Val Gray Interview
(Italian Hearts Pasta Sauce)
Val Gray and her husband Sal share a love of cooking and fine cuisine and it shows!
They are the proud makers of 3 gourmet pasta sauces, Bella Amore Sauce, Three Meat Sauce and Val’s Vegetarian.
What makes these sauces so unique is they are all handcrafted.
And with that will let Val Gray fill-in the rest of the details.
Q - Did I read that you have your own production plant? That means you’re far ahead of most gourmet pasta makers.
A - Well, it was the only way that we could make sure that our sauces were made the way we wanted them to be made. We had interviewed with our co-packer’s and the difference between our sauces and all the other sauces you’ll see on the shelf is the way co-packer’s make products is you hand them your recipe and they put everything into the kettle. Then they just get it up to temperature and then they jar it. So, you have no say in what particular ingredients are used or how you make them. Our sauces are made exactly as we make them from home. We cook him all day, low and slow. All handcrafted batches and we build layers upon layers of flavor so that you could never get that from the co-packer because they simply don’t have the time to do that.
Q - Would a co-packer also be making private label sauces?
A - Probably unless the company itself has their own production kitchen which a lot of the larger ones do. Unless you’re making it in-house basically it’s made that way also.
Q - You say, we’ve mastered the art of transferring homemade to a commercial level. I take it that’s one of the biggest hurdles if not the biggest hurdle in your line of work.
A - Yeah.
Q - It took you about a year to perfect the recipe to a commercial level?
A - Yeah, I’d say about a year. We started renting space in a shared commercial kitchen and we did them on the stovetop and then we just kept getting to bigger and bigger pots until we got to where we are now making them in our 40 gallon kettle. So, we do 40 gallons and then we have 10 gallon. We make 50 gallons at a time. And we do the cooking techniques exactly as we do them from home.
Q - The recipes you’re working from, is that something that was handed down from your family or Sal’s family?
A – Its Sal’s family. He kind of changed them up a little bit to make them uniquely our own, but the basic recipe is how he learned to make them from his papa. His papa was the cook in the family. All of his cousins each have kind of their own version of how they make it. Sal’s is pretty true to his papa’s but not exactly.
Q - You do farmers markets. Is that where the whole idea of bottling the sauce come from?
A - No. We actually did the reverse. That is the way most people go about it. We are Whole Foods shoppers. We love Whole Foods. We love everything Whole Foods. We have been fans of Whole Foods for many, many years. Actually, probably for over 15. So our goal was to have a product that could be in the Whole Foods. So, we did it the opposite. We work towards just getting into the Whole Foods and that process along with making the sauce in bigger quantities took us about a year to get through. Whole Foods their compliance program is top of the food chain so they have the strictness of all the stores, in Whole Foods compliance. So, it took us a good long year to get through that. We just focused on our production and on the compliance. Then we got into Whole Foods. And after we established our customer base in our local Whole Foods then we started branching out to farmers markets. So, we do it all. We’ve only done the farmers markets in the last couple of years because we were working on building our customer base in our stores. It’s hard to achieve all of that because we’ve hired different people to build demo teams so they can also work in the stores but we found that they don’t sell product like the customers do. We’ve been trying to re-create our own self for a couple of years to try to get that down. That’s why we do farmers markets because you reach more people at one time and then you have your farmer’s markets customer base and you have your store base. You try to play your farmers market people into your stores for the winter time. We only have farmers markets in the summer.
Q - I can only speak for Syracuse, New York but the farmers markets goes inside in the winter. It’s year-round.
A - Right. You certainly get a little bit of that feel in Whole Foods. Farmers markets are fun, but, the thing with farmers markets for us being outside to have all that setup and teardown and were no spring chickens anymore so that’s a lot of physical work to do. So, if we had one inside that would be awesome. And, we’ve had a couple of different places that have tried to achieve that some kind of feel that are indoors, it just hasn’t quite taken off here yet.
Q - Understand, when I say indoors, the vendors still have to set up and tear down. And, it’s difficult.
Yeah. It’s just hard being small business entrepreneur, period. That’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, but for people who are really passionate about it and passionate about their products what you do. It’s part of who you are. So, it’s good.
Q - Before you got into Whole Foods what were you and Sal doing?
A - I was an office manager. I was an administrator in a big company. So, my profession is bookkeeping and running an office. Sal was career Harley-Davidson. He worked in the retail program at Harley-Davidson that he helped create that you rent motorcycles and also train people how to ride motorcycles. So, he had been doing that for a long time and when the recession hit we both lost their jobs. We were thrown out because we were making too much money. When we tried to find work we were told we were too old to be hired again. In that time we were only in her early 50s. We looked for a good couple of years to try to find work. We did what all good Italians do when they get bummed out; they cook and they feed friends and families. So, that’s we kept Doing, feeding people. It comforts your heart when you have your friends and family over and you feed them. And so we had friends say, why don’t you try to turn sauces that we’ve enjoyed for years into a business and try to see if you can share your sauces with other people? We enjoyed them so much we think it’s time you start sharing them. So, we worked towards that. The problem was we didn’t have any money because all of our 401(k), what was left of that we had to live off of that. We literally had people that rally around us, our friends. They even baught us what we needed for our very first batch of sauce. We say to get to where we are it has taken a village and we have a really good one. Banks will not lend to small businesses. They say they do but when it really comes down to it, unless you’re already really profitable they’re not going to lend you. They’re not going to help you get to that point. So, we have been really blessed with a lot of good friends that have helped us out along the way. We’ve come so far from where we originally started. The very first thing that we did we did test it out at a craft show in a local high school, just to see if anybody else really liked our sauces. We were setting up for that craft show and I was really nervous because it was the first time we had done anything like that. I went to set one of the jars on the table and I missed the corner of it and it fell and broke all over the gymnasium so the whole place smelled like our sauce. And so of course as soon as everybody came in they clamored over to our booth to buy the sauce because it smelled so beautiful in there. That was our very first taste of selling to the public.
Q - Or, you’re very first taste of marketing to the public.
A - Exactly! (Laughs)
Q - So now you’ll have to break a jar wherever you go.
A - Exactly. Well, what we do now is we give samples of our sauce wherever we are we bringing a crockpot that has three holes in it and we have three sauces. We have them heating and so the aroma of the sauces is already filling the place. Then they get to taste it. That’s the hard part about anybody knowing that you’re any different from any other sauce. Unless they tasted they’re not going to know what we are compared if you look at the shelves in a grocery store. There’s tons of sauces shelf. Nobody knows that you’re any different no matter what you put on your label unless they actually tasted. So, that is the hard part.
Q - How do you get them to taste it? You put the sauce on what?
A - We have little sample cups that we put our sauce in with a little bit of bread and a little bit of cheese. Then you get to sample it that way. Were still trying to find our niche as far as getting it really marketed the way we want to because we have found that even though we live in an age of computers and technology people really still want that one on one interaction with the owners? The people behind the product. And so, that’s been kind of cool. It’s an exhausting, but, it’s still cool.
Q - How do you compete with established sauces like Rao’s?
A – Rao’s, it doesn’t matter so much what it tastes like. We have a lot of their faithful customers when they tried our sauce, convert to our sauce. Mostly with Rao’s they go off the reputation solely in that the same with the other celebrities that have sauce. It doesn’t really matter what it tastes like. It’s the fact that they’re buying their friends. So, that is very hard to compete against, but, we’ve converted a lot of faithful brand people. And, the other thing with our sauce is, our sauce really offers a good amount of nutrition because of our ingredients and because of the way we cooked it. Our motto is, we cook for good health. It’s like when you cook at home, even differences what you cook at home and when you go into a restaurant, usually your food at home is healthier than even in a restaurant because they’re all about flavor. So, there’s extra sugar in there. There’s extra salt. We don’t do that with our sauces. We have little sugar. We use sea salt. We don’t even use table salt. So, we really have a passion for cooking healthy. We originally started marketing them just as pasta sauce but Italians what they’ll do is make a big pot of sauce and use it for everything. One night you’ll have pasta. Maybe another night pizza. The next night you’ll cook a little vegetables in it. Sal’s family even poaches eggs in their sauce because Italians with the Mediterranean diet know that a good red sauce is really very healthy so that’s what we offer.
Q - You have three flavors pasta sauce.
A – Yes.
Q - Why not just concentrate on one or is it better for marketing purposes to have three?
A - it’s better because you’re never going to appeal to everybody. At least with three sauces we try to hit at least three different types of people because the three meat sauce is modeled after Sal’s family sauce. They all kind of start with the same but one gets the three meat and we actually use real meat. We buy them from a ranch that we know personally. We know that there humanely raised animals and grass fed and grass finished. No hormones. No antibiotics. So, we support local. We say were a local company. We make local and we support other local companies, ranches and farms. So, we know where our products come from. You could never achieve that from a co-packer because you have to use whatever they’re using. That’s the Three Meat Sauce. Then the Bella Amore cooks with my meatballs. I use hot sausage in that one so it has a little spicy kick. And then the Vegetarian is made with local chunks of organic vegetables. So, were supporting the local farm. We’re supporting the local ranch. We say locals supporting locals. And then we get fresh products and we know where our products come from. These are from farms and ranches that have equally as much passion about their products as we do. So, our ingredients are not mass-produced.
Q - When you say you have 58 stores that have partnered with you, you mean 58 stores that carry your product on their shelves, correct?
A – Correct
Q - How many employees do you have in your company?
A - We have gone from having as many as 22 as little as Sal and I and it goes up and down. Right now we have not been in production because we made a large amount at the end of spring. So, it’s just Sal and I just working right now and were selling the product. We don’t have to be in production. Will be ready to go back into production within the next month and well hire everybody back again. So, it goes up and down.
Q - Major chains are introducing more and more of their own products on the shelves at cheaper prices, so you’ve got your work cut out for you.
A - I know. It’s hard. One of the ways we are working to try and combat that is instead of expanding the stores were in, were growing our online business instead. With most stores you have to do all the work. It’s one thing to get it on the shelf. Now, you have to get it off the shelf. And then they take at least 40% of your sale. So, were going to stick with the stores we currently have but were not going to grow our stores. We’re going to grow our e-commerce, online sales instead.
Q - If you wanted an eye level position for your sauce on the shelf you’d have to pay more money. I didn’t realize that until a few years ago.
A – Correct. Whole Foods is probably the best out of all of the stores as for as featuring local vendors. We have our own display at our Reno Whole Foods and its got our picture hanging above it. In the past they’ve probably done local better than any other stores have. They’re going through some transition so I don’t know how it will be moving forward, but, we’ve been in their for three years now. Normally, even if we have your own display, local means your in the furthest, backest, darkest corner of the store. You may have your own display, but, nobody can find you. (Laughs). So it’s kind of a catch 22 we’ve decided to grow our brand by our Internet store. Then we can do videos on Facebook that shows us and gives more personal interaction without being right there. So, that’s kind of how were trying to grow our brand.
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