2016 marks the 20th year operating the popular eatery, Vito’s Sicilian Pizzeria & Ristorante, at the current Midtown location for Vito LaFata III. Ask Vito about the experience, and he’ll have an infinite number of great stories and engaging anecdotes…but make no mistake, just below the surface of those endearing stories is a difficult journey in a hard business. Like his parents before him, Sicilian immigrants who also found success feeding St. Louis patrons, Vito has achieved the 20 year milestone through sheer guts, persistence, and passion. He’s the kind of guy you bet on because he simply will not fail. He won’t allow it. But beyond brute force, it’s how he uses his noodle (pun intended) that keeps him ahead of the curve. Having recently launched an incredible new marinara sauce brand, Mama’s Sugo, Vito realized that all of the hard work to this point is what has prepared him to grow his business beyond the restaurant walls.

A lot of restaurants across the country are getting into the retail game. In many cases, they’re taking what they already make – dishes that they’re often known for – and selling those products at grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and online. If you haven’t noticed how many local restaurants are now represented on grocery store shelves, pay closer attention next time you’re doing some shopping. In St. Louis, you’ll find restaurants from the Hill making pasta sauces, BBQ joints bottling their famous seasoning blends, sauces, and marinades, and some famous desserts (gooey butter cake, frozen yogurt, etc.) making their way to store shelves and freezers, to name just a few.

For a restaurant owner, it’s a logical evolution. You’re already spending the time to develop recipes. You’re testing them with personal “focus groups” right in your own dining room, and you’ve established a loyal following. In many cases, you already own equipment and facilities that can initially be used to scale those recipes up in quantity. You know where to source the right ingredients, you know the strengths and weaknesses of your competition, and you understand your food costs. You even have established media relationships with the local food media to triumphantly announce your foray into the retail world.

So, what’s holding you back? Chances are, it’s time. Restaurant owners are stretched in a thousand directions, and time is always at a premium. Sometimes just getting caught up with email is a chore, let alone planning for a big expansion of your business. You need help to pull this off. Someone to do the leg work for you. A partner who has the experience to recommend the right approach so that you don’t have to spend the time figuring it out in a vacuum. There are a lot of reasons to start selling your products at retail, but it is a decidedly different animal than the restaurant business, and it can be a daunting and time-intensive task to get educated about the process. Additionally, missteps can put limited investment dollars at risk, which could potentially delay or even derail your only shot at retail success.

When I first talked to Vito, all he had in hand was a great idea and a bunch of test batches of his sauce. Together, we worked through the initial business requirements, went through a thorough and collaborative naming and name-vetting process, developed a professional identity and go-to-market strategy, designed the packaging, took some photos, created promotional materials (posters, signage, retail display, retail brochure, check inserts, banners, etc.), launched a website and social media presence, and established an approach to retail…all for a modest investment.

The results are already showing. Mama’s Sugo recently launched in all four Straub’s locations (Central West End, Clayton, Webster, and Town & Country), Fields Foods in Lafayette Square, and DiGregorio’s on the Hill. Cases are flying off the shelves, and multiple new orders have already been placed. This initial retail success, coupled with tremendous performance selling hundreds of jars each weekend at local farmers markets, and strong sales in the restaurant, will continue to fuel other opportunities as Mama’s Sugo looks to gain local market share and brand awareness. And from here, the sky’s the limit.

This could be you. If you own a restaurant, and have even considered commercializing a product, get in touch. Seriously. Let’s talk about it. I’ll buy you a coffee or beer at a favorite watering hole (unless of course you’re not in St. Louis, in which case a phone conversation would be equally productive), and we can sit down and discuss how we can get your big idea to market.

Josh Schipkowski

Owner of Upstart Food Brands, Josh is dedicated to helping food brands realize their potential.