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The Business Journal

The Business Journal

Vol. 4, Nov. 24 | McHenry County | Dec. 11, 1996

County is Cooking with Cugino’s


       LAKE IN THE HILLS- One year after taking a bite out of the local gourmet market with their Cugino’s brand fixings, Dan and Debbie Hochstatter still hunger for more.  More flavors, more markets, more time.

      The Hochstatters own Cugino’s Gourmet Foods, Inc., a business that blends old-world Italian flavor with modern convenience through its ready-made vinegar-and-oil salad dressings and a four-cheese garlic spread.

      The Hochstatters run the company from their home – when they’re there.  Lately, Dan and Debbie have been delivering goods to each other at the food shows and in-store tastings as they attend to promote their products.  But they don’t seem to mind.

       “Most people who try our garlic spread love it,” said Dan, who launched the company with his wife after both left jobs in the graphic design field.  “I love that. And I like the idea of being able to produce something that people can repurchase.”

      The Hochstatters launched their business after reading about another start-up company that was heating up the gourmet market with a homemade barbecue sauce.

       “I thought if they could do it, we could do it,” Dan said.  “Whenever we went to parties people were always asking us to bring our salad dressing.”

       Dan’s original salad dressing recipe – which calls for balsamic and red wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil and a fine-tuned medley of herbs and spices – came from his family’s culinary repertoire.

       “I grew up on this stuff, so I had the basic recipe,” he said.  “But we must have adjusted it more than 100 times until we could hear someone say, ‘Oh is the salad good tonight,’ like we used to do at the dinner table.”

      To achieve the desired effect, Dan and Debbie mixed the first batch, loaded it into their kids’ wagon and hauled it around the neighborhood, asking everyone what they thought, Dan said.

       At the same time, Dan dreamed up his company’s garlic spread, using mozzarella, parmesan, provolone and romano cheeses.

       The couple then saught out guidance from area gourmet shop owners.

       “We wanted to be in gourmet markets because we knew those shop owners spent time with customers, telling them about our products,” Dan said.  “In a grocery store, they just stick the products on the shelf and if it sells, it sells.”

       The Hochstatters turned to Ralph Kuhlman, owner of Now You’re Cookin’ in downtown Crystal Lake, in the summer of ’95.

      â€œWe spent time with him working on the labeling,” said Ralph, who runs the store with his wife, Carole.  “We spent two and a half hours looking at products on the shelves.  Dan already had in mind what he wanted.  He had his Cugino’s guy; he just wanted some input.”

       Dan and Debbie also tested their cheese spread at the Kuhlman’s store before deciding on the final formulation, Ralph said.

       By December, the Cugino’s line was ready to roll, and Dan and Debbie distributed the products to five area stores.  This December, the Hochstatters’ creations are available at about 150 gourmet outlets nationwide.

       “I didn’t want to conquer the whole market overnight, but things have been going well,” Dan said.

      Besides gaining shelf space, Cugino’s salad dressings have gone behind the scenes at area Dominick’s Finer Foods equipped with the grocery store chain’s new café and grills.

       “They were using a balsamic vinegar dressing on their house salads and they decided to pick our dressing instead,” said Dan, who sent the company product samples earlier this year.

      Dan now wants to add new flavors to the Cugino’s dressing line.

      â€œI’m thinking about doing Caesar, creamy garlic and gorgonzola and blue cheese, and using a different cousin on each label,” Dan said.

       Dan designed a winking cousin – or cugino, in Italian – to serve as the company logo so the products would reflect the Hochstatter heritage.

       “Our families have always been important to us,” said Dan, whose parents helped finance his $40,000 venture.  “We still all go to mom’s house on Sundays for dinner.  We love to eat.”

       Apparently, so do his customers, especially when the meals include Cugino’s products.  The company started making a profit this fall, and Dan and Debbie finally are paying themselves a salary, Dan said.