Words by Pete Wayner | Animation by Luke Stacy
At least once a day, Paul Guglielmo gets a text from an unknown number. The messages offer feedback on his family recipe marinara sauce, and most of the time, the comments describe how wonderfully crafted the sauce tastes — how its taste evokes memories and stirs forgotten nostalgia.
But once in awhile, there’s an issue.
“This guy said, ‘You know, I bought your sauce and I’m really bummed out - I can’t open it,’” says Guglielmo. “But he called me from a five-eight-five area code, so I knew he was local. I texted back, ‘Where do you live?’” Guglielmo drove to the man’s house in Perinton — bonus jar of sauce in tow — knocked on the door, and unscrewed the lid so his customer could cook dinner.
The story of how Guglielmo’s sauce traveled from a Great Depression neighborhood swap to the shelves of every Wegmans in New York State and beyond has been told numerous times by the media. A boy and his grandfather. An old family recipe. Sunday after Sunday in the kitchen, watching the sauce boil and listening to watching Grandpa Pete work the sauce and the room. Taking a chance, and fate smiling on a good man who now has his name on jars of family sauce in supermarkets in three states. But hidden in the folds of the story’s romance is that Paul, the grandkid-turned-local-icon, is himself the secret sauce.
The Guglielmo’s brand
Years of Sundays in his grandfather’s kitchen have shaped Guglielmo’s face into a warm, welcoming roundness. His personal flavor — equal parts benevolence and bluster — infuse every interaction.
He prints his personal phone number on every single jar because he’s striving to be different. “The whole idea originally was that you were coming over to my grandpa’s house for sauce,” says Guglielmo. “So I wanted to make you feel like you were my friend.” He adds that if you spend money to actually buy his sauce, you are his friend — and there it is: Guglielmo has a great marketing strategy. A story sells his sauce, but it’s a true story. He really is that guy.
Guglielmo and his fiancee, Ryann Bouchard (who does all Guglielmo’s public relations and packaging for orders out of Rochester), attended a convention where marketing gurus revealed that in today’s food culture, ‘homemade, homespun, homegrown’ is in and ‘authenticity’ is king.
“I went, ‘oh crap, that’s great,’” he says. “When I came out with the sauce, I just came out in ignorance, you know ... I didn’t know people were into small batch, local foodie movements.”
To earn capital for his business, Guglielmo secured a job pouring drinks at Rubino’s in Webster. “I was a terrible bartender,” he says. “At least I had the personality that I could shuck and jive with the patrons, you know?”
Every tip went back into the sauce.
“Every Friday night for a year and two months I would drive (Route) 250 and stop at the Bank of America in Penfield ... then after I year, I started a business with it,” he says, adding he sometimes stops back at Rubino’s to see his old regulars. “I call them all co-owners, because it was all their tip money that started the business.”
Exceeding the standard
But money wasn’t enough. Guglielmo had to get the government’s stamp of approval to sell his sauce to people. He says there are two standards for different kinds of products: the FDA and the USDA. He measures in the air with his fingers the relative sizes of the rule books for each. The USDA rule book is much thicker.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “I was nervous, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was very afraid that it was going to come back with just a list of things that were wrong with it — and that was the moment of truth ... I was either going to find out it was possible or not possible.”
The closest FDA lab is in Geneva, and his first batch did come back needing adjustments. The amount of meat in the sauce, while not unsafe, would have to be sent to a USDA lab for inspection. Also, the pH of his sauce could not be above 4.20, and his was 4.23. “That was the moment when I went, ‘Oh my god, this might actually happen, because I think I can (fix) both those things,” he says. “I can use slightly riper tomatoes and take out a little bit of sausage.”
Guglielmo bought a $400 pH meter, made another batch — and instead of following FDA procedure by putting it in the mail, he (as usual) applied a more personal touch. “I drove right to the lab, knocked on the door, and met Herb Cooley,” says Guglielmo, adding that he still has Cooley’s cell phone number in his pocket, and sends him every new flavor of sauce.
Selling the sauce
Hurdling government regulation and building enough capital to enter the sauce business was, it turns out, the easy part of the story. Guglielmo says he started by taking a week off work and completely devoting it to making sauce. He thought maybe he’d have to make more in another six months. A year and a half later, it’s made every week at a factory in Bergen, Genesee County. Guglielmo then picks it up and delivers it personally.
“My SUV is full of sauce right now,” he says. “Some of the cases were actually warm when I put them in my car.”
Sales represents the part of making sauce Guglielmo says is decidedly un-sexy. “Foodies are artists — they’re creative,” he says. “It sucks to be a little bit of a salesperson, but you have to be.” Guglielmo has worked this unnatural-but-necessary element of the sauce game into a strategic process.
“Every single store, just walk in, find the highest person you can find ... give them a couple jars, give them a 30-second elevator spiel on what it is: ‘my grandpa-please try my sauce-I’ll stop by in a week.’ I’ve done that hundreds of times.”
Sometimes the story makes no difference, he says. Sometimes, he has to look up area sales reports to show that a $6 marinara sauce really does sell. Sometimes, he has to guarantee to buy back any unsold sauce. So far, he’s never had to come through on that guarantee.
The Ben and Jerry's of marinara sauce
With a product as ubiquitous as marinara sauce, and with ingredients and workflow that demand higher prices (Guglielmo says he couldn’t even produce, let alone sell, a jar of sauce for the Wegmans brand standard price of $1.29) he has had to find other ways of brand differentiation. These tactics came in part through conversations with mentors like Charlie Fitzsimmons, owner of Black and Blue and TRATA, and Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s.
“I’m trying to model myself (as) the Ben and Jerry’s of sauces,” says Guglielmo. Cohen told him they ran into the same problem: higher-than-average prices and ample competition. Ben and Jerry’s found success in preaching the superior quality of their product and taking a light, whimsical approach to flavors. During the first days of his brand development, Guglielmo decided to take a similar track.
“See, arrabiata puttanesca,” he says with an Italian flourish, the double ‘r’ revving on his tongue like a car engine. “Spicy puttanesca sauce. I call it Spicy Chunky Veggie ... that’s being playful and fun instead of straightforward.” Guglielmo says he’ll carry this philosophy into the sauces he’s releasing in the coming year — a cheese sauce and mushroom sauce by summer 2016, and his Sunday Sauce, which will launch in early 2016.
“The Sunday Sauce was a combination of all those things people told me I was doing wrong - you know, little old Italian guys would come up to me at festivals (he affects a Godfather accent) ‘Do you use red wine in your sauce?’ I’d say, ‘no, no sir I don’t’. ‘I do. I do.’ So there’s red wine in the sauce,” Guglielmo says. There’s also freshly grated parmesan, sausage meatballs, and other tips he’s collected from a public that seems to love him and the story he’s building.
A 46-second video on Guglielmo’s website takes the viewer inside the Depot Street house in Conneaut where Paul went Sundays for sauce. He says that it’s his favorite video in the world (along with the one of him proposing to his fiancee).
Recording with his cell phone, he walks through the front door, decorated with a wreath of yellow flowers. “Hey!” he booms. His grandmother sits at the kitchen table, and his grandfather, a little bald man in a gray sweatshirt, spins around from the stove, where it seems he can barely peek over a giant pot of sauce. Blinking behind giant spectacles, he describes how a big group is coming for sauce since his grandson is in town.
“Paul,” he says in a throaty rasp, “Why is it that you always draw a crowd?”