Albert Habinak had never cooked anything in his life before he started trying to make jalapeno relish. But in 1998, recently retired, he decided he’d try to replicate the delicious sauce he’d enjoyed at a restaurant he’d frequently visited during business trips for his employer.
“At first, it wasn’t so hot,” his wife, Sarah Habinak, tells me bluntly. “But then it got pretty good. We knew if we tried, we could sell it.”
So she booked him into a craft show, selling his relish. It sold out. Another craft show, another sellout. And that’s how, at precisely the time they should have been starting to enjoy well-earned retirements, the Habinaks ended up with a full-fledged business, Alberto’s Foods. (The “o” was added to Albert’s name at the urging of their business-card designer, who thought it added an air of authenticity.)
The Houston couple had no food-industry experience; she’s a retired teacher, he was in engineering sales. Sarah grew up on a farm and had canned in her youth, though just regular vegetables, not relishes or salsas. But they knew what they liked – flavors that were sweet and tangy but not overwhelmingly hot. Slowly, they developed more products, and now produce a full line of salsas and relishes, including jalapeno relish in a variety of heat levels, salsas, and candied jalapeno slices.
My favorite Alberto’s item is their candied jalapeños, which I like on petite toasts or just by themselves, straight from the jar. But I enjoy every one of their products I’ve tried, for their quality and reliance on flavor rather than just flat-out heat.
The Habinaks now add a couple of new relishes, jellies, or salsas to the line every year. They sell them at a few grocery stores like FRESH, and, sometimes helped by daughter Ann, they still hit the craft-show circuit, testing out new flavors and selling old favorites.
“I always thought we’d be traveling when we retired,” Sarah Habinak says. She just didn’t know the trips would involve going to craft shows and supermarkets, bringing their secret-recipe relishes to new fans.