Betsy Ashman Interview
(Sorrisos Gourmet Pasta Sauce)
Sorrisos Gourmet Pasta Sauce is a high quality product that is handmade with all-natural ingredients in a family-owned and operated business in Firth, Nebraska the recipe has been a family favorite for decades at home and in the family restaurant Poppa D’s Pizzeria.
Betsy Ashman spoke with us about the family business of Sorrisos Gourmet Pasta Sauce.
Q - Betsy, where’d you come up with the name for your company?
A – Sorriso without the S is actually the Italian name for smile. The actual brand name is Sorrisos so we added an S.
Q - Your father- in- law started the company. Mick Ashman.
A - That’s right
Q - He started the company in 1996. What was he doing before then?
A - He comes from a large family and he married into a large family. He’s always been a cook or a butcher or something in the food trade. As the story goes, anytime these two big families would get together; and I learnt this having married in, there’s always plenty of food. (Laughs). Mick’s sauce was always there, usually in the form of lasagna it was one of those things you could always count on. You knew Mick was going to make his lasagna. Mick has three boys. He would always jar up cases of sauce for them when they would go back to school when they were in their college years. All their roommates always look forward to that. (Laughs). I would say that when the oldest of the three boys was out of school, the three got together and scraped about thousand dollars between the three of them in crammed it into a Ball Jar or like a Mason Style Jar and wrapped it up and gave it to him for Christmas as seed money to start the company and actually bottle this sauce for retail. Out here in the University of Nebraska they have an amazing program. It’s the food processing center. They basically will help food manufacturers or budding entrepreneurs to kind of figure out the ropes, whether they are testing samples for nutrition analysis for the nutrition panels or walking you through the label design to taking your recipe from measuring in tablespoons and cups to a 1 gallon stockpot to a 40 gallon batch in grams and ounces and pounds. They’re quite handy. They’ve really helped us out throughout the years. So, he took that seed money and went to the food processing center at the University of Nebraska, went through their program and he was on store shelves within a year.
Q- How did he know it would succeed or didn’t he?
A - He didn’t, the food industry has probably a 95% failure rate. (Laughs) it’s just one of those things. You really have to love it and if you love it enough there’s going to be people out there that love it too. I would say there is no passion behind picking up a jar of Ragu. You don’t get to see that in the people’s eyes who actually labored in vain to put it in a jar. I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the country, but there is such a strong, entrepreneurial spirit here in Nebraska and I think people just really look for that. They want to know who’s behind products, not necessarily products, but who fixes your car, the roadside stand that grows the dozen ears of corn you just brought home. I think they look for that. It’s important I think you don’t know if you’ll succeed, but, he took the chance. He had his whole family and his friends behind him and he went for it. It’s certainly not easy that’s for sure. Every year later it’s still not easy, but you just love it. It becomes a part of you. You eat, sleep and breathe it. If you don’t love it, if you don’t love what you do, there’s really no reason to do it.
Q- He first called it Mick D’Angelo’s pasta sauce. Was that because he wanted to give it a more Italian feel?
A - (Laughs). Well not really a little bit I suppose, we have a little restaurant that when you ask which came first the chicken or the egg, the sauce came first and the restaurant came second, but, the restaurant has been one of those places people can go to see the family and know where the sauce came from. The restaurant is actually in the place were Mick started making the sauce. It’s funny and the running joke in in the restaurant is! People who haven’t necessarily come in before but who have learned about, come down and expect to see this Italian family, but, there Polish. So it’s kind of a running joke down there. But a woman who had tried it early on had explained it tasted like it was from the Angels. That’s where the name came from.
Q - What is your position with Sorrisos?
A - My husband David who is the oldest of the three boys and I own it. Were married.
Q - You own the restaurant or the pasta sauce business?
A - We own the sauce and we owned the restaurant. To back up just a little. My husband and I were a blind date and fell in love over a love of food. We had two children who were the first grandbabies of Mick and Mary Jane. About the time the second child was born Mick decided to sort of step back and be a grandpa. So, David and I kind of took over the sauce. At that time he was just in the state of Nebraska with sales. He stepped into the restaurant a little bit more. So, he’s in there most days cooking away. He’s the one who still makes the sauce. The grandkids are eight and 10 now.
Q - Did you contribute at all to the flavor of the sauce ?
A - Not with the original recipe. The original recipe was all Mick. But, in addition to the one he started with there are five other variations of pasta sauce and then there is also a pizza sauce and an Alfredo sauce now. My husband and I created the five other pasta sauces and the pizza sauce, the Alfredo is still Mick’s. That one is not quite ready for retail. It’s just one of those things you have to experience in the restaurant. We’ve been bent up quite a bit on that one. People will bring their Tupperware and buy it by the court. (Laughs). That’s one’s special. It’s just really amazing. They make it every single morning.
Q - Is the pasta sauce available nationwide?
A - Nationwide through the website but were probably in 12 states surrounding Nebraska. Hy -Zee Food stores, based out of Des Moines Iowa which has 250 stores carries our pasta sauce. There’s the Midwest regional Whole Foods that carries it in the Midwest.
Q - Do other restaurants use your sauce?
A - We do sell some institutional size to some local warehouses in Nebraska. We’re not necessarily sure who would be participating in that and using it in their restaurant, but apparently, there’s quite a few.
Q - You’re not on the East Coast or Northeast?
A - Were not quite yet, were working on it. (Laughs). I laugh because basically were still just a two-man operation with the help of family and friends we just really got it out there. Production doesn’t hold us back. We can produce as much as we need to. So, it’s not necessarily an issue of that. I have always thought if you hit too hard too fast, you’re not going to stick. We’ve built a pretty healthy customer base. People just love the sauce. It’s like a crazy thing to have a cult following for spaghetti sauce. We have people who are ready to string us up if they can’t find it.
Q - What do you sell a jar of your sauce for?
A - I think the average retail is about $3.99. There is a chain of stores here called B and R stores: there are two kinds of stores Super Saves and Russes market. They have us on sale right now for $2.99.
Q - How can they do that?
A - It’s amazing. We love them. They have been behind us since day one, since the first day Mick put a jar on the shelf. They’ve always been rooting for us.
Q - How, as a gourmet sauce maker can you compete against the supermarket chains that are now making their own pasta sauce and selling it for $.99 a jar?
A - It’s pretty hard. It’s a pretty saturated category. I would say we stride to that mid-level pricing. Were about the Ragu’s in the Prego’s and the Classicos of the world, but, were under, generally, pricewise the high end gourmet brands. So, if you’re stuck between whether or not you want to spend a couple more bucks for a jar of sauce or maybe you just wanted to take a chance on something, I think were priced at a point where the ones that do want to take the chance they can do it and we just kind of hope they like it.
Q - On top of everything else you operate a restaurant Papa D’s Pizzeria. When do you sleep?
A - We don’t, but if you don’t like what you all do, it’ll feel like a job. We live it. One of my kids was actually born in the restaurant. So, they treat that like an extension of their living room. They know no difference. It’s just how we live. Every once in a while we wish we could take an elaborate vacation but, when it comes right down to it, were surrounded by family and what’s not to love?
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