Timeless family tradition becomes grocery store staple
First-generation Italian immigrant starts selling family’s marinara sauce on grocery store shelves
Food has the power to nourish minds and bodies, bring people joy and unite different communities and cultures.
Just four years ago, first-generation Italian immigrant Anthony Costella decided he would jar and sell his Nona’s original marinara recipe dating back to the 1800s.
"I've always loved to cook, learned it, passed it down from two generations from my parents. Italians love to be in the kitchen with family cooking the Sunday gravy, so we'd always serve it to friends and family over the years, as well as raising our two children on it, Michael and Anthony," Costella told Fox News Digital.
"And whenever we would have friends or family over," he continued, "they would always comment how authentic and how delicious the marinara was."
After making big batches of the family’s secret recipe gravy in their home kitchen and testing it out in local markets, Antonio Carlo Gourmet Sauces are now available at big-box retailers like Amazon, The Fresh Market, Publix, Harris Teeter, Earth Fare and Lowes Foods.
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"It's like having a meal at home or a fine Italian restaurant," Costella said, "and believe it or not, I still do demos on the weekends, even though we're in major retailers, because I just love meeting customers and hearing their stories, how they utilize our products and sharing it with others."
"And we'd love to hand this down to our children and grandchildren someday as a legacy to see if they can take this thing even further," the founder added.
Antonio Carlo’s four flavors – original, roasted garlic, tomato-basil and Arrabbiata – are gluten-free, made with all-natural ingredients and have no preservatives or added sugars. While the tomatoes come from San Marzano and other premium ingredients are all shipped from Italy, the sauce is mixed, bottled and assembled entirely in the United States at three manufacturing plants.
"Our products are hand-filled, handcrafted, and that's really what makes it different from anything else on the shelf. There's truly a major gap in the consistency, the finished product and the taste," Costella said. "But that just goes to show it's a direct result of the proprietary cooking and the ingredients used."
In the early business days, Costella recalled, he and his wife, Kate, would wake up early every morning at 3 a.m. to cook and taste test the sauce.
"We would go to every Walmart and wipe them out of all the Ball jars on the shelves within a 10 or 15-mile radius," the sauce boss said. "From 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., stirring the gravy, five pots, six parts, two stoves, every day for three years… to the point where I did get ‘marinara elbow.’"
Coming up with this idea in the midst of the pandemic, Costella admitted he and his wife did run into "minor glitches" with supply chain and inflation pressures.
"I couldn't get my head around why glass was such an issue," he noted, "but glass and jars became an issue. So we tried to get ahead of it, and we saw several companies buy large amounts of jars and lids. So we stockpiled in the early days."
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Amid rising tomato prices and looming shortages, Costella said the company has also stockpiled on the essential ingredient for Antonio Carlo’s Gourmet Sauces.
"[You] really can't find anything else in the grocery store that has that truly homemade feel, taste, texture."
The most challenging part of this process has been getting the sauce on retail shelves, according to the founder, who pointed out as a small business, "you need to perform. You really need to move the product off the shelf or else, once the review comes, you're out. And then all that money goes up in smoke."
Thus far, customer feedback has been "so positive," with Costella detailing reviews from families who shared "gratitude" for the homemade sauce that doesn’t take five hours to make.
"Everything's so positive, like, ‘Oh my goodness, it's like my grandmother used to make it or my mother made, it brings memories back to me when I was a little girl or a little boy,’" he said. "They really can't find anything else in the grocery store that has that truly homemade feel, taste, texture."
At the core of this small-business-turned-success story lies inspiration from family. While Costella’s Nona receives credit for the original marinara recipe, he gave credit to his wife for making their dream a reality.
"I owe it all to her because we're all busy and busy at work as well, and if it was up to me, I would never have taken step one to fill out that first form, the first of thousands of forms. But Kate convinced us, and me, that we really need to do this for our family and the legacy going forward," Costella said.
"We do involve Anthony and Michael in decisions, and we keep them abreast of everything we're doing, the new retailer chains that we're working with and the contracts that were awarded. We keep them in step with all the co-packers that we've hired, the media companies, our brokers," the father and founder added. "We're making sure they're on board and they're learning the business just like I'm learning the business every day. The food industry, it's all new to us all. So we're all learning together."
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Costella shared a message to other business owners and entrepreneurs who may be hesitant about pursuing a dream or idea, reminding Americans that "passion and hard work will outperform almost anything."
"If that's your focus and your passion and you're willing to work hard, it can be done," he said. "We always say that we would like to make Antonio Carlo Gourmet Sauces a household brand on every shelf in the galaxy. We want to be the number one brand in marinara sauce, because our recipe from my Nona, God rest her soul, is truly special."