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Omaha Magazine

The Secret Sauce

Aug 22, 2023 02:50PM ● By Chase Murphy
chef michelle alfaro

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Michelle Alfaro’s journey as a chef began with an unlikely request: her 17-year-old son asked if he could go on a mission trip to El Salvador to serve an impoverished community. She and her husband, Jose, saw the passion in their son’s eyes, and committed to making his vision a reality. They began raising money by offering their time and labor to neighbors and friends for a variety of odd jobs. However, despite their earnest efforts, it became clear this strategy wouldn’t raise enough money in time for their son's departure. Still, they minced, mashed, and mixed every possibility until, at last, they discovered the recipe for success: homemade salsa.

“We started selling our salsa to people that I worked with, and we sold $700 worth on the very first day,” Michelle recounted.

The Alfaro’s homemade salsa exploded in popularity, and the proud parents acquired the funds for their son’s mission trip in short order. Then, it was back to business as usual. Michelle was the Zoning Board of Appeals Administrator for the City of Omaha at the time, and while prepping documents for a monthly meeting, a pleasant aftertaste lingered. She picked up the phone and rang Hy-Vee, curious about the logistics of getting her salsa on the store shelves of the regional grocery giant. Her impulse proved fateful—the director of the store was not only onsite this day, but available to speak with Michelle personally.

“I’d never done anything like that before in my life,” Michelle explained. “While I was staring at my computer screen, the inclination to call Hy-Vee was just so strong. I felt God saying that I was meant to be doing something different with my life, so I called and a day and a half later I was sharing my salsa with the director and a small group of people.”

Michelle’s salsa was an instant hit, being praised as among of the best a taste-testing group had ever scooped. Hy-Vee committed to her products, and within the first six months of operation, her salsa was in 13 of the 14 local metropolitan locations. In the meantime, Michelle needed to find a proper commercial kitchen to meet the demand.

She and Jose went for long drives, prospecting small towns surrounding the metro. While in Louisville, Nebraska, a quaint cafe that closed at 2pm each day caught their eye. Michelle found the owner on Facebook and inquired about using the kitchen after closing for the day. It just so happened that this owner shared Michelle and Jose’s faith, establishing an immediate connection.

“We prayed together, and she opened up her kitchen to us,” Michelle said.  “After we spent some time chatting and getting to know each other, it’s what God wanted her to do.”

The Alfaros’ salsa operation was now in full swing, requiring the couple to work more than 100 hours a week to maintain their full time jobs while scaling production. In time, this arduous routine grew unsustainable—and the Alfaros had to make a difficult decision. After much deliberation, they chose to leave their full-time jobs to focus exclusively on their business. The gamble payed off, as yet another opportunity emerged.

“While we were marketing the salsa, Michelle would make her amazing creations to accompany and highlight the salsa in the photoshoots, but everything just looked so good that people started asking if she sold the food as well,” Jose explained.

Michelle started doing pop-ups, and the popularity of her dishes led to area event coordinators requesting her catering services. However, due to lack of a business plan and COVID ravaging the marketplace, Michelle and her husband found themselves in a harrowing situation. As the hospitality industry sputtered, she interviewed for another city position as well as a waitressing position.

“They were so different, but we just needed to bring money in and those were the two openings,” Michelle recalled. “I asked God to close the door I wasn’t meant to walk through. Then, I got the call that I didn’t get the administrative position…” 

She earned a managerial role after a month of working in a restaurant, a role she maintained for about a year. While there, Michelle learned the financial workings of the restaurant and decided to relaunch her own concept after a kitchen became available in Louisville, near her original hub. Her restaurant, Sauced, was born and they began service with carryout only. It was a kitchen—and only a kitchen—yet, as word of mouth buzzed over the flavor of her culinary creations, patrons lined up outside the spartan establishment for up to an hour at a time.

“One man called 87 times to try and place an order,” Jose said. “We only had one phone line and we were taking orders from people who were waiting in person. That man still comes to this location today.”

Michelle moved from the Louisville kitchen to their current Papillion restaurant in Spring 2022. The business and community support continued to grow; however, a visit to the doctor threatened to upend everything. Michelle was diagnosed with cervical cancer later that year. The community, her staff, and her husband all stepped up and kept Sauced running smoothly while Michelle underwent surgeries and extended hospital stays. This nerve-wracking, life-altering period was blanketed with prayers and blessings from friends and family, and Michelle was confirmed cancer-free as of July 2023.

Having beat cancer, Chef Alfaro is helming the Sauced kitchen once more. Despite numerous setbacks, Michelle has proven her tenacity and talent, and continues to blend unique flavors with classic dishes to the delight of her customers. After all, for Michelle, cooking is about bridging love, passion, and connection to her community, which she views as family. Jose summed up Michelle’s food succinctly: “It just makes you happy.”  

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This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
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