business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Two decades ago, a retired IBM executive and a Culinary Institute of America- trained chef teamed up to launch Pasta Vita, a wholesale ravioli company in the Connecticut shoreline community of Old Saybrook.

While chef Luis Castanho perfected his signature striped ravioli in an industrial park kitchen, his partner Rich Cersosimo hit the road to market their product, including weekly sampling trips to Stew Leonard’s stores for five years.

“Chef Lou” was itching to expand the menu to gourmet take-out meals, so they started with seven entrees. Cersosimo set up a retail shop with a desk, one refrigerator case and a cash register.

Today, Pasta Vita is a gourmet-to-go juggernaut just off busy Interstate 95, the largest in Connecticut, and a perfect case study on how to successfully grow a small retail food business. But I think there are important lessons that retailers of all sizes can learn from Pasta Vita about quality, service and listening to your customer.

I first learned about Pasta Vita when several neighbors asked if I wanted to join in on a group order from a gourmet-to-go shop 75 minutes away. Families placed orders and pre-paid, Pasta Vita packaged each order separately and one neighbor did the round trip drive. Our suburban community is hardly a food desert. I was puzzled, and politely declined.

When I happened to be driving past Pasta Vita on I-95, I remembered it and pulled off the exit and found a small store bustling with activity and a dizzying assortment of entrees, side dishes, salads, sauces, soups and desserts, with frozen food to the left and fresh to the right. I soon understood why the parking lot was full, including weekenders with license plates from New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Chef Lou’s repertoire of entrees has skyrocketed from just seven into the triple digits. Specials change daily, weekly and seasonally. Fresh entrees include Tuscan short ribs, fried shrimp with remoulade sauce, chicken tikka masala and the classic chicken parmesan and pasta dinner. That’s not including the 26 ravioli choices and 11 lasagnas. Prices range from cheese ravioli at $6.50 a pound (which serves four), a chicken piccata entrée for two or three people at $9.50, and a whole roasted chicken dinner with potatoes and vegetables for four people at $17.95. Not cheap, but not even close to Whole Foods or gourmet retailers near my home.

Cersosimo credits Chef Lou for quality, personally overseeing the in-house preparation of all the entrees, sides, sauces and pasta in a 4,000-square foot kitchen. Additionally, the head chef can “shift very quickly to make dinners that our customers are asking for” – such as a wide array of gluten-free, low-sodium and vegan options and dishes with Asian or Middle Eastern flavors. As for Cersosimo, he runs the front of the house daily, making sure there are enough “upbeat, friendly employees on hand so that the customer is happy with their experience.” There are typically two employees at each register to keep the check-out lines moving quickly. Just last August the store opened on Sundays, with limited hours of 9-3.

While Cersosimo estimates he is approached about franchising as far as away as Florida at least twice a week, he has ventured beyond his single location - a bit. Pasta Vita last year partnered with the Mohegan Tribe to open a branch at the Mohegan Sun Casino in nearby Uncasville, Connecticut, and is considering additional opportunities.

But where I think Pasta Vita really excels - and why I find myself stopping there on my now-frequent drives in that direction - is in being both highly targeted in its approach and a dedication to making sure that the food is never of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Sometimes, I think, traditional supermarkets err on the aide of being too conservative and too focused on efficiency at the expense of being distinctive and differentiated.

Operations like Pasta Vita show us where traditional stores may be vulnerable; they also show us where the opportunities are, if retailers are willing to take advantage of them.

Comments? As always, send them to me at .
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