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Philadelphia native Madeline Neris Negron started her culinary adventures selling homemade Puerto Rican comfort foods to her neighbors when she was a teenager, using the money to support her family and later to fund grassroots community programs. Now, at age 46, she’s running a food business that ships nationwide.

Negron, who grew up in the Feltonville/Hunting Park area and goes by Mari, soft-launched Mari-Sal’s at the end of August.

The online shop’s organic products are made with ingredients sourced from Puerto Rico, where her family has a farm that’s only now emerging from the damage done by Hurricane Maria.

In Mari-Sal’s first two weeks, the burgeoning business received 100 orders from customers across the nation, Negron said, from California to D.C. and Texas to New York. Products like adobo, sazón and specialty hot sauces like mango habanero have been popular.

The business emerged at an opportune time. After the CEO of Goya Foods endorsed President Donald Trump, some customers said they’d be some customers saying they’d be seeking a new seasoning source.

One of those fans was Councilmember  Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. “I don’t need Goya,” the Latina lawmaker posted on Twitter. “Support our Boricua sister!”

Negron’s never had any formal restaurant or chef training. But she had plenty of experience.

“I’ve been selling pasteles and alcapurrias since I was 16 years old,” Negron told Billy Penn. It was then that she’d just had her first child. “Flan, you know, all that stuff I’ve been doing to raise my family. Then, once my family was good, I continued to use it to raise money for our coat drives.”

Later, Negron founded a faith-based initiative called Daughters of Destiny to help the Norris Square community with fundraising for local school events, neighborhood recreation and other community empowerment resources. A lot of that money was raised through cooking, she said.

Across thousands of miles, connecting people through food

Negron learned to give back to the community from her stepfather, a onetime politician who ran in 2012 for state rep. In the 180th District.

“I got into community organizing when my dad started running and I loved it,” said Negron. “I got to see some young women going through the same thing I was going through. And I was able to kind of share that sense of hope.”

She went on to work for food security nonprofit Sunday Suppers, did a stint with City Council and was a community liaison for the Philadelphia Prevention Partnership.

Throughout all the social work, her love for cooking resonated in the background.

Growing up, she often visited her family farm in El Barrio Quemados, San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. The sights, aromas and flavors of those country excursions were etched in Negron’s mind, and led to the idea of starting the food company. Family and friends had been encouraging her for years. The pandemic was the final push.

“It was that fear, you know,” she said in a phone interview from her San Juan apartment. “Feeling like I was going to either fail or let someone down… and corona kind of sat me down and said, ‘Yo. What you gonna do?’”

Though she started Mari-Sal’s in Folcroft, Pa., Negron and her husband are now transitioning their lives and the brand to Puerto Rico. From the start, Mari-Sal’s ingredients have been sourced from the Motherland.

Cilantro from an older farmer nearby her father’s land, pineapples and peppers from another, avocados from a family member starting up his own agricultural venture, mangoes from a 93-year-old community farming sage.

“It’s just kind of building each other,” Negron said. “Trying to work for us to all survive.”

‘It tastes just like my dad’s’

Some crops at her father Salvador Neris Olmeda’s farm in San Lorenzo are just now bearing fruit again for the first time after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017.

Negron’s family was involved in the recovery efforts there. Her son, a teenager at the time, was living in Puerto Rico for a baseball program, and her husband was one of many first responders who worked to get basic necessities to people less than a week after the storm hit.

So when the president made light of the disaster during his post-storm visit, Negron took it personally. And she could hardly stand when Goya CEO Robert Unanue appeared with and spoke in support of him, declaring,  “We all truly blessed…to have a leader like President Trump”

“How are we truly blessed,” Negron asked, “to have a leader…who threw a paper towel at our folks during the most toughest time, when people were dying?”

Now, at least for some people, her products have made a great replacement. A phone call of praise from one satisfied shopper in North Carolina confirmed for Negron that launching Mari-Sal’s was the right risk.

“‘I got your hot sauce and I’ve got all these memories… it tastes just like my dad’s,’” Negron recalled the customer saying. “To me, that was priceless,” she added.

Mari-Sal’s seasoning and sauces run between about $5 to $10 and ship standard via USPS.

“It’s my dream that I’ve been holding on to that I’m finally believing,” Negron said, from her oceanside home. “I believe the saying, ‘She believed she could, so she did.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...