from the kitchen to the shelf

From kitchen to shelf
At the urging of friends, Athens resident markets his homemade wine sauces
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Robin Davis
The Columbus Dispatch
Reprinted by permission.

You should sell this.

Although many good cooks hear such a suggestion from friends or relatives who savor their homemade sauce, jam or other creations, most only dream about turning secret recipes into marketable products. Jonathan Milo Leal took the leap.

Friends told the Athens resident that he should bottle the sauces he made while catering. Now his Vino de Milo product line is available at specialty stores in 18 states. He has expanded from pasta sauces to ethnic ‘‘simmering” sauces and, in the fall, plans to release salad dressings.

Despite being on the brink of success – the company is not yet profitable – Leal said the ride has been bumpy.

“I’ve been rejected 100 times for every time I’ve been accepted,” he said, referring to attempts to get his sauces into stores.

“Our initial business plan was all sunny.”

He had to be more realistic, he said, as he discovered the tricks of multiplying a recipe from six to 600 servings. He also had to improve the initial packaging from simple glass jars to standard-size pastasauce jars and invest money in labeling.

Leal then had to educate retailers and customers on how to use the sauces.

Not all are meant to be tossed with spaghetti; some, such as the North African Pinot Noir sauce, should be used to cook fish, chicken or vegetables.

So he is switching to a narrower jar unassociated with pasta sauce.

“I’ve been surprised at how much more work I’ve had to put in on the sales end,” he said.

Despite the challenges, his belief in the sauces and sheer determination keep him going.

His prominent use of wine, he said, makes his products different. He adds rich, fullbodied shiraz to his portobello pasta sauce and heightens the fragrant spices of India with cabernet sauvignon in his Bombay Cabernet sauce.

Leal uses only natural ingredients – no high-fructose corn syrup or even granulated sugar. Any sweetness comes naturally from the vegetables or fruit concentrates. He limits salt, uses fresh herbs with abandon and doesn’t add artificial preservatives or colorings.

Available in only a few stores in central Ohio, the sauces sell for $8 to $10 a jar.

“I like them because they’re so different with the wine,” said Kyle Baker, vice president and director of merchandising at the Hills Market in the Worthington Hills community, which has stocked the sauces for about a year.

“And we love to push local products.”

Leal embraces local ties, too.

Most of his ingredients come from Ohio, such as the herbs grown in Athens and the Hirzel tomatoes from Toledo.

In addition, he keeps his production at a small facility in Athens. One week a month, he and his kitchen guru along with a handful of volunteers, rent the production kitchen from ACEnet, a company that helps small start-up businesses.

He and his crew make the sauces in small batches – 120 cases, or 1,440 bottles, a day. The limited production allows them to control quality.

“We taste products when they come off the truck,” Leal said of sauce ingredients.

The quality assurance continues throughout production.

“We taste it all along the way,” said Mitchell, vice president of operations.

Production week is physical and demanding, but the company’s smallness – employees include Leal, Mitchell and Kevin Holy, an executive assistant – keeps them focused.

Leal is making sales inroads on the East Coast, including New York, and is looking to move his sauces west.

His biggest market, though, is in his back yard – something of a surprise, he said, because he thinks his sauces appeal primarily to an urban clientele.

“Athens is still our largest market,” he said. “The sense of community down here is really remarkable.”

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