pasta sauce goes american

Pasta Sauce Goes American

by Nicole Potenza Denis
Specialty Food Magazine
Nov/Dec 2004 – pages 44-48
reprinted by permission
relevant text highlighted

Pasta sauce is no longer strictly Italian. Although born into Italian descent and traditionally functioning as a flavor carrier for pasta dishes, U.S. pasta sauce has broadened its horizons to meet myriad tastes, foods and pasta shapes. In 2002, the jarred pasta sauce market, which includes shelf-stable and refrigerated sauces from tomato- and cream-based to pestos and vegetable varieties, stood at $1.5 billion, according to Mintel International.Challenged by the growth of prepared meals, ethnic foods, and the Atkins craze, pasta sauces onward march has not broken stride. Interest in specialty sauces and alternative uses has helped boost the pasta sauce category despite pasta sales being soft.

The pasta sauce market is expected to increase 6 percent by 2007, says Mintel, with high-end sauces in classic and non-traditional flavors fueling the growth. Gourmet, restaurant and celebrity-sources sauces are dominating in specialty food stores and challenging mass-market brands such as Ragú and Prego on supermarket shelves, reinforcing the fact that pasta sauce is more fashionable than ever.

That’s Italian

Italians are known to be one of the last ethnic groups to purchase manufactured pasta sauce. “Years ago, Italian women would not be caught dead using a jarred sauce,” says Ben Aquilina, owner of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Victoria Packing Corp. “Times have definitely changed.” Aquilina believes the new pasta sauce consumer already knows how to make a great pasta sauce but no longer has the time to do it. This consumer is also willing to pay a premium price for a high-quality specialty product.”

But, with an already saturated market and economical sauces such as Ragú readily available, will the influx of fresh and specialty have staying power? “It’s a crowded and competitive category with a huge price range,” says Mike Chittick, owner of Woodinville, Wash.-based distributor, Bear Creek Fine Foods. “But there is an obvious difference in quality.”

Neil Fusco, owner of Cucina Antica Foods, Bedford Hills, N.Y., agrees. “People are stepping up to the better stuff, he says. Inexpensive sauces will always sell; the ones in the middle mighty suffer.” Fusco notes that people are more conscious of what they eat and want more natural ingredients in their sauces. “They are willing to pay a little more, because they know they are getting better tomatoes, spices and less fillers,” he adds. Cucina Antica’s top-selling Marinara accounts for 40 percent of sales and retails at $6.99 for 16 ounces.

Sal Scognamillo, chef and co-owner of Patsy’s Italian Restaurant in New York City, also sees willingness to purchase high-quality sauces, despite the price. “High-end or super luxury sauces have caught on; they offer good ingredients and are time-saving,” Scognamillo says.

Faces of the Golden Apple

Known throughout Italy as the pomodoro or golden apple, the tomato is the basis for most traditional pasta sauce. The San Marzano tomato, which gave birth to the Italian canning industry in the 1800s, is a prized ingredient in many jarred sauces. Grown throughout Campania, the region that surrounds Naples, San Marzano variety tomatoes are sweet and more consistent, reaping the benefits of the rich volcanic soil from nearby Mt. Vesuvius. “A great sauce stems from the tomato and all-natural ingredients,” says Fusco.

A superior sauce needn’t be limited to Italian tomatoes, however. Athens, Ohio-based Milo’s Whole World Gourmet sources its ingredients elsewherelocally. The basil and some vegetables for its Tuscan Merlot sauce come from nearby organic farmers while tomatoes are from Ohio-based Hirzel Canning Co. and Farms.

Tomatoes from California dominate Patsy’s Brand Neapolitan sauces’ Scognamillo finds them sweeter; and are also the prime ingredient in Mezzetta Brand Napa Valley Bistro Porcini and Portobello pasta sauce, coupled with Napa Valley Merlot.

Heirloom tomato varieties are also making headway. “Although trickier to work with and more expensive, heirlooms have a superior taste and add a lot of character to a sauce,” says Dave Hirschkop, owner of Dave’s Gourmet, which markets Golden Heirloom and Organic Red Heirloom Pasta Sauce.

On the Shelves

With a proliferation of sauces fighting for prime shelf space, retailers are seeing significant expansion in pastas sauce facings and sales.

“We have 64 linear feet devoted to specialty pasta sauce, double from last year,” says Joe D’allesandro, general manager, Verducci’s Food Market, Ringoes, N.J. “There is a vast selection of high-quality specialty sauces now. Customers are trying multiple varieties and buying more.”

So what is on the shelves these days?

Aside from reliable favorites such as Rao’s Marinara and Victoria Packing’s best-selling Vodka, companies not typically known for pasta sauce are adding a few SKUs to existing product lines. For instance, Al Dente Pasta or Whitmore Lake, Mich., introduced three sauces to complement its freshly made pasta. The two-year-old Monique’s Sumptuous Sauce line consists of Marinara, Olive and Caper, and Leek and Sun Dried Tomato. “Our customers wanted sauce to go with our pasta; it just made sense,” says Co-owner Dennis Deschaine.

Bella Cucina Artful Food of Atlanta, which ash historically offered pesto-based sauces, such as Artichoke Pesto, has moved into tomato products, including spicy Sugo all’Arrabbiata.

Victoria Packing recently added five USDA-approved meat sauces. And move over Mario Batali and Emeril, some real Hollywood stars are also getting shelf space. Napa, Calif.-based Wine Country Kitchens recently launched Sophie Loren Brand with imported D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. The two flavors, Tomato and Sweet Basil and Mediterranean, are Loren’s original recipes.

The success and competitiveness of the category is also opening doors for private label. According to Mintel, private-label pasta sauce sales increased 11.1 percents between 2000 and 2002, from $61.1 million to $67.8 million. For example, Taylor’s Market in Sacramento, Calif., has some 80 facings of pasta sauce, yet its Taylor’s brand, only 18 months old, anchors the category. “We sell about 60-100 units a week of Taylor’s pasta sauce,” says Store Manager Brian McNeil. The private label is a bargain compared to high-end specialty sauces, at $4.99 for a 28-ounce jar.

Turco’s, in Hartsdale, N.Y., stocks more than 20 brands of sauces, including its own fresh brand made in-house. Priced at $5.99 for a quart container, the fresh sauces sell approximately 500 gallons a week.

Location, Location, Location

Some retailers believe that cross-merchandising helps retain and grow pasta sauce sales while others say it moves better in a grocery set. Taylor’s, Turco’s and Michigan retailer Nino Salvaggio’s merchandise private-label sauces in other locations within the store. Nino’s sauce has strong presence in produce to reinforce its freshness, while Turcos sauce sells exclusively in deli. Sauces that contain wine or have ethnic appeal can do well in an ethnic section or with wine and spirits. “Additional merchandising opportunities set you apart from the competition,” says Jonathan Milo Leal, owner of Milo’s Whole World Gourmet.

Anthony Marciona, vice president of Los Angeles’ That’s a Nice! suggests sauces be displayed near ready-made dough and breads in bakery or merchandised with gift bowls or stainless steel colanders for inexpensive gifts that can be the center for a theme party.

A non-conformist, Somerville, Mass.-based Sauces ‘n Love is making a statement on crowded shelves with its Scarpetta brand. Packaged in 20-ounce plastic containers that can be heated directly in the microwave or frozen for later use, the white non-traditional labeling and packaging are piquing curiosity. “Retailers are intrigued with the plastic jars; they do not break and our label sticks out on the shelves,” says Sauces ‘n Love Owner Palo Volpati-Kedra.

An Ethnic Edge

Traditionally a companion to its starchy better half, pasta sauce could lately be accused of cheating, seen with the likes of couscous, fish and turkey meatloaf. The low-carb craze has created new marketing opportunities. “Despite declining pasta sales, specialty sauces are holding their own because of the versatility,” remarks Victoria Packing’s Aquilina.

And while Italian classics such as spicy Arrabbiata, olives and anchovy Puttanesca and Tomato Basil may have paved the way for jarred sauces, other cultures are now spicing up the category. Pasta sauces being marketed as gourmet sauces with innovative ingredients from other ethnic cuisines. For instance, Milo’s Whole World North African Pinot Noir has traditional Moroccan spices including cilantro, cumin and cinnamon with hints of lively Pinot Noir. “As ethnic meals get more popular, this is our way to give people a window into other parts of the world,” says Leal, who suggests serving the sauce with sautéed cubed beef or lamb over couscous. Ginger can be found in Whittier, Calif.-based Dattilo Fine Foods Ginger Marinara while Tulocay and Company’s Made in Napa Valley Artichoke Fennel with Chardonnay savory sauce can accompany turkey meatloaf or be mixed with mayonnaise as a spread for sandwiches.

So has the “Italian” in pasta sauce taken a back seat?

“No way,” says That’s a Nice!’s Marciona, whose company’s best seller is Sugo Boom, a spicy Sicilian pasta sauce.

Nevertheless, the American specialty food industry has put an innovative spin on the pasta sauce category, creating a distinctive American product based on the traditions of Italy.

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