As a New Mexico native, Leesburg resident Jeff Fugate has always enjoyed queso, a popular cheese dip often served with tortilla chips and salsa. He started making homemade queso many years ago for his family and as gifts for friends and co-workers.
After he volunteered to contribute homemade queso as part of a fundraiser at his daughter’s high school in Leesburg, locals soon began to clamber for his unique recipe, and the hobby began to grow exponentially.
What makes Fugate’s queso recipe special, he said, is that he uses Hatch chilis from his home state, which are only harvested once a year at the end of July or in early August.
Fulfilling the orders from the fundraiser meant he had to start buying cheese in bulk, frozen Hatch chili peppers and the other seasonings and ingredients in the dips, which are made in four levels of heat – mild, classic, hot and extra hot.
By 2019, he considered making his queso hobby into a business venture, and continued to expand production while renting kitchen space at Chefscape, a shared kitchen in Leesburg.
Then in early 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and his “day job” as an events marketer was nearly eliminated. His company was hit hard by the pandemic, so he began to consider other options for work.
“I was faced with the decision of getting another job or was this a sign to fully launch the queso business, “he said.
After a great amount of encouragement from friends and family, Empty Bowl Queso officially launched in July 2020.
At that point, Fugate said he “went all in” and started marketing his queso to local retailers in addition to selling it at area farmer’s markets.
With his cheesy dip now available at more than 50 retail shops around the Washington, D.C. region, including at Leesburg Gourmet and Roots 657 just outside Leesburg, Wine’ing Butcher in Ashburn, Hamilton Mercantile in Hamilton and Paige’s Pit Stop in Waterford. He has added 10 retailers in the last month alone.
Supply chain issues have proved difficult in recent months, however, Fugate said he has now solved the problem by ordering large quantities of cheese directly from the producer.
His long-term focus is now on attracting the interest of mass retailers to sell his queso.
Fugate said he believes he has developed a following because of his unique recipe and the fact that it can be eaten in multiple ways.
“This is much more than a dip,” he said. “People mix it in with scrambled eggs or use it as a sauce with meat, or vegetables.”
Fugate said he enjoys giving back to the community and plans to continue fundraising opportunities for area schools and clubs.
“Queso is kind of fun and this is something people can use and want – I intend to keep that going,” he said. “10 years ago, I never thought I’d be doing this, but I’m enjoying it.”