It’s an old story in American business. Somebody dabbling in the kitchen produces a food item that has friends and relatives clamoring for more. “You should bottle that stuff!” is the classic refrain. Or jar it or can it or wrap it up in cellophane or craft paper with eye-catching packaging designs.
This is how fortunes and reputations are made. Think of Rice-A-Roni, Mrs. Field’s Cookies, Famous Amos or even, most fabulously successful, Coca Cola. From kitchen to store shelves to personal riches (if not the Fortune 500) – it’s not such an impossible leap. Hundreds of would-be American food entrepreneurs are now trying their hands at doing their own thing on grocery store shelves.
One such business that rose straight from a family kitchen is Ooma Tesoro’s Marinara, which is getting rave reviews in store outlets in New England. The recipe for their tomato sauce goes back numerous generations to the Avellino Province in Southern Italy, east of Naples, says Michael Tesoro, who runs the mom-and-pop business with his wife Robin.
“I got it from my grandmother,” Tesoro says, “But it’s probably 500 years old.”
A simple sauce, with all natural ingredients: Italian plum tomatoes, onions, garlic, 100 percent extra virgin olive oil, and herbs. Cooked up in small batches and sold in mason jars, it has been hailed by New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant, who says, “A jar of marinara sauce can’t be closer to homemade than this one.”
It would seem that Ooma Tesoro (the name derives from Michael as a small child mispronouncing “nonna,” or grandmother, as “ooma”) is on her way, with the company registering a small operating profit this year and continuous demand for the product from stores like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. “We never have inventory problems,” Tesoro says. “What we make we sell.” The Tesoros are now expanding from New England to the New York metropolitan area with dreams of eventually going national.
But there has been some rough going to get to this point. The Tesoros kicked off their business in 2009, financed with cash from their personal IRAs. “We’re not exactly people of means,” Tesoro says. Husband and wife were both in stressful corporate jobs when the recession struck that year, Michael as a director of broadband services for ESPN and Turner Broadcasting, Robin as an editorial stylist for Martha Stewart’s magazine and elsewhere.
The recession, the stressful jobs and a newly discovered instinct for going entrepreneurial led, Tesoro says, to “an epiphany.”
“We didn’t want to work for corporate America,” he says. “We had a strong desire to start our own business.”
There’s no exact prescription for success in the food business, Tesoro says, but there are some essential elements.
First, you need some money. Tesoro is reticent about actual figures, finally conceding that you should probably ante up a 5-figure sum. Fifty-thousand? “I would say, yes,” he says.
You need a dynamite recipe, of course. Before they went all in on their new venture, the Tesoros did a couple of batches of sauce in their own kitchen in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, and passed out jars of the stuff to friends and relatives. The response was universally positive. Then Michael did a survey of what was out there. Who would be their competitors on store shelves?
“None of them said homemade on the label,” Tesoro says. “None of them tasted like it.”
The secret ingredient, Tesoro says, is love.
“You can always taste it when a product is made with love,” he says, “whether it’s a restaurant where the chef is really pouring his heart out or your grandmother’s kitchen. You can really taste the difference.”
Some luck always helps. The Tesoros were able to start out with a food services incubator in a nearby Berkshires town, which provided technical assistance in meeting state and federal food preparation regulations. It also provided a leasable commercial kitchen with much of the equipment they needed to get started.
“It’s a great way to start,” Tesoro says, “but not a great way to grow.” Ooma Tesoro now operates out of a kitchen in a decommissioned elementary school, which the Tesoros rent from the local county.
The couple were also lucky in having some media savvy. Robin was able to get a mention in her former employer’s influential magazine, Martha Stewart Living, which declared that Ooma’s sauce “will turn your kitchen into an Italian-American grandmother’s home.”
They also came armed with business savvy, largely from Michael’s career in corporate dealings. He crafted a business plan, did the basic market research, and marketed the sauce with pitches to local grocers, where he often set up tables with samples of Ooma’s tasty sauce dipped in bread.
“We did it the hard way,” he says. There are three full-time employees, two of whom are the Tesoros. The couple were determined to keep the business as a manageable family business rather than a Shark Tank-funded plan “which you throw a lot of money at.”
“Ours was always a shoestring approach,” Tesoro says. “We had a well-defined business plan. We were highly focused on establishing a foothold for ourselves in one market and on getting into some venues of national stature.” No big debts, no sharing equity with big-time investors. One of their triumphant moments was when regional Whole Foods acknowledged Ooma Tesoro’s Marinara as having met their rigorous standards for natural foods and began selling the sauce on their shelves.
And of course, you need a label. That’s really important. The Tesoro’s label, designed by Michael’s brother-in-law’s brother-in-law, a graphic artist, is spring green. When it’s pasted on the glass jar next to the rich red of their sauce, it really pops.
Of course, the company has a long way to go to firmly establish itself in the market; the food industry is a tough nut to crack. The secret to success, then, is often a powerful belief in one’s product and above all, Tesoro says, tenacity.
“We made the decision to go all in, not just to dabble with it,” he says. “We made it our business and our careers. That requires tenacity.”