Tomato innovationNew Cumberland caterers let Sunshine into sauce
Imagine a round plate of steaming pasta, maybe some vegetables, a chicken breast breaded with herbs and several paper-thin slices of parmesan cheese melting over the top.
Are you picturing red tomato sauce? How about light orange, maybe even a dark yellow? If you're sold, or at least curious, the sauce is not a dream.
Don and Carla Noss, the owners of Sir D's Catering in New Cumberland, are hoping the orange sauce sticks in your mind, as well as to your ribs. They're making sauce from yellow tomatoes for their newest venture, called Sunshine Tomato Co.
The Nosses could be venturing into a product market with limited competition and potential for healthy rewards, they said. But there are obstacles in the food markets, and it's taken more than a year just to clear the basics.
That doesn't dissuade them.
"It's a sense of entrepreneurship," Don Noss said. "It's a challenge, because everything is new territory."
The idea for the orange tomato sauce was Carla's. She comes from Italian roots and loves sauces.
However, Don has a stomach that's easily upset by foods with high acidity, such as red tomato sauce. One night, Carla suggested they make sauce from less-acidic yellow tomatoes.
It was so good, and there are so few alternatives to red sauce, that they saw the opportunity for a business venture, Carla Noss said.
"There are maybe 30 sauces in Giant, all red," Don Noss said. "There's no yellow. We have no competition."
They started making the sauce in the Sir D's kitchen but quickly learned finding enough tomatoes at local farms, the right market experts, and a processor to make the recipe on a larger scale were more trouble than they expected, Don Noss said.
For starters, local farmers might plant 50 acres of tomatoes and only an acre of yellow tomatoes, he said. That means if you want any type of quantity, you need to visit a dozen farms and buy nearly everything.
"I think I bought 90 percent of the yellow tomatoes in Lancaster County," he said.
Finding a processor was difficult, too. The Nosses had envisioned doing about 10,000 pounds of tomatoes. But there are limited numbers of large processors, and they all wanted to process 250,000 pounds in a run, Don Noss said.
So the search was on for a mid-size processor. But to find that company — which the Nosses declined to name due to competitive concerns — they had to search meticulously along the tomato vine.
"We had to find a guy to find a guy to find a guy," Don Noss said.
The Nosses said many processors were interested, but most told them it couldn't be done because of the logistics of the switchover.
"It's groundbreaking for everyone," Carla Noss said. "We really had to gain the confidence of each person."
That's not a surprise, said Alan McConnell, director of the Food Science & Technology Center at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. There are steep barriers to entry in the food industry.
Regulations are strict, and the processors are few and far between, he said.
There's two ways to start a food company: Do it yourself or find a partner, McConnell said. Doing it yourself in a kitchen can be slow and costly for equipment, he said. However, it's the best way, because the owner can better control the company and product.
"That's what I advise most food entrepreneurs: start small and grow," he said.
Finding a manufacturer to produce larger quantities in less time has problems, too, McConnell said. First, you're doing thousands of jars of product and paying upfront. If your company doesn't have a guaranteed market, the food sits around, he said.
If you're a small business, you have to tackle regulatory barriers on your own. That's taken care of if you're using a licensed processor, he said.
"It gets pretty complex on the regulatory side," McConnell said. "And that's an appropriate measure on new food entrepreneurs because of the risk of illness. Literally, if you don't do it right, someone could die."
The Nosses said they welcome the challenges.
In addition to the tomato sauce, Sunshine will produce a salsa and a Bloody Mary mix they call "Canary Mary" from yellow tomatoes, they said. The Nosses want to be on store shelves by the fall and in the meantime continue to work the food show circuit, such as having a presence at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
"Someone can't tell us we can't do it," Carla Noss said.