Dennis Elert has made his own pasta and pizza sauce for years, usually on weekends or at other times when his job as a commercial welder would allow.
Elert, 60, no longer peers through the dark glass of a welder’s helmet. Instead, his days are spent on the road delivering, marketing and urging others to taste what he’s been ladling over spaghetti and onto crusts since shortly after graduating from East High School in 1972.
Only now his sauce is in glass jars on the shelves of 38 grocery stores in Wisconsin and Illinois. Elert, who lives in Poynette, is in talks with more grocery chains, like Kroger and Publix, and is looking for an investor and a distribution company. In 2013, Elert logged more than 200,000 miles with a Nissan pickup truck and a Dodge conversion van picking up cases of his The Sauce King sauce from a contract manufacturer in Ixonia, making deliveries throughout the state and offering samples.
“I sell the heck out of it. I do four tastings a week, six hours at a shot,” Elert said. “I’ve got a lot of people who are amazed I’ve gone this far.”
Elert is one of a handful of local entrepreneurs with locally made pasta and pizza sauces that share the Italian food aisles with Hunt’s, Ragu, Prego, Barilla and other national brands. Those companies have large marketing budgets, expansive manufacturing facilities and distribution networks and oftentimes a lower price for the consumer.
The makers of locally produced sauces say their success revolves around freshness, superior taste, history and the growing demand for locally made food products.
“We’re sticking to the quality part of it. That’s what it’s all about,” said Garry Fraboni, who makes sauce three times a week in the Fraboni’s Italian Specialties and Delicatessen in Monona. “When we make sauce, you can smell it all around the neighborhood.”
Fraboni’s was founded by Angelo Fraboni on Regent Street in Madison in 1971 and that location is now operated by Garry’s brother, Steven. Garry, his wife, Barbara, sister Rose Gilbertson and his son Bennett operate the Monona store and kitchen that opened in 1986. That’s where sauce is made in 30-gallon batches, filled into 32-ounce jars and labeled by hand. The Frabonis distribute the sauce themselves to the three Woodman’s stores in Madison and Sun Prairie, two Metcalfe’s Markets and to the Jenifer Street Market on Madison’s East Side.
“The hard part is keeping them well stocked, because we’re small,” said Garry Fraboni, 60. “With Metcalfe’s and Woodman’s, we’re at about full capacity. If I had three more stores call us, we’d probably have to look at having a larger facility or have someone else make it for us. But that’s not the direction we want to go.”
Fraboni’s sauce retails for $4.29 a jar and Elert’s The Sauce King brand for $5.99 to $6.49. That compares to a can of Hunt’s for around 99 cents or a jar of Prego for $1.99.
“People don’t balk at the price,” Elert said.
Di Salvo’s, based in Stoughton, is sold for $3.99 a jar and is the creation of Ben Di Salvo, who grew up in Madison, where from 1941 to 1961 his father owned and operated Di Salvo’s Spaghetti House, just east of Fraboni’s on Regent Street. In 2003, more than 40 years after the restaurant’s closing, Di Salvo, now 68, began marketing and distributing three styles of jarred sauces. Since that time, the business has grown to 22 products sold in 85 stores and restaurants in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. He also wants to open an Italian deli in Stoughton in 2015.
Di Salvo worked as a printer at CUNA for 35 years before getting into the sauce business. Providing consumers with a product that wasn’t part of a national brand provided much of his inspiration.
“I got very tired of that being representative of Italian cooking,” said Di Salvo, who self distributes with a 1-ton Chevy van that can hold 145 cases of sauce that are made under contract by a co-packer. “The business has never gone down in sales. It’s authentic and people appreciate that.”
Vito Cerniglia began making his Vito’s Garlic Sauce in 1984, first in a commercial kitchen near South Towne, then in a facility he built in Middleton. The sauce, sold in 16- ounce jars for $3.39, is now co-packed and distributed by other companies. The recipe is from his father George Cerniglia, who sold the sauce to local grocery stores in the 1950s but got out of the business as corner grocery stores were replaced with supermarkets.
Vito Cerniglia, a former Madison police officer, also started a food distribution business that helped support his sauce business.
“I would have never been able to survive on the garlic sauce itself,” Cerniglia said. “We’ve just been consistent. The garlic sauce is a unique sauce.”
Elert, The Sauce King, has enjoyed cooking since high school and has tweaked his sauce recipe over the decades. But it wasn’t until he was working as a welder in Mississippi in 2005 that he took a leap, looked for a manufacturing company and began selling his sauce at flea markets. It wasn’t long before he had 10 Piggly Wiggly stores in the south carrying his product.
“We formulated the recipe, pinch by pinch,” Elert said of he and his wife, Debbie, who urged him on. “We calculated everything and got it down to where we thought it was good.”
Elert stopped making the sauce in 2007 as the economy slid and he lost his welding job at a lawnmower factory. He moved back to Wisconsin in 2009 and began welding at Alkar, a Lodi food equipment manufacturer. At about the same time, he began lining up grocery stores to sell his sauce after finding Create-A-Pack-Foods, which produces the sauce on contract.
The Sauce King jars of sauce can be found in Woodman’s, Metcalfe’s, five Trig’s Markets in northern Wisconsin and seven Piggly Wiggly stores in the southern part of the state. But some of his best sales come from Sendik’s Food Markets and Sentry stores in the Milwaukee area.
During 12 hours of sampling at Sendik’s in Grafton over two days, he sold 14 cases of sauce. At the Whitefish Bay Sendik’s, he sold 16 cases of sauce during a two-day period. For a four-day demo at Albrecht’s Sentry in Delafield, Elert brought 18 cases but had to replenish and sold 35 of the 12-jar cases. He’s encouraged by the response.
“There’s nothing but green grass ahead of me,” Elert said. “When I quit Alkar, I felt apprehensive at first, but after the first week of doing the demos I knew it was going to work. This is truly gourmet.”