Shelf Life

Food entrepreneurs travel a long, hard road from garnering
compliments to having their products in stores.

Mary Ann Rollano was eating lunch with her husband outside Curtis Market in Bay Head when something at the next table caught her eye. A couple were sipping iced tea from bottles with a blue and green label featuring a Manasquan beach scene. Rollano had been looking at that label day and night for more than a year—and in her dreams for longer than that. Across the label arched the words, “MaryAnna’s Summer Sweet Tea.” They were drinking her iced tea.

It was a breakthrough for Rollano, 52, who lives in Point Pleasant. For years people had been complimenting her on her home-brewed iced tea, until finally, in 2007, with her daughters now in their teenage years, she decided to look into turning it into a product. What she didn’t realize was just how much time and effort it would take. As she was to learn, there was tweaking the recipe for mass production, importing tea leaves (she refuses to manufacture from powders), finding the right brewer, getting insurance, designing a label, marketing the product, landing and servicing accounts, and much more.

“I was a nurse,” she says. “I had no background in business. The food industry was completely out of my realm, and maybe that was good, because if I knew how hard it was, I probably wouldn’t have done it! I didn’t have a lot of support at first, so I just put my blinders on and plowed through.”

Rollano started in fall 2007 by taking a course titled Food Entrepreneurs’ Business Basics at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton. The Food Innovation Center referred her to the Center for Advanced Food Technology in Piscataway; she spent the next year working with them on research and development, making a shelf-stable product, and sourcing commercial ingredients. Then, in June 2008, the Center for Advanced Food Technology helped her adapt the recipe and produced a first run of 1,000 bottles, which she managed to sell out of the back of her minivan to several specialty retailers in the northern Shore area, beginning with Joe Leone’s in Point Pleasant.

“There’s no sleeping on trying to build a brand,” she says. “You wonder if people are going to like it as much as you and your friends and family do. I found out how completely saturated the beverage market is. Plus, the margins are so small with food, as opposed to, say, perfume, so you really have to sell a lot to make money.”

But that serendipitous moment watching folks enjoy the fruit of her labor was enough to keep Rollano motivated. Her husband, much to Rollano’s embarrassment, introduced himself. “He told them I was his wife and this was my company,” she says. “They said they really loved the product, the label, everything about it. They even asked me to autograph the bottle.”

Rollano is just one of the brave Jersey souls who have made the giant leap from impressing friends with their homemade treats to becoming food entrepreneurs. Their number is hard to quantify, but it’s safe to say that for every one who actually manages to make a product available on a store shelf or through a website, many more drop out along the arduous route from brainstorm to actual sales. And not all those who meet with initial success can hang in for the equally arduous journey to long-term profitability. Still, it’s no surprise that food entrepreneurship should seem attractive now; so many people have been downsized out of the corporate world—or just wanted out—and are looking to leverage their business skills and personal interests.

Andrew DeSalvo, president of B&D Sales & Marketing Inc. in Clark, a food brokerage, often has to remind food entrepreneurs that the chances of getting on Oprah or making millions are slim. “Everyone thinks it’s kind of easy,” he says. “And everyone has stories of, ‘Oh, you should taste my aunt’s sauce, my uncle’s pumpkin pie.’ I always tell people what they don’t want to hear, which is the truth. Start-ups often don’t understand pricing and profit margins, store fees, the cost of shipping across the country. Just think of even the celebrities who’ve attempted the food business. Only two have been exceptionally successful—Emeril and Paul Newman.”

Still, when you dream of making food your life, no other job will do. Jim Barbour had had it with nine-to-five jobs. The West Windsor native had tried his hand as stockbroker, music marketer, pharmaceutical rep, and electronic data specialist. “It was just miserable and boring,” says Barbour, 39, who has a degree in speech and drama and an ebullient personality stifled by desk jobs. Barbour grew up pulling at his mother’s apron in the kitchen and loved cooking. Barbecue was his favorite genre. Unsatisfied with the barbecue sauces available, he and his childhood best friend, Ryan Marrone, began their quest to create the perfect sweet and tangy sauce in 2005.

“Most sauces out there are vinegary or heavy and smoky,” Barbour says. “Our recipe is the total opposite. It pairs with anything and has a higher burn temperature.” After encouragement from friends and family, Barbour and Marrone decided to start their business in 2008. In its first five weeks on store shelves, FunniBonz sold $10,000 worth of barbecue sauce. During a one-day demo in Whole Foods in Prince-ton during the summer of 2009, Barbour set a personal record, selling 26 cases; now FunniBonz is in all the northeast, mid-Atlantic, and southern California Whole Foods stores, among other chains.

Ironically, all those boring careers he dumped came in handy. “I’ve done every single sales job,” Barbour says. “I knew how to set up pharmaceutical displays and ads. As a stockbroker, I learned direct, hard sales. I didn’t know anything about the food business, but I had all this other experience behind me. It’s like I was training to do this.”

“You know more than you think you do,” agrees Esther Luongo Psarakis, who entered the food business after a career in strategic sales training and development at American Express. Today, Psarakis, 50, is the creator of two brands based in Hillsborough—Taste of Crete, which imports Greek olive oils and specialty foods, and La Dolce Gourmet, which sells artisanal chocolates. “There were things from my old job that I could really repurpose,” she says.

Psarakis’s “real-life big fat Greek wedding” married her into Greek culture, lifestyle, and cooking. “I started asking myself, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’” she says. Psarakis’s pondering led her to her husband’s 85-year-old mother, who still runs the family farm in Crete. “Crete has one of the healthiest diets,” Psarakis says. “Plus, most people aren’t familiar with Greek olive oils.” Her popular line of Evangelina’s cookies, an original recipe made with extra-virgin Greek olive oil (which makes the cookies, without eggs or butter, also vegan), is named for her mother-in-law.

Like many would-be food entrepreneurs, Psarakis realized she needed to educate herself. “I didn’t know the first thing about importing and labels and FDA requirements,” she says. She took an import/export course, studied olive oils at the University of California, learned the diet of Crete, and drew on the resources of the Small Business Development Center at Raritan Valley Community College. That’s where she met Domenick Celentano, formerly of the well-known Celentano pasta company, who acted as her food counselor.

After working together, Psarakis and Celentano started Foodpreneur, a series of workshops to help specialty-food wannabes bridge the gap from idea to reality.

“My family started as a retail Italian deli in Newark in 1948,” says Celentano. “As far as becoming a food brand, there really was no path to follow then. Lots of people get into food because it’s easy to prototype if you have a kitchen, which wouldn’t be the case if, say, you were trying to make a new cell phone. But knowledge is absolutely critical to being successful. It is way too easy to get passionate about food, and people begin to anthropomorphize their food as themselves, which gets in the way of making practical decisions. No one wants to deal with an entrepreneur who’s not passionate, but it has to be able to convert practically.”

The logistics can be dizzying. Do you want to make your product yourself? To do so, you’ll need a commercial kitchen. If not, you’ll have to find what’s called a co-packer. A co-packer scales your recipe for larger batches, tweaking to keep costs down and shelf life up. (It took Rollano a couple of years to find a co-packer who would actually brew tea from scratch.) The co-packer can also package the product.

What should the label look like? Don’t forget the nutritional analysis needed for an FDA-compliant label. Then you have to deliver the product to stores. If you can’t handle the volume yourself, you’ll need a distributor. But, above all, you need a product that is unique and the faith that people will want to buy it.
Geetha Jayaraman of Hillsborough, who took a Foodpreneur class in 2008, started with just such a unique premise. When she was growing up in Malaysia, plantain chips were as common as potato chips are in America. After moving here, Jayaraman craved plantain chips, which were nowhere to be found. “My mom saw whole plantains in the store and proposed that we try to make chips ourselves,” says Jayaraman, 47. “We started making them for parties and friends, and people really loved them.”

Jayaraman worked in cost management for a Fortune 500 company until 2006, when she accepted a severance package. That’s when she decided to devote herself full-time to launching Grab ’Em Snacks. She rents a commercial kitchen, slices and cooks the chips (in seven flavors, like Sea Salt Goodness, Cinful Cinnamon, and Ragin’ Cajun), and packages them in custom-printed boxes. She markets her chips to a variety of clients, since they work as bar snacks, in a gift basket, or even crushed as breadcrumbs. The Cherry Hill Country Club gives the chips to golfers as a snack. But launching required more than dedication. “I’ve invested $70,000 from my own pocket so far,” she says. “And I’m not profitable yet. My goal is to be by the end of this year.”

Some food businesses start with a eureka moment. Traveling after college, Adam Bossie was struck by a seductive aroma on his arrival in Switzerland. “I could smell the fresh espresso and chocolate as we walked the streets of Brig,” Bossie says. After returning to the United States, he was amazed at how much better the coffee was in Europe. A former hedge-fund marketer who still lives with his parents in Lincroft, Bossie, 28, convinced his best friend, Paul Merces, 26, to partner in an upscale importing and roasting venture, which they named Coffee Afficionado.

Merces’s family owns a machine shop, so they fabricated a coffee roaster out of ducting and sheet metal and mounted it on a barbecue grill. They started roasting and grinding beans into the wee hours to sell at the Red Bank and Montclair farmers’ markets. Young and enthusiastic, they made their first sales mostly because people loved their underdog story. “Our way of setting ourselves apart is through the profiling process, where we blend our coffee around the flavors of the meal,” says Bossie, who likens the roasting and cupping procedures to an art form. “We believe a great coffee should offer a bouquet of flavors that work well together.”

Today, based in Morganville, Bossie and Merces have a real commercial roaster, find beans in the most remote corners of the world, teach a class at the Viking Cooking School at Natirar, and sell their artisanal coffee to some of the area’s biggest name chefs—David Burke, Michael White, David Felton, and David Drake, to name a few. (You can also find it in Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck and the Market Place in Roxbury.) Coffee Afficionado has been profitable for two years, and Bossie and Merces are landing new accounts regularly through word of mouth.

To get on shelves or into restaurants, most start-ups knock on doors, sell at farmers’ markets, attend food shows, and do in-store demos. Sara Leand, a former Hollywood agent and television producer, had always baked and loved unique food combinations. That led to her masterpiece, the Chipn’etzel, a shortbread cookie base with potato chips and pretzels inside, topped with white or dark chocolate or sugar. “I had heard that pretzels tasted like nuts in cookies,” says Leand, a 35-year-old West Long Branch native. “I wanted to do something that was peanut-free because I have so many friends with kids who are allergic.”

Her original goal was to get the cookies into Zabars. “I literally had no idea how to go about doing this,” she says. “But I figured the worst thing anyone could say was no.” She walked into the New York City store and got a staffer to taste the cookies. The staffer liked them and called the manager. The manager liked them, too, and decided on the spot to sell Chipn’etzels. “I wasn’t even ready to deliver the amount they needed, but they waited patiently,” Leand says. When her cookies finally hit the stores, she couldn’t stop herself from taking photos of them on the shelves. Now, in addition to the Chipn’etzels, a variety of cookies under her Sara Snacker brand is in 30-plus New York and New Jersey specialty stores and sold on her website, and she’s been written about in USA Today.

Despite having a 19-month-old and being nine months pregnant, Leand is still a detail fanatic. “Customers aren’t going to allow you to make mistakes in the beginning,” she says. Jim Barbour agrees. “I have to be on top of every batch,” he says. “I work harder now for myself than I worked for anyone. I am my worst boss. I demand perfection. This has to work.”

George Faison, a partner at meat purveyor Debragga & Spitler in New York, in 1994 co-founded D’Artagnan specialty meats in Jersey City. He knows the pressure better than most. At D’Artagnan, he says, “We were working from 2 am to 9 pm. There’s a huge risk to your well-being at home. Your relationships are going to change. Divorces happen. You’re going to miss plays and ball games, and try your best not to miss birthdays and anniversaries.”

Ultimately, the entrepreneurs themselves must define success. For now, optimism abounds. As it happens, it isn’t the worst time to take the food-business plunge: Tough economic times mean start-ups are more able to negotiate for lower rent and better deals from packagers and distributors. People are shopping and cooking at home and eating out less. Marketing your products on Twitter and Facebook is free and easy, and the slow-food movement, sustainability, and health and wellness trends work to the advantage of the artisanal food maker.

When friends asked Rollano how she could compete with iced tea giants like Snapple and Arizona, she would faithfully explain how her product is different; today MaryAnna’s Summer Sweet Tea is in 30 stores down the Shore. FunniBonz barbecue sauce is on store shelves in Texas, California, Michigan, and throughout the Caribbean, and has been featured on MSNBC and in the Wall Street Journal. Barbour dreams of one day opening a FunniBonz restaurant chain. Last September, Psarakis opened a storefront on Route 206 in Hillsborough, where she sells prepared Greek foods and other Greek imports, and plans to create pre-packaged, frozen Greek meals for supermarkets. She’s able to import more product than ever these days because of the decline in the Euro.

Jayaraman’s plantain chips accompany empanadas at a Cuban restaurant in Texas; they found her online. Sara Leand is rolling out new flavors (she says she’s most creative when pregnant), and wasn’t surprised that one of her daughter’s first words was cookie. Leand and Jayaraman have gotten their products featured as Rachel Ray’s Snack of the Day. Bossie and Merces hope that Coffee Afficionado will become the preferred specialty-coffee vendor in the Northeast and are proud to have this year’s James Beard winner for Best New Restaurant, Marea in New York City, as one of their clients.

For all their hard work, investment, and sacrifice, the rewards are still sweet enough to keep these Jersey food entrepreneurs hungry for more. “There’s so much more gratification when you’re in your own food business,” says Jayaraman. “When I succeed, I get to say, ‘This is all mine.’”

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