Specialty Foods Make a Comeback
Chocolate, pasta among the high-end CT goods turning a profit
Specialty foods like handcrafted chocolate and gluten-free organic pasta may be pricey, but some small business owners say they’re seeing a pick up in demand. WNPR’s Sujata Srinivasan reports on how entrepreneurs in the high-end food business have pulled through the recession, priming their business for growth.
This is the sound of rich, creamy chocolate mixing, pouring and airing at Tschudin Chocolates & Confections in Middletown. It’s a rainy Saturday morning but the weather didn’t stop Dominic Contessa and his wife to drive down from West Haven for a three-hour tour of the artisan chocolate shop.
“You know anytime you get something that’s made from scratch right in a local facility, it’s fresh, you know it comes from the back, right out into the case, you can always tell the difference. It’s definitely, definitely worth getting over a national brand.”
Chocolatier Roberto Tschudin Lucheme opened the shop during the recent economic recession. Lucheme had a long career as an immigration attorney in Connecticut and was drawn to chocolate after taking a culinary course. He says he’s kept business going by dipping into his savings but now it’s about to break even, partly due to large orders for corporate parties and weddings. Lucheme makes chocolate while giving a tour, Willy Wonka style. [Tour narration.] Each week he makes up to 1,000 pounds – orange, ajwain and jalapeno chocolate, for instance – priced at about 38 dollars a pound. Many of his customers keep coming back.
“When you actually look at the amount of work that goes into making a handcrafted chocolate, all the different steps involved, those all have costs attached to them. What we’re hoping to do is convince those who buy quality to continue to buy from us and those who haven’t really tried quality to appreciate the difference.”
After a rough patch through the recession, some established businesses like Carla’s Pasta in South Windsor, are starting to take off. Carla’s is increasing its clientele of national chain restaurants by about 35 percent as part of a 26 million dollar expansion, partly funded by the state Department of Economic and Community Development. [Tour of the pasta factory.] Vice president Sergio Squatrito.
“We can compete on price, but what we’re trying to compete on is the quality of the product that the customer’s going to get. If you’re a restaurant, every time somebody comes and sits down at your place of business, you have to make sure that it’s a good experience. A customer’s a customer that you keep forever. You just have to keep serving them good food.”
Squatrito’s mother Carla, an Italian immigrant, founded the company 26 years ago. Today, her frozen pasta and pesto sauce is sold internationally. During the recession, she and her two sons invested in innovation and cut energy costs by installing a fuel cell plant on-site. Those decisions are now helping the company, which has a hundred and sixty eight employees, to grow even bigger.
“The early parts of the recession we did all these innovative things – spending money on national accounts, and retail and all these other things and shoring up our processes. And what that’s led us to, we’re seeing the customers come back. We’ve expanded. We’re adding on twenty seven-and-a-half thousand square feet. And we have a lot more to come. We’re adding on two processing lines and we need people.”
Health concerns are driving some of the demand for specialty foods. At the Parkade Health Shoppe in Manchester, manager Dorothy Flagg says customer base has increased by about 25 percent in the last two years, thanks to rising consumption of gluten-free foods and herbal sleep supplements. Of late, Flagg is seeing people who don’t have health coverage shop at the store.
“Some of our customers, because either losing their jobs or having to severely downsize, no longer had health insurance. No longer had a doctor they could call and go to. So they decided to be more pro-active in their wellbeing. And most people prefer to take natural products and supplements as opposed to prescription medication.”
Tricia Levesque is director of the Connecticut Specialty Food Association. She says though the recession affected some businesses, many are thriving because customers want to support entrepreneurs in their community and are also choosing to splurge a bit to treat themselves. Perhaps because of the economy, more people want to turn their hobby, such as pickle or jam making, into a business.
“A couple of members that we lost due to them closing down their businesses. But I would say it was a very small handful. But especially recently have been really getting a lot more members and a lot more people are getting into the industry. You know I get lots of phone calls, people saying ‘Oh I make this and everybody tells me I should market it.’”
Now, that’s some food for thought if you’ve ever wanted to wrap a business plan around a famous family recipe.
For WNPR, I’m Sujata Srinivasan