others, l also grow. And it’s the most rewarding thing.
“That’s the true meaning of life.”
She has also been taking acting lessons, since Florida producer Chad Light is working on a feature film on Cook-Garcia’s life.
“The movie is in the script-writing stage,” said Light in a phone interview. “It’s a great story. We just need to get it into a 115-page screenplay that will play to a wide audience.”
The plan is for Cook-Garcia to play herself as an adult, said Light. “Maggie has real acting chops and it would be hard to imagine someone else playing the adult version of her.”
Cook-Garcia is used to being in the spotlight and continues to do a lot of public speaking, with a bent toward inspiring others to achieve their own dreams.
“I speak all over the place,” she said.
Her talks have ranged from speaking to young people in Detroit at Boys and Girls Club gatherings in the city to being a keynote speaker at the Latina Style Magazine conference, in San Francisco.
“I just want to let people know if I can be a source of inspiration for them then it is divinely appointed,” she said. “All I truly believe in is the uplifting of someone else.
“If I can do something to shift the reality of someone to a better life or anything like that then I’m the happiest I can be.”
Contact Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.