Bright Ideas: Entrepreneurs Tackle Specialty-Food Industry

Most entrepreneurs will tell you their goal is to make the best product possible for their customers and allow the forces of the market to dictate the levels of their success, or failure.

Of course, getting a little recognition for their efforts doesn’t hurt either.

That’s what Marietta DeAngelo and Ian Johnson are learning since winning an award for their imported oil at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York last month.

Johnson’s flair for the flamboyant and DeAngelo’s faith in her product proved to be a powerful mix, helping their Stoger Cherry Seed Oil win a Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation (SOFI) Gold Award for Best Oil.

Since then, they’ve found new business with big-name retailers like Whole Foods and Williams Sonoma.

“This is the Oscars of the food industry,” said Johnson. “It’s like being nominated for best actor and best picture with the two nominations we’ve got.”

stoger oils

Stoger Oils, which only came on the market in the U.S. back in January and includes oils made from cherry, tomato, chili and pumpkin seeds, was also nominated for Best Product Line.

DeAngelo first tasted the Stoger family’s pumpkin seed oil as teenager visiting Austria, and re-discovered her love for the oil on a family trip back to the country in 2009.

“They eat it on everything. They use it in lieu of butter, “she said. “They will just put some salt and pepper in it and dunk bread. They put it into their soup and every single night we’d have a pumpkin seed oil sundae where they put it on vanilla ice cream.”

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After her 2009 trip, DeAngelo had some Stoger pumpkin seed oil shipped home and began taking it around to gourmet food shops in her car. Soon she had a small business, Culinary Imports, which featured the pumpkin seed oil.

She went looking for new customers at the 2012 Summer Fancy Food Show and found a new business instead. That’s where she met Johnson, who is vice president of marketing and sales at Los Chileros, maker of a line of chili pepper powders, rubs, blends, mixes and sauces. Together they came up with the idea for a line of seed oils.

“There was a certain degree of risk. I mean pumpkin seed, everybody knows what pumpkin seed and pumpkin seed oil … but … a cherry seed oil? A tomato seed oil? We though this is something unusual, isn’t in the market and then, because we’re in the chili pepper business, hello, we had to do a chili seed oil,” Johnson said.

They are getting into a specialty-food industry that is already exploding. In 1980, sales of specialty foods in retail locations reached $2 billion. These days, the industry is bringing in a total of $86 billion.

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Teaming with Johnson gave DeAngelo entrée to Johnson’s list of food industry contacts, production and distribution lines, which they hope will smooth the often difficult chore of scaling up their new business.

“In the last six months we’ve gone from zero to a hundred,” says DeAngelo said. “The Stogers are gonna buy as many cherry pits as they can find.” The cherry seed oil is pressed from slow-roasted cherry seeds.

In fact, since DeAngelo and Johnson joined forces—with Culinary Imports becoming a subsidiary of Los Chileros—they have grown Culinary Imports’ revenue by 192 percent. The company is the exclusive distributor of Stoger Oils in North America.

“They’re falling off their tractors in Austria with excitement,” Johnson said.

Aside from the obvious excitement, it can be a tricky situation for some new businesses who suddenly find themselves trying to scale up to handle large orders. If they can’t provide enough product, they can lose their new-found credibility with big retailers but then again, as Johnson was quick to point out, “it’s a good problem to have.”

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