Veggie-based pasta sauces bring a ‘Taste of Tuscany’ to Philly-area Whole Foods

For Katie Robbins, a second try at a first career took her on an unexpected path — from her parent’s kitchen to the refrigerated shelves of more than 25 local supermarkets with a locally made, small-batch, veggie based pasta sauce.

After getting a master’s degree in school counseling, Robbins assumed she would follow in the footsteps of her parents: a stable job, with a long career and a pension down the line.

But at 28, she was married with no kids and a new home — and no viable job prospects. She realized she needed a backup plan.

Inspiration came in the form of a passion for Robbins, and ultimately, with a connection to family.

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The Taste of Tuscany

It all started with her father Rick.

“His famous words are, he ‘won’t eat anything green,'” said Robbins. “Until he ate [the sauce], I swear to God I’d never seen him eat a vegetable.”

“I like cauliflower,” her dad shouted from the other room.

“I kind of tricked him, I guess, in making the vegetable sauce instead of the meat sauce,” she said. “For years now he’s been eating it thinking it’s meat. So that was my idea. There’s not a lot of vegetable sauces out there so why not try to push one on the market.”

Robbins started up her company, Taste of Tuscany, and dubbed her first product Vegetarian Goddess. It’s an all natural, vegetarian pasta sauce that Robbins sources, cooks, packages and distributes from her parents’ Richboro, Pennsylvania home in Bucks County.

The tomato-based sauce is made with zucchini, yellow squash, button mushrooms and onions — ingredients she picks up from Tanner Brothers Dairy Farm, about three minutes from her house in Upper Southampton.

“I start off with oil in the pot,” she said, “and then I put the onions in and let them cook for a little bit, then I throw in the zucchini, yellow squash and mushroom mixture which I pureed, and let that cook for about five to 10 minutes.

Once the vegetables have softened and flavors have started to meld, she adds Contadina tomato paste, fresh garlic, crushed tomatoes, heavy cream, and a spice mix of garlic powder, parsley, sugar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.

“Then you’re good to go,” she said. “It’s chunky, it’s hearty, and there’s a little bit of heavy cream.”

Robbins’ second product, Marinara Goddess, omits the heavy cream and with a couple of tweaks is completely vegan. It launched about two weeks ago and has been a hit with consumers. Orders are up and stores are rearranging shelf space to incorporate both veggie-based varieties.

Business sense

Whether you call it gravy or sauce, it’s simple enough, right? A bit of this, a dash of that, and you’ve got dinner. Nope. Not that simple. Especially when you’re cooking in bulk and starting a business from scratch.

“I love food,” Robbins said. “I love cooking. I can’t say I have any background. I know nothing really about the culinary world, other than what tastes good.”

In the beginning she had nothing to go on but the desire to make some money and a recipe for sauce. Now those days are far behind.

Back in February, Robbins was cranking out almost 30 cases a week — 12 bags per case — and filling orders for 25 stores across the region. Now she’s distributing between 35 and 40 cases a week. Her sauces can be found in most Whole Foods in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, McCaffrey’s in Pennsylvania and select Shop N Bag stores.

When an order is placed she starts her process and delivers fresh within three days. She does demonstrations in each of her stores, and maintains a digital presence by offering up recipes to pair with her sauce like mushroom caps, zucchini boats and sautéed shrimp.

Next up: expanding into local Acme Markets and moving out of her parents’ home and into an industrial space.

She knows her product. She’s got the talking points. And the flavor? Sweet (but not too sweet), thick, and most importantly, healthy. Her sauces only have 25 milligrams of sodium, much lower than the amount found in most store-bought sauces. 

“I kind of did that on purpose because my dad can’t have a lot of salt, so I created it that way. There’s only five grams of sugar and it’s only 100 calories.”

Of course, dad knows the secret. He and Robbins’ mother, Beverly, along with her husband, Chase, have been essential to the process and are an invaluable support system.

The Whole (Foods) process

Robbins started off selling her sauce at a local farmers market in Bryn Athyn, Bounty Local Farmer’s Market. With a successful following she decided to pursue food stores.

“The first two food stores turned me down and I was really bummed out. And my end goal was Whole Foods,” she said. “My mom and me, we were driving in the car and she was like, just call them. What’s the worst that could happen?”

So she did. She was, after all, already certified by the Department of Agriculture, a stressful but relatively simple process since she only works with vegetables, and not meat, fish or poultry.

She was connected with Craig McCormick, the grocery associate team leader of the Whole Foods Market in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

McCormick agreed to a meeting and Robbins got her first real break.

“I got off the phone and was jumping up and down and realized I had no packaging, and no shelf life, no nothing, other than just my product. So I walk into the meeting with just a Tupperware of pasta sauce.”

The meeting was intimidating. But Robbins leaned in.

“I said, just try the product. Give me feedback.”

Robbins may have had doubts, but McCormick didn’t.

“It was unique,” said McCormick. “It does not taste like a manufactured product. It’s not a mass-marketed product. It tastes fantastic. It’s clean — ingredient wise — and it’s local so it’s amazingly fresh. It’s very much what you would imagine if your neighbor had a grandma from Italy and this was the sauce that she made, and you got to taste it as she was making it.”

Within 30 minutes they had called her back and she was on her way — to the refrigerated section.

“I was really pulling for her and her product because I felt inspired, myself,” said McCormick. “Here’s someone doing what they absolutely believed in and were giving it everything they had and it was something I admire about people who make that kind of commitment and follow their dreams and beliefs. And I was really happy to be able to help her. And the fact that it paid off was very rewarding. ”

McCormick helped Robbins through the “on-boarding process” allowing Vegetarian Goddess — and now Marinara Goddess —  to join the 10 to 30 percent of products in a typical Whole Foods store that are locally produced.

The process is elaborate, he explained, with lots of paperwork to be filled out and about 80 quality standards have to be met.

In addition to inspections of the facility, there can’t be any artificial ingredients or preservatives.

For Robbins, a big part of the move onto shelves was figuring out a way to make her product stand out.

“There’s about 50 jarred pasta sauces out on the market right now. What is going to make mine stand out? What’s going to make people want to buy my pasta sauce?” she said. “So…I wanted a bag, I wanted it easy for working parents, so they could use a little bit and freeze the rest so it wouldn’t go to waste. Kids like it cause its sweet and it has tons of vegetables so they could sneak them in and their children get vegetables.”

It’s this forward thinking and understanding of her product and her competition that has helped Robbins make such a splash in her first year.

As for her plans to become a school counselor?

“I thought that’s what I was going to go for,” she said. “And when it didn’t work, I think I kind of said, you know what, this is what I have to do, and I’m making it work. I was never one for the entrepreneurial world, but I like it. I really like it. It’s something I can call my own and be really proud of.”

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