Small Food Comes of Age Mary Ellen Kuhn | September 2017, Volume 71, No.9

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Melissa VitelliMelissa Vitelli’s Sometimes Painful Path to Entrepreneurial Success
Working to get her fledgling tomato sauce company, Glen Rock, N.J.–based Jar Goods, off the ground, Melissa Vitelli, 36, has never shied away from the heavy lifting—literally or figuratively. “I developed sciatica because I was always carrying these heavy cases of sauce around,” she says with a laugh. “It always seemed that I would have to park a few blocks away from the stores in New York City and then decide, should I carry one case or two?”

That was a couple of years ago, and fortunately, although they’re still working very hard, things have eased up a bit for Melissa and her sister-in-law/business partner, Laura Vitelli, 47. The three-item line of Jar Goods tomato sauce is now available in about 1,100 stores in locations in the Northeast, West Coast, Southwest, and Midwest, and this past spring, the Vitellis hired a sales and business development team to help them take the company to the next level. They’re projecting sales of $1.2 million within the next year, and Melissa Vitelli says that with two rounds of investment by family and friends complete, she expects to seek outside investors later this year.

Looking to make a career change and convinced that there was a niche in the marketplace for a high-end, clean label tomato sauce, Melissa Vitelli started thinking about commercializing a version of her father-in-law’s sauce recipe. “As much as I as a layman could see that the category was pretty saturated, we felt it was saturated with products of low quality,” she says.

Jar Goods sauceHer goal was to formulate a versatile, natural sauce that helps “people get a really satisfying dinner on the table easier, faster, and happier.” The Jar Goods assortment currently includes Classic Spicy, Classic Red, and Classic Vodka varieties with additions to the lineup, including a Vegan Vodka tomato sauce, a Black Tapenade, and a Purple Pesto sauce, planned for later this year.

A food incubator program established last year by Chobani played a valuable role in enabling the Vitellis to build their business. As a member of the Chobani incubator’s first class of entrepreneurs, Melissa Vitelli says she spent one week a month last fall and spring on-site at Chobani facilities, where she reaped the benefit of advice from the pool of experts Chobani assembled as well as from sharing ideas with other entrepreneurs. Guidance from incubator mentors was instrumental in helping the Vitellis come up with a promotional strategy that was a good fit for the brand.

Approaches that have been working well include using hang tags featuring easy-to-prepare recipes on the jars and offering instantly redeemable coupons at point of purchase. In the earlier stages of the business, the Vitellis got help with formulation and production processes from experts at the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship at Cornell University.

Essential Entrepreneurial Skills: “Because I believe that anyone is capable of developing any skill, I think there are qualities as opposed to skills essential to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs need to over-index on risk tolerance—one would need to be willing to risk a lot for the possibility of winning. Also, it’s essential to be of [an] optimistic and hard-working nature.”

Given the Opportunity for a Do Over: “I think I would have gotten a little more help.” She says that applies particularly to the period of time in late 2015 when she gave birth to a daughter just months after her products’ retail debut and was seriously sleep deprived.

One Hard Truth: “Advice should only be taken seriously if from an industry veteran with an optimistic but realistic point of view. All other advice should be taken with a grain of salt!”