PHOENIX Home & Garden

Donna Knopf, proprietor of Vegetas in Tempe, says she started her nine-year­-old firm because she saw a need for grain-based, meatless sausages. The company evolved over the years and added salsa making to the enterprise. A variety of Vegetas salsas, including Smoky Chipotle and Avocado Tomatillo, are sold fresh and without preservatives at all A.J.’s Fine Foods stores, at Whole Foods Market in Tempe and at Wild Oats outlets.

A former Chicago resident and an interior designer, Knopf laughingly says, “If someone had told me in 1976, when I got off the plane in Phoenix, that I’d be making salsa for a living, I’d have laughed.” Now, she tells people to use salsa with everything. “Get a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, some of our salsa, and some soft tortillas, and it’s delicious eating.” (Or, try her fresh tamales and gourmet tortilla chips, other food products she has added to her line. The vegetarian sausages she started out with now account for just 1 percent of her business.)

  Scottsdale Life


Spring not only brings a new crop of vegetables, it also heralds shorts and bathing suit weather. Yup, it’s time to get in shape again.

An easy and delicious way to start is by stocking up on Vegetas products. The locally made vegetarian line, available at A.J.’s and Wild Oats, are (cliché though it may be) as good as they are good for you.

Tamales are amazingly satisfying, and it’s fun matching them with the salsa line. Top the cheese and green chile with roasted green chile salsa or the sweet potato with smokie chipotle. I’ve found that the creamy dips – spinach, chile con queso and chipotle – also double as quick pasta sauces. For plain nibbling (or impressing guests) the sweet potato chips with cranberry mango salsa, which makes an effec­tive relish with poultry or lamb, is a whole different chip-’n’-dip experience. Sliced fresh fruit dipped in caramel crème or peach melba crème dips are a satisfying and low-cal dessert.

  Food & Lifestyles


by Melissa Castleman

“Nine years ago vegetarianism was not accepted,” Donna Knopf says as she pries open the banana leaf surrounding a fat green corn and black bean tamale, unleashing a slow cloud of steam. Say the “V” word back then and noses automatically wrinkled in disgust. Mouths snapped shut. Knopf, who carted samples of her meatless southwestern cooking from one Phoenix-area grocery store to the next, discovered that free food doesn’t always make people line up. “Where’s the beef?” the good people of Arizona wanted to know.

Enter mad-cow disease and a host of other diet-related scares, and suddenly the “V” word began to take on a pleasant ring. Nine years down the road, Knopf’s baby, as she calls it, has metamorphosed into a small, bustling company named Vegetas. It has grown from one employee to nine, and from one vegetarian product (a spicy seitan sausage) to over 30. Its super-chunky salsas, dips, tamales and thick, deliciously salty tortilla chips are now stacked high in the coveted shelf-spaces at AJ’s, Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

It all started with Phil Donahue. Knopf was watching the show one afternoon almost two decades ago, at home sick with an ulcerated colitis, which had been plaguing her for years. Donahue’s guests were experts on macrobiotics, the bean-and-rice-centered diet recently made trendy by Gwyneth Paltrow. After the show, Knopf jumped into her car and promptly bought $80 worth of books on the subject. “Within a week of eating macrobiotic, I felt really normal,” she says, ‘for the first time in five years.

But she’s quick to add that the diet isn’t a cure-all for everyone. Nor can the Vegetas line be described as hard-core macrobiotic, and that is how Knopf wants it. “I set out to make good, wholesome food,” she says. “Food that no matter who you are, just tastes good.” And it does. Vegetas tamales are light and fluffy, “like corn souffles,” as Knopf puts it, with sweet, whole kernels flecking the dough. The typical restaurant tamale, brimming with invisible lard, has 30 to 60 grams of fat, which makes it about as healthy as a McDonald’s double cheeseburger. One of Knopf’s, in contrast, has no more than five fat grams. Not bad, but how does the thing taste?

“Like you went to the store, bought all the ingredients and made it yourself,” Knopf says. Indeed, several years ago, when a grocery-store chain asked her to create meatless tamales, in addition to her vegetarian sausage, Knopf shrugged obligingly and said, “Sure, I’ll just give you what I do at home.” So, each Vegetas tamale, from the Tillamook cheddar to the sweet potato with pickled jalapeno, is handmade, and comes wrapped up as an enticingly rustic bundle, with banana-leaf and cornhusk-paper packaging. “They use banana leaves for their tamales in Nicaragua and Guatemala,” Knopf explains. “It imparts a special flavor during steaming.”

When her tamales started selling like hotcakes, the stores cried out for salsas to pair them with. Once again, Knopf obliged. She has created nine varieties, including a knockout avocado-tomatillo salsa with an addictive vinegary tang. Her cranberry-mango salsa simply begs to be slathered on a thick swordfish steak, though it’s equally scrumptious piled onto a Vegetas sweet potato—corn tortilla chip. Everything is fresh, from the just-peeled tomatillos to the Anaheim, poblano and serrano chilies in Knopf’s roasted green-chili salsa (“We tried canned roasted chilies once,” Knopf admits, “but they just didn’t have that true, roasted flavor.”) While the bulk of Vegetas dips and salsas are made in true southwest fashion, with plenty of fire, they are nothing that a cold beer can’t put out.

Like many an entrepreneur before her, Knopf’s training had nothing to do with her ultimate career. Her degree is in interior design. But you could say that Knopf’s tamales are like her rooms, and their fillings her furniture. “That’s where I get creative,” she says. In the future she hopes to go national with distribution, and international with her flavors. “I’m thinking of an oregano, basil and mozzarella tamale with pesto, and I’d love to try out curry”, she says.

  Arizona Woman
In the Chips
One woman’s vegetarian lifestyle harvests a successful business
By Donald Downes

“If somebody would have said to me 27 years when I got off the Plane from Chicago that I would be making tamales and salsa, I would have said: ‘No, no. You’ve got it all wrong.’

“Guess what? I’d had it all wrong,” says Donna Knopf, founder and owner of Vegetas, an Arizona company that makes vegetable-based chips, dips, salsas and tamales*. “I never knew what Mexican food was or Hispanic or ethnic food, because I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which was all comfort food.”

Knopf’s Vegetas began about ten years ago, based on her idea of developing and marketing a meatless sausage, a grain-based sausage. The idea did indeed happen and then the company blossomed. From a staff of one, 1,200 square feet of space and two products — tamales and the meatless sausages — Vegetas, today, comprises a staff of twelve and 4,400 square feet of production space. The original two products have sprouted to more than thirty, which also includes fresh salsas and dips, both savory and fruit, and several flavors of tortilla chips. And the distribution of Vegetas products has grown as well. Once only found within the Phoenix metro area, Vegetas chips, dips et al. are now available throughout Arizona, as well as in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, with other distribution areas opening soon.

“What we’re doing today is not what I originally started out doing,” recalls Knopf. “We’re still doing vegetarian products; we still have no meat, chicken or fish in them. I first started out in this business to do a vegetarian, grain-based sausage, and up until last year we were selling it to Pita Jungle and Gentle Strength Co-op in Tempe. We’ve really done an about-face. We are doing many more dips, tamales and, of course, our chips. We’ve really not had time to do my original business plan. What I have done is roll with the punches, be flexible and answer the needs of the customers we have.”

“Do you have a business background,” I ask.

“No,” says Knopf. “My father was in the restaurant business. I graduated with a degree in interior design. I worked for about 13 years for an architectural design firm in Chicago, and I quit when I was in my 30s. I came here and still wanted to stay in design. I’ve always had a love for cooking, but never thought that was the way to make a living. I always thought you worked for somebody.”  

Hold the meat, hold the dairy
Though raised on hearty, Midwestern comfort foods — meat and potatoes and such — Knopf has chosen a vegetarian lifestyle.

“My reason for being a vegetarian is not for an ethical reason. I do it for health purposes,” she states. “I was diagnosed at a very young age with ulcerated colitis and being lactose intolerant. In those days — we’re talking some 40 years ago — there was not that much knowledge. They never told you what you could and couldn’t eat. It was sort by trail and error: You take a glass of milk and have a stomach cramp; you realize you shouldn’t be drinking that. It was getting out of hand and as a last resort someone told me about a vegetarian diet, which was macrobiotic.

“I was told at the time that I needed my colon removed — that was in the middle ‘80s and not an option for me — and I thought I should try this. The first meal I sat down to was brown rice, adzuki beans and steamed kale, and it was beautiful. I took one bite and said I don’t think I can do this. There was this little voice inside of me that said you don’t have to. You’ll just have to wear a plastic bag for the rest of your life.

“By the end of the week, I had such miraculous changes in my body that I thought I’ll give this a shot. I started out taking 56 pills a day and needing my colon removed. Within two and a half months, I was on no medications and, of course, no operation, and I really started getting involved with the benefits of eating properly and how food can change your mood, how food can help you feel more healthy. That was really what started my vegetarian cooking and have it be a real mainstay in my life.” 

Recipe development  
Knopf actively develops the recipes for Vegetas products. She has an extensive library of cookbooks, which she regularly reads, and she draws upon her cooking experiences for development.

“I think that is the most fun part of the job, coming up with something that I think will sell,” says Knopf. “I try to develop recipes that nobody has. Yes, we do a salsa fresca (fresh salsa) mild, medium and hot, because everybody calls for that. We do our black bean salsa with toasted pepitas; we do a cranberry mango salsa, which really nobody has come out with, and we do a tropical pineapple mango salsa.

“Our first salsa was Smokie Chipotle and at that time, six or seven years ago, people weren’t using chipotle chiles; they didn’t know what they were. Our newest is going to be a pumpkinseed salsa that’s similar to a salsa verde, but it’s got ground up pumpkinseeds in it. We’re coming out with a salsa ranchero, which is, of course, common, but I’m making it uncommon by soaking the dried chile peppers in orange juice to give it a citrus feel. It takes away the bitterness. It’s sweet but not real sweet.”

After coming up with a recipe for a new product, Knopf says they like to “live with it” for a month or two. They make samples and gather opinions from all of the employees.

“I’ll give samples to my reps, the people I come into contact with, even the mailman,” says Knopf. “You see what they say and then you have the gut instinct of what you think it should be. From there, it’s a process of elimination. We keep doing samples and see if we can consistently, repeatedly make that product. Then there’s pricing. Can I get raw materials at a price that’s in line with what we can sell it for?”

“Do you have a favorite product?” I ask, thinking that’s like asking which one of your children is your favorite.

“My favorite still is the first, original salsa recipe that we came up with and that’s Smokie Chipotle. It has no fat in it and it is a salsa fresca and has chipotle peppers in it. To this day when I make a cheese crisp or put it on a tamale, I think to myself this really isn’t too bad.”  

At home off the “range”   
We all know the adage about all work and no play.  With that in mind, Knopf does take breaks from the business. She’s an avid photographer — she used to photograph her artwork and the artwork of others — and loves graphic arts. She designed all of the labels for the Vegetas products, which she says was fun, not work. Though her business does involve cooking, Knopf says she’s cooking now more at home than in the past. “I love to cook. And the hobby of recipe developing still is there for me; there’s still a passion.” She also has a passion for music, everything from jazz to instrumentals to country to Latin. “We have music playing all the time, especially when we’re cleaning,” she confirms. “I’ll put Bob Seager on and before you know it the whole kitchen is clean.”  

How to have staying power
What does it take for a business, any business to have staying power? Countless words have been written, seminars given and videotapes developed on that subject. While there are no definitive answers, Knopf has found three that work for her.

“Don’t give up. Be persistent,” she says. “Yes, there are times when you get defeated or get depressed about something. If you take that to heart and then run with it, then you fail. For me it’s OK. You lick your wounds. You get up and go to work the next morning and say how can I solve this problem rather that saying I give up.

“Be Flexible, roll with the punches,” she continues. “And the third is that I’ve never looked at my employees as employees. They are family. If people are happy where they work, they’ll come through for you.”  

Perhaps the best barometer of a business’ longevity is the passion for that business by the owner … and maybe a little divine guidance.

States Knopf: “Did I graduate from a culinary institute? No, but I still have the same passion that I think chefs that have graduated [have]. I’ve gone to the school of hard knocks — you know trial and error. Thank God after ten years, I’m still here.”


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