When Brad Finkel, a self-taught cook, began selling handmade mozzarella and bread at farmers’ markets in the early ’90s, the ’70s-vintage, red Chevy pickup he drove was so decrepit he once left it on a Hoboken street with the keys in the ignition, “and still no one would take it,” he says.
He eventually sold it for $300. But to commemorate those modest beginnings, he had a Warholesque label—featuring a vintage red panel truck—made for his jars of Hoboken Farms Big Red Marinara Sauce.
With more than 100 farmers’ markets preparing to open this spring around the state, Hoboken Farms products will be well represented, even though there is no farm in the so-called Mile Square City, where Finkel lived for a number of years, beginning at age 18. (The nickname, though memorable, is not mathematically accurate—Hoboken actually covers two square miles.)
Back in 1992, Finkel—the son of a teacher and an advertising salesman—was making mozz in the kitchen of a friend’s Hoboken butcher shop. He later started making batches of ravioli. He sold his products at farmers’ markets, where, logically enough, he got to know a number of farmers.
Flash forward. When Finkel’s customers started asking him for a red sauce to go with his ravioli, he networked with his farmer friends to get the freshest plum tomatoes, basil, garlic and onions to create what he calls “a rockin’ sauce.”
Fiddling and stirring and tasting, he finally found the right recipe, and in 2003 produced his first batch of Hoboken Farms Big Red Marinara Sauce—366 cases of a dozen 25-ounce jars per case. He quickly sold all 4,392 jars.
The key difference between his and more commercial sauces, he says, is that he cooks it for hours, intensifying the flavors, reducing the volume by about 15 percent. Commercial sauces, Finkel says, cook only briefly so that the sauce loses only about 5 percent of its volume, leaving more sauce to sell.
In 2005, Finkel began two years of development work with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton in rural Cumberland County. His production, based in Hoboken, grew. Today Finkel produces about 4,500 cases of Big Red Marinara Sauce a year.
His breakthrough came in 2011, when the Wall Street Journal named Big Red marinara the best jarred sauce in the country.
Then things got even better. That same year, Finkel says, “Lo and behold, Whole Foods came calling.”
“It was like hearing your song on the radio for the first time,” he says of the first time he saw his sauce on the shelves at Whole Foods.
One more milestone was reached in 2011: Finkel opened a retail store, the Hoboken Farms Sandwich Shop, in Summit. These days you can find Hoboken Farms marinara at Bed, Bath & Beyond and at Kings Supermarkets. Finkel, now 46, and Kings each donates 50 cents from each jar sold to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
Hurricane Sandy forced Finkel to move his production facility from Hoboken to Clifton. Finkel tries to find local sources for as many of his ingredients as possible. He has never claimed to sell a sauce made 100 percent from Jersey tomatoes. It just isn’t possible.
But demand for marinara sauce knows no off-season, luckily for him.
So he buys the freshest, sweetest tomatoes and other ingredients—always using fresh, never dried, garlic, onions and tomatoes—from whatever source has the best at the moment.
“It’s a little like being a forager,” Finkel says.
He looks back fondly at his early struggles.
“Every time I see our jars on the shelves it makes me think of driving through Hoboken with my wife sitting next to me on the bench seats, listening to the radio.”
Yup, the sauce world is still playing his song, or vice versa.
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