The area where I live in central North Carolina is teeming with men and women who are dedicated to bringing people fresh, high quality, locally produced food and improving access to healthy foods. This desire to connect people to good, healthy food has spawned a myriad of small businesses, and I’ll be taking some time to interview them and share what I find about why they do what they do and how they do it.
The first person I met with is Neal “Nello” McTighe, founder of Nello’s Sauce. Nello’s Sauce is based in Raleigh, and is rapidly becoming available at grocery stores across North Carolina. If enthusiasm is a contributing factor to entrepreneurial success, Nello’s Sauce is on its way to greatness.
The journey to Nello’s Sauce began with a college study abroad in Italy that inspired McTighe to help others learn about Italy and Italian culture. Over successive trips to Italy and by studying his own family history, McTighe absorbed everything he could about Italian history and culture. While working a regular 9-5 job, he began (as many of us do) to share his passion for Italy through a blog about Italian culture and cooking. Eventually, he found a wonderful opportunity to teach Italian at a local college. Fortuitously, this new career also gave him the flexibility to begin a new, Italy-focused business.
A Sauce is Born
As McTighe continued exploring Italian cuisine, he developed a reputation among his friends as a most righteous pizza maker. Hmmm…could pizza be his calling? He did some initial feasibility studies, and found that the complexity of making, freezing, delivering and selling frozen pizzas did not bode well for a young startup business. Focusing on one component of that dish–the sauce–had better possibilities and fewer supply chain issues. McTighe began testing and experimenting with the sauces he already loved to make, and Nello’s Sauce was born!
Every new journey begins with a great deal of learning, and starting a food-based business is no exception. Nello’s Sauce started in McTighe’s kitchen, where he hand-crafted and canned batches of his tomato sauce. He stressed to me the importance of thinking through every detail–How much will ingredients cost per ounce or per unit? What kind of jar is best? What size will the package be? What will the label say? Where will the ingredients come from? What kind of insurance do you need? What requirements do grocery stores, farmers markets, etc have for selling your product? Where will you make your product and how?
The last question is one with big implications. While Neal started creating and canning his sauces in his own kitchen, that quickly became impractical. I mean, could you fit a pallet of canning jars in your kitchen? I know I couldn’t! Leasing commercial kitchen space from a restaurant can be frustrating, inconvenient and expensive. Fortunately, Neal found a commercial kitchen in a nearby town that leases space to small, food-based entrepreneurs. The Piedmont Food and Ag Processing Center provides training, regular, convenient access to a large commercial kitchen facility plus storage for pallets of jars and lots and lots of tomatoes.
Also, understand where your ingredients will come from and how they will be cleaned and processed. If you are purchasing vegetables from local farmers, how sustainable is that if your business doubles? Triples? Blanching and peeling tomatoes for 10 quarts of sauce may be okay, but what about for 100 quarts of sauce? In the case of tomatoes, only a few big processing facilities to clean and peel tomatoes exist in the entire country, and guess what? None of them are in North Carolina. Or even in our part of the country. For McTighe, the only way to continue making his sauce locally is to purchase cleaned and peeled tomatoes from one of these large facilities (buying and shipping NC tomatoes to California for processing and sending them back to NC is only do-able if customers are willing to pay something like $20.00 per jar–in other words, NOT do-able). While his sauce is a local product from a local company, North Carolina sadly does not have the infrastructure in place to use local tomatoes. As a business owner, it’s good to have this knowledge in your back pocket, so when your business expands, you are ready.
Neal would be the first to admit that he has learned a tremendous amount in the past few years–some of it through personal connections and research, and some of it the hard way. One thing he understands is that more people need to be involved in healthy, sustainable food production. And while it’s fabulous that Whole Foods is carrying Nello’s Sauce, Neal also realizes that not everyone has access to healthy food. Rather than shrugging and walking away, he came up with a plan to help.
Our Hearts Beat Hunger is a two-pronged initiative to encourage young entrepreneurs and get Nello’s healthy sauce into low-income homes. Started through crowd sourcing, Our Hearts Beat Hunger raised funds to provide a mentorship opportunity for one young dreamer and donate jars of sauce to local food banks. The hope is that as the business expands, so will the philanthropy. For Nello’s, it’s not just about being a business–it’s about being part of a larger community. That spirit is what makes some of our local, food-based businesses so amazing.
Thinking about starting your own business? Here are some tips from Nello!
Some Tips from Nello
- Start with what you love. You’re going to spend a LOT of time doing it, so you should have a passion from the beginning.
- Start small and get LOTS of feedback on your product. Ask your family. Ask your friends. Ask strangers. And then listen!
- Find a unique aspect to your product and go with that. Be able to communicate what separates your product from others on the market.
- Research every aspect of your product and process–identify supply chain issues early.
- Identify how you might expand your business without losing quality. You probably won’t be cooking in your own kitchen for long, so what’s next?
- Understand state and federal guidelines and requirements for food production, storage and labeling (most of this is available online). Requirements vary depending on the type of food and the number of units sold. Having this information upfront will help prevent unpleasant (and potentially expensive) surprises later.
- Grow slowly and thoughtfully, and enjoy the journey along the way.
Thanks to Neal McTighe for sharing time with me to talk about Nello’s Sauce and local, food-based businesses! Click HERE for more information about Nello’s Sauce!
Want to see what I did with my Nello’s Sauce? Click HERE for our Aubergine and Lavender Pasta recipe!