Hot tomatoes

Pasta sauce sales are simmering as more manufacturers turn to niche and specialty products.

Pasta sauce has come a long way from the days when a strong selection consisted of spaghetti sauce in traditional, mushroom, meat flavored and marinara varieties. Today there are so many sauces from national brands, private label, restaurants and local entrepreneurs vying for space in the grocery store and filling never-before-needed niches that they have literally pushed poor old Aunt Millie off the shelf.

pastasaucespoon“There are probably 400 different brands of pasta sauce,” says David Neuman, president, Lucini Italia Co., based in Miami. “I’m not talking SKUs. I’m talking brands.”

According to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, the Italian spaghetti sauces category is a $1.55 billion behemoth, with almost 724 million jars sold in the U.S. food channel during the 52 weeks ended July 14. That is a slight 1.1% decline from the previous year, but given that sauces are being sold in a wider variety of outlets, from department stores to Christmas Tree Shops, it remains a mighty impressive figure.

“As cooking shows and food information proliferates, consumers are looking for more than just the same seven or eight flavors of pasta sauce that try to claim the best Italian origin,” says Dave Hirschkop, founder and owner of San Francisco-based Dave’s Gourmet.

Much of the growth and excitement in the category is coming from the upscale specialty segment—thick, rich sauces simmered in small batches, and named after local restaurants, geographic regions, celebrities and the like, say industry observers.

“The specialty trend is definitely continuing, both with consumer buying habits as well as retailers’ willingness to experiment with specialty,” says Michael DelGrosso, vice president, global sales and marketing, at DelGrosso Foods in Tipton, Pa. “We’re seeing increased distribution on our own brand in most of our existing retailers, as well as our competitors. It seems like everybody is selling more specialty pasta sauce. A trend within a trend that we see is that more and more celebrities are launching sauces, with Guy Fieri being the most recent.”

DelGrosso adds that both Walmart and Target have increased their specialty offerings in pasta sauce significantly. “Some brands have developed items specifically for Walmart that are not exact matches of their standard offerings,” he says.

Among the new products in DelGrosso’s stable are La Famiglia DelGrosso Aunt Cindy’s Roasted Garlic Gala and Pappy Fred’s Old Style Pizza Sauce.

“We launched the pizza sauce last year and in some of our retailers it has become our number-one item,” DelGrosso says. “I was very surprised to see that trend. Pizza sauces are also going very upscale. Some of my buyers are saying that they are seeing up to two dozen new pizza sauces presented to them per year.”

Buyers are also seeing tons of upscale gourmet sauces presented to them too. One of the fastest growing in that segment is Dave’s Gourmet, which takes a “California perspective” when it comes to developing sauces. “Californians see pasta as a neutral starch that can pair well with many flavors,” Hirschkop says. “This includes the traditional pasta sauce flavors, but also others, like our Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce or our Masala Marinara.”

Hirschkop suggests stores use their websites and other social media to talk about the differences in ingredient quality between sauces. “Retailers can also talk about the interesting back stories or superior taste experience of the upscale brands, and in-store they can merchandise them at eye or chest level and use shelf tags that identify some special quality about them,” he says.

Mid’s Homestyle Pasta Sauces, based in Navarre, Ohio, are simmered in open kettles for four hours and are still packed in quart jars, which was once the industry norm.

“The other thing we do is buy fresh beef and sausage and butcher and cook it ourselves,” says Scott Chovan, director of sales, at Mid’s.

Each 32-ounce jar contains 12-ounces of homemade meat sauce. “Nobody has time to make their own sauce anymore so we are doing it for them,” he says. The tactic is working. “We’ve been growing like crazy. We’ve grown over 11 times in the past 14 years. We’ve had [retail] customers tell us that within the category the people who buy Mid’s are the most loyal in the entire category. That’s what sets us apart.”

Cream of the crop
Prego, produced by Camden, N.J.-based Campbell Soup Co., is looking to set itself apart with the introduction of a line of Alfredo sauces, including Prego Homestyle Alfredo, made with cream, garlic and parmesan; Prego Flavored with Savory Bacon, featuring real bacon and cracked black pepper; and Prego Artisan Three Cheese, a bold blend of white cheddar, parmesan and Romano cheeses.

“We are seeing people gravitate towards interesting ingredient combinations and we are hoping our Alfredo sauces will inspire people to discover something new with the promise of great taste, rich flavors and distinctive ingredients, says Dale Clemiss, vice president of Simple Meals.

Vino de Milo, a line of pasta sauces using wine as a key ingredient, is also branching out by introducing white sauces—with a kick.

“We just debuted a Creamy Parmesan and Spicy Roasted Garlic Cream vodka cream sauces that uses local vodka and local cream,” says Jonathan Milo Leal, founder of Athens, Ohio-based Milo’s.

The secret to the success of Alessi pasta sauce is a proprietary cooking process that reduces the acidity in the tomatoes while keeping and enhancing the tomato flavor, says John Richards, national sales manager, at Tampa, Fla.-based Vigo Importing Co. /Alessi Foods.

“Our pasta sauce is made in the U.S. with all imported ingredients,” he says. “Even the jar, the cap, the label are from Italy. We bring over our tomatoes mostly from around San Marzano, Italy We also use fresh garlic, sea salt, and we put fresh basil in at the last point of bottling.”

The real secret ingredient to Alessi sauce is its homemade soffritto. “We make it using Alessi extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic and onions. We then sauté that in an industrial size pan and introduce it with the fresh tomato, sea salt and olive oil,” Richards says.
Lucini also prides itself on its soffritto, says Neuman. “Our sauces start with the foundation of the soffritto—the base of olive oil cooking the aromatics, the peppers, onions, garlic, celery. That creates the base of flavor. Then we add in whole diced tomatoes, then olive oil and fresh herbs. That’s it.” Neuman says. “That’s what a pasta sauce is in Italy and that’s what it should be here.”

Jersey tomatoes
Sales are taking off at Two Guys Foods, which markets the Two Guys Jersey Tomato Sauce line of pasta sauces made in the Garden State. “We use 100% Jersey tomatoes, which seem to be less acidic than other tomatoes,” says Scott Stark, co-owner of the Bergenfield, N.J.-based company. “We have no added sugar. We are all-natural.”

The company is named after Stark and his friend and business partner David Stoff, and not the defunct discount department store chain that was a fixture in New Jersey and other states, but still capitalizes on New Jersey’s image. “I think the best thing that could have possibly happened to us was the really bad reality shows—the Real Housewives of New Jersey and Jersey Shore,” Stark says. “At the end of the day that brings New Jersey nationwide, for better or for worse.”

Author and chef Missy Chase Lapine is making pasta sauce healthier with The Sneaky Chef pasta sauce that “hides” eight different vegetables in each jar and was created for children who are picky eaters. “The sauce is made in such a way that it tastes just like your favorite Italian pasta sauce—by no means does it taste like a garden vegetable sauce,” says Lapine, founder, CEO and Chief Mom Officer, of The Sneaky Chef Foods, based in Tarrytown, N.Y. The Sneaky Chef pasta sauce is available in Smooth Red, Cheesy Red and a Free Range Turkey Meat Sauce that is launching in September.

“We use eight different vegetable purees—cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, yellow squash, celery and onions, and we have no added sugar because the sweet potato and carrot add sweetness and take away the acidity of the tomatoes,” she says. “The Sneaky Chef pasta sauce is also ideal for adults who can’t eat regular pasta sauce because of acid reflux.”

When it comes to pasta sauce, officials for Syracuse, N.Y.-based Giovanni Food Co. say they have all the bases covered. Its Luigi Giovanni sauce is a value brand offering that retails for around $1.00, while its Greenview Kitchen brand consists of four all-natural pasta sauces and three organic offerings. “We offer organic at a much more affordable price,” says Tammy Panipinto, director of business development. “Our organic pasta sauce has a suggested retail around $4.00, and we recently came out with an organic Bruschetta and an organic pizza sauce.”

TwoGuys_TomatoBasilGiovanni also does a huge business in contract manufacturing and private label.

Now that’s Italian
To enjoy a true, gourmet dining experience, consumers investing $8 or $9 on a jar of premium pasta sauce need to pair it with premium Italian imported pasta, say industry observers.

“In Italy the law is that pasta can only be produced from durum semolina and water,” says David Neuman, president of Miami-based Lucini Italia Co., which markets Delverde imported Italian pasta in the U.S. “Domestic pastas are not the same; most use flour as part of their recipe.”

San Martino, Italy-based DeCecco has been making pasta in the Abruzzo Region of Italy since 1886, using the finest durum wheat milled into semolina in its own mill, and combined with pure mountain mineral spring water that comes from a nearby national park.

“DeCecco uses this pure mineral water coming out of the mountain that is at a constant 59 degrees,” says Marco de Ceglie, CEO of DeCecco USA, based in New York. “This is important because using low temperature complicates the melding process between the semolina and the water. If the water is a higher temperature then you sort of start cooking the pasta, which DeCecco doesn’t want to do.”

Another key difference is that the 160 varieties of pasta that DeCecco produces—about 45 are sold in the U.S.—are cut with bronze dies. “The vast majority of U.S. brands and other major Italian firms use Teflon dies, which speeds the process significantly and reduces the cost, but it results in pasta that is smooth and shiny,” de Ceglie says. “The bronze dies create more friction with the pasta. That results in the surface of the pasta being a bit rough, allowing the pasta to hold the sauce. With Teflon die pasta whatever sauce you put on top will go to the bottom of the plate because the pasta is so smooth the sauce doesn’t stick,” he says.

According to de Ceglie, DeCecco currently has about a 53% AVC distribution in the U.S. “We are present in many stores, but still have a long way to go,” he says, adding that DeCecco is best merchandised alongside domestic brands. “In most cases DeCecco is merchandised in with the imported and specialty pastas, but I think that is a narrow position. We would really like to see DeCecco being the premium offering within the mainstream shelf, giving the consumer a rational choice between the national brands, private label and premium,” he says.

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