LINCOLN — Last Saturday night, the owner of Lincoln's only bicycle salsa delivery business worked the door at Duffy's Tavern downtown. As he checked IDs, he sold two jars of salsa.
The next night, salsa maker Johnny Davis stopped by O'Rourke's Tavern across O Street, where a bearded regular in a sweatshirt printed with a wolf approached him about buying a jar.
Davis didn't have any extras; after several hours of making deliveries, the cooler on his bicycle was empty. He promised to deliver one the next day, at the bar, via bicycle.
The chatty, tattooed, 44-year-old fixture of downtown Lincoln has received orders for his homemade salsa when he's out with friends, when he's riding his bike and, once, when he was ordering a slice of pizza. Customers also place orders in more traditional ways: phone, text and Facebook message.
He has a standing order from his friend and former roommate Kelly Smith, with whom he does remodeling and small construction jobs during the week. He has another from his daughter, who knows how to make his recipe but prefers receiving it from her dad.
He's been making and delivering Johnny's Salsa for less than six months. A conversation at O'Rourke's — the kind of bar with a well-used pool table, Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling year-round and an eclectic mix of devoted regulars — spurred the idea. Davis initially thought Johnny's Salsa would be more novelty than anything. Where else can you order salsa from someone who delivers it on a bike?
Despite the novelty — or more likely, because of it — Johnny's Salsa found a market, and that market is quickly growing. At this point, it's a part-time venture, but Davis hopes that someday salsa will pay his bills.
In the beginning, Davis' customers mostly were friends and acquaintances — a fairly big group. Davis has lived in Lincoln his entire adult life, save for a few years he spent in Athens, Ga. He's active in Lincoln's large and tight-knit bicycle community, he's a regular at several O Street taverns, and he's worked enough jobs over the years it sometimes feels like he's met most everyone in town. And Davis likes to talk — about bikes, about construction projects, about music, about his family, and lately, about salsa.
At his daughter's urging, he started a Johnny's Salsa Facebook page, which drew a few more orders. Then Pepe Ferito, the owner of the popular vegetarian Mexican restaurant Pepe's, gave Johnny's Salsa a Facebook shout-out. Davis' initial production of 16 pint jars a week quickly grew to nearly 80 jars a week. Deliveries have turned into a workout that can cover more than 20 miles and last all afternoon.
“Through the summer, I'm going to have Popeye legs,” he said.
Both cycling and salsa-making come naturally to Davis. He started cooking when he was around 11. He was a picky kid, he said, and his mom, who was cooking for her own four children and, later, two stepchildren, too, told him that if he didn't like what she made, he'd have to fend for himself.
He started helping with dinner, said his mom, Judy Carbaugh. Sometimes, he'd make versions of whatever she was making that lacked the avocados and onions he hated as a kid. When she had to work, he and his brother would sometimes make dinner for their younger siblings.
Carbaugh, whose mother's family was from Mexico and father's family was from New Mexico, grew up cooking a mix of Mexican and Tex-Mex foods. She was glad when Davis took an interest in the family recipes.
“I always told my boys, 'Don't rely on your wife; you make your dinners.'”
When Davis was in his early 20s, he asked her to make him a cookbook of some of her favorite recipes. She did, and he learned to make everything in it except for tamales.
But he didn't take to anything quite like he took to salsa.
By the time he was in his 20s, he was bringing salsa to family gatherings (his mom's was too chunky, he said, and had too many tomatoes).
He became particular about salsa. He likes it well-minced, so each scoop includes the onions, peppers, cilantro and other ingredients that give it its unique taste.
“You don't want to chase a tomato or an onion around the bowl,” he said.
He ate salsa on almost everything, even adding it to his spaghetti sauce. When he had a surplus of salsa, he'd give jars to friends or bring some to O'Rourke's on Fridays after work.
Biking came a bit later. About 10 years ago, Davis got a DUI and lost his driver's license, one of several run-ins he's had with the law. He started using a bike to get around and found he liked it better than driving, anyway. Now, he drives pretty much only when he can't get to where he's going on a bike or when he has too much stuff to haul — such as when he heads to the F Street Community Center's commercial kitchen with a load of tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, garlic, cilantro and onions, as well as roasting pans, cutting boards, knives, mixing bowls, measuring cups and a food processor.
He pays $25 an hour to use the kitchen, and he's fast. He deftly alternates between chopping vegetables, checking on tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos roasting in the two commercial ovens, running batches of the base through a food processor, sterilizing jars and other tasks. He's considered videotaping himself to see where he could save time. He makes one gallon each of four varieties — red, green, roasted red and roasted green — in two hours.
The salsa is medium spicy, a conscious choice.
“Salsa is always so hot you burn your taste buds off,” said Davis' daughter, Alexis Korn Araya, who inherited her dad's pickiness.
Davis ladles the salsa into pint jars, packs them into a cooler rigged onto a used bike trailer, then distributes them across the city on an old French single-speed bicycle (he's building a three-speed to get him through the busy summer months). He gives customers an estimate of when he'll drop by, and if they're not at home, he leaves the salsa in a bag on the porch and picks up payment later.
Last month, during a busy delivery day, he spent four hours dropping off 32 jars. Another day, he was prepared to ride all the way from his home near downtown to a house near the airport — a 15-mile round trip. When his customer realized his mode of transportation, she worried about the distance and offered to meet him downtown.
He would have done it, though.
A jar of salsa and delivery runs $5, though Davis sometimes gets tips of cash and beer. If customers are home, he's glad to hang out for a while. When he stops by his daughter's house, he takes a break to play with his granddaughter, who is almost 2.
He makes his deliveries regardless of the weather. The labels say “made by hand, delivered by bike,” and he figured that was a promise. Before he makes his rounds, he draws a map of his deliveries and plots the best way to get there.
“He gets stuff done,” said Carbaugh, who is especially proud of her son's most recent endeavor.
Her second-born child has done a lot of things. He works construction, he works in bars, and he briefly worked as a surgical technician. But he gets his love of cooking from her.
She's helped him with the salsa business. She sewed koozies to keep the jars from knocking against each other and breaking during transit.
Others have helped too.
Jeremy Wardlaw, a friend from O'Rourke's, designed Davis' labels and business cards.
“It's obvious his heart and soul are in making his salsas,” Wardlaw said. “I usually charge for work like this, but just asked if he would be down for some salsa in-trade and we made it happen.”
That's how it's gone with a lot of things.
Davis has traded salsa for eggs, honey, homemade barbecue sauce and, once, a desk (that cost him two jars of salsa).
Smith, Davis' friend and co-worker, is willing to make deliveries for salsa.
A few friends have cautioned Davis not to burn out, but he's not worried. Even if he weren't biking all over Lincoln pulling a trailer loaded down with 50 pounds of salsa, he'd most likely still be biking. He'd still be making salsa, too, though, not nearly as much. And since he works for a friend — a friend who likes salsa, no less — if he needs to take off a little early to get some kitchen time in, it's not usually a problem.
Davis hasn't burned out on salsa, either.
He can talk about it for hours. He signs business emails “Johnny Salsa.”
And he still likes it enough to eat it on almost everything.
“I do, amazingly.”
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