It's Victor Cardoso's favorite way to start a conversation.

Within seconds of meeting someone new at Great River Brewery, Cardoso will pause, put down his glass of dark beer, and ask, “Would you like some salsa?”

If they say yes, as most do, Cardoso runs out to his car, where he keeps jars of salsa to give away to new acquaintances. 

“I’ve never charged anyone for a jar of my salsa,” he said. “Something clicks with certain people and you just want to do something nice for them.”

It’s a typical exchange for Cardoso, or "Salsa Claus" as he’s known to regulars at the brewery he visits about three times per week.

The 69-year-old grandfather works full-time as a high voltage substation electrician, a career he started in 1981. But he didn’t find his “true passion” until about five years ago.

“It was around Christmas and I just got the idea for Salsa Claus,” said Cardoso, who has made his own salsa since the 1970s. “It grew into this way to give back.”

He made up a label — his face photoshopped to include a Santa Claus-esque beard and a sombrero — complete with the tagline “Good or Bad, even the naughty deserve to celebrate” that’s now on more than 100 jars, which patrons are welcome to take home and return later. 

Cardoso rarely drops by without jars of salsa in hand for the staff as well, said Wendy Saathoff, the brewery assistant taproom manager. 

“We don’t have TVs, so we like to find ways to encourage people to sit and chat, which is sometimes a lost art,” Saathoff said. “When Victor walks in with his salsa, it starts conversations.”

Cardoso’s salsa has a way of breaking barriers, she said.

“It’s his way of reaching out to anyone,” Saathoff said. “And that brings people together." 

Giving back

It helps that Cardoso has plenty to talk about. 

“There’s a comfort level one finds as you get older to open up,” he said. “I like to drink beer and tell my stories.”

A lot of his stories tend to be about where he comes from. 

His family, including his parents and four siblings, emigrated from Mexico City, Mexico, in 1957. They lived for a short time in California before landing in East Moline in 1959 when Cardoso was 11.

“When we came here, my father had less than a dollar in his pocket,” Cardoso said. “We didn’t speak a word of English.”

Thanks to good teachers and mentors along the way, he said, that didn’t keep Cardoso from finding success.

“This country has been so good to us,” said Cardoso, who has two sons that now live on the West Coast. “There’s a long list of things that have happened here that have touched me. Because of that, I find a way to give back when I can. I just do it because it’s the right thing.”

On that list is the counseling services Cardoso and his family received from the Youth Service Bureau of Rock Island County, which reaches “an undeserved population,” in the Quad-Cities, according to clinical supervisor Lori Luna.

“When everyone else turned their back on his family, we were able to help,” Luna said. “Because of that, he recognizes the need for our services in the community. He’s always wanting to support us.”

That’s why, Cardoso helped put on a fundraiser, billed as Navidad en Mayo, benefitting the Youth Service Bureau at Great River Brewery on Tuesday.

“He’s always a breath of fresh air,” Luna said. “It’s just sheer generosity. He gives and expects nothing in return. You start to think, “Are there really people like that anymore? Yes, that’s Victor.”

Saathoff isn’t surprised Cardoso found a way to take part in one of Great River’s weekly fundraisers, in which 10 percent of the evening’s proceeds go to a different charity. She’s heard stories about Cardoso being a foster parent, paying for a stranger's groceries or buying a round of beers.

“He’s so humble and personable,” Saathoff said. “He’ll come in and chat with anyone. When he’s here, he brings the place up.”

For the joy of it

Cardoso is one a handful of regulars at Great River Brewery, which call themselves the GRB Family. They celebrate birthdays and holidays together or just show up after work, assuming someone they know will be sitting at the bar.

“There’s a group of good people here that you just want to hang out with,” Cardoso said. “The only place I’ll ever see them is here.”

The regulars each have their favorite type of his salsa, says Tony Behncke, who prefers the pico de gallo with cabbage. Cardoso also offers guacamole and describes the spice levels with "naughty or nice" descriptions. 

“Everyone loves his salsa; it meets the masses,” he said. 

Still, Behncke has been pushing his friend to start making a profit.

“I think it’s partially insane to do it for free,” he said. “He needs to start selling it. He could make a lot of money.”

Cardoso has no plans to turn his hobby into a business.

“You know what I get out of it? When I’m making it, it’s relaxing for me,” he said. “I feel weird charging people for something I enjoy making. Giving it away is a bonus. The smiles I get and the hugs I get mean more than getting a few dollars here and there.”

Plus, it gives Cardoso an excuse to strike up new conversations.

“There are so many nice people in the world,” he said. “I’m just looking for them.”


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).