Small Business Spotlight: Bringing Pride, Joy, And Inspiration To Pasta Sauces At Jar Goods

August 07, 2018 - 5:47 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- On this week’s Small Business Spotlight, we knew ahead of time that our guests had delicious products – because we have tried them.

Sisters-in-law co-founders Melissa Regan Vitelli and Laura Vitelli developed Jar Goods from a homemade family recipe. Laura’s father had a restaurant in New Jersey where people would line up around the block for his tomato-based sauces.

So Melissa and Laura used the homemade recipe to bring classic red, vodka, pesto, and other sauces to the market in stores such as Whole Foods.

WCBS 880’s Joe Connolly first spoke with Melissa four years ago, when she had one or two products. The company has grown steadily over the years since.

"I think the most important thing is a good product. Secondly, I think Laura and I have complementing personalities, so we have strengths on different ends of the spectrum. She oversees day to day operations, putting things together, and I oversee more of the big picture stuff and I have less strength in detail oriented things so complimenting each other in that way is really helpful,” Melissa said, “and also willingness to work very hard."

Laura was transitioning out of a full-time job working on Wall Street when Jar Goods began, she said she and Melissa are now running the business full time “and then some.”

They have also expanded their product line to include such items as a beet and basil sauce that her husband came up with.

“Our whole mission is to bring pride, joy, and inspiration back to ready-to-cook pantry staples, so when we look at these products in the grocery store and we see them having become stagnant and stale. I especially saw that within the pesto set. You can't very well put an herb in oil for a long period of time and have it be as fragrant and as fresh on the other side when you open it back up,” Melissa said. “So we were just thinking of ways that we could make a pesto that would kind of bump it up and make it taste better when you open the jar back up."

Melissa was an agent for fashion photographers and constantly busy when she and Laura started Jar Goods. She said she was having trouble finding the ready-to-cook staples that were tasty and versatile and could be helpful to those who can’t always cook from scratch.

She had been using Laura’s father’s tomato sauce in everything, and thought it was time to get it out there with Laura’s father’s help and guidance.

Jar Goods: Chicken Cacciatore
Jar Goods

Laura and Melissa also wanted to buck a trend that they saw of consumer companies talking down to people with highfalutin claims about their products, instead focusing on quality and consumer satisfaction.

"There's a real brand centricity there, in that it's about someone else's grandma's recipe, it's about the old country -- specifically in pasta sauces. It's about maximizing profits, and that all leads to really dreary brands that don't deliver good product,” Melissa said. “So on the flip side of the coin, we are conversely consumer centric, so we’re delivering stuff that's of good quality; that doesn't deliver that message of 'It's about us,’ because it's about our consumers."

Laura and Melissa were also able to grow their business with help from the Chobani incubator for fast-growing new food businesses. In the summer of 2016, just after Melissa’s daughter was born, she was feeling like she was having few wins and had hit a roadblock – and was in need of some inspiration.

“I found the incubator had just launched, just started accepting applications, put my application in, forgot about it, didn't tell Laura, didn't tell my husband and then we got some callbacks, did some diligence with them and were offered a spot,” Melissa said. “We're really proud of it because it was harder to get into that than it was to get into Harvard.”

They ended up learning a great deal from the incubator and from the Greek yogurt maker’s incubator, and from Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya himself.

“Each week was dedicated to a theme – you know, it might be sales and marketing, it might be quality and product. We got to go out to the plant in Twin Falls, Idaho, and to upstate New York to their original plant up there, as well as the SoHo offices," Melissa said.

Among the lessons the women learned were to take and sustain pride in their product.

“You know, Hamdi wanted to make good food available. You know, there was no Greek yogurt before he brought it to the market,” Laura said. “So it’s about making good quality food accessible to all.”

The incubator also proved invaluable for learning about marketing.

“We have never really had a marketing budget, so we have bootstrapped that completely and, you know, what we’re doing is working, but once we have money, digital marketing even for food and in the retail setting – like the physical brick-and-mortar retail setting – is super-powerful,” Melissa said. “You can use all these different apps to get on grocery lists, or digital couponing is really important. And our target consumer is using those things, and is engaging on their mobile devices while they’re shopping.”

Jar Goods has also used a more old-fashioned marketing method, placing redeemable coupons right on the jars.

“People really respond to those. They’re big. They’re obnoxious. They’re bright,” Melissa said “And people are naturally drawn to using them.”

Jar Goods: Cod
Jar Goods

Jar Goods has also partnered its physical coupon offers with Heifer International, so that for every coupon redeemed, the company donates a chick to a mother in need in a developing country through the charitable organization. In another campaign, Jar Goods will send a girl through school in a developing country.

Melissa said the main thing she has learned is that starting a packaged good business requires a lot of money – and not just at the outset.

“We just surpassed $1 million in sales, which is awesome – that’s lifetime revenue – and we have raised over $300,000 from friends and family, as well as a $25,000 grant from Chobani, and we’re just about to launch our raise on a platform called SeedInvest, so that’ll be our next round of funding, and it’ll fund our growth over the next couple years,” she said.

As to anyone else who wants to take a risk and start a business, Laura said it’s all about following your heart and your passion, while trying to be as educated as possible about what you’re getting yourself into.

Melissa added: “My advice would actually be don’t think or read too much – just start doing. I think that all of the entrepreneurs that we know and have met in this business, they get things done – and that’s the ticket. You can learn as you go. You can read as you go. And you’re going to have to continually educate yourself. But nothing can take the place of actually doing what you say you’re going to do.”

Further, Laura said: “Never take no for answer. Don’t – as many times as a retailer or distributor says no, you just keep going back.”