The Business Journal
The Business Journal
Vol. 4, Nov. 24 | McHenry County | Dec. 11, 1996
County is Cooking with Cuginoâ€™s
By LEEANN ZOURAS
LAKE IN THE HILLS- One year after taking a bite out of the local gourmet market with their Cuginoâ€™s brand fixings, Dan and Debbie Hochstatter still hunger for more.Â More flavors, more markets, more time.
The Hochstatters own Cuginoâ€™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 â€“ when theyâ€™re there.Â 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.Â But they donâ€™t seem to mind.
â€œMost people who try our garlic spread love it,â€ said Dan, who launched the company with his wife after both left jobs in the graphic design field.Â â€œI love that. And I like the idea of being able to produce something that people can repurchase.â€
The Hochstatters launched their business after reading about another start-up company that was heating up the gourmet market with a homemade barbecue sauce.
â€œI thought if they could do it, we could do it,â€ Dan said.Â â€œWhenever we went to parties people were always asking us to bring our salad dressing.â€
Danâ€™s original salad dressing recipe â€“ which calls for balsamic and red wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil and a fine-tuned medley of herbs and spices â€“ came from his familyâ€™s culinary repertoire.
â€œI grew up on this stuff, so I had the basic recipe,â€ he said.Â â€œBut we must have adjusted it more than 100 times until we could hear someone say, â€˜Oh is the salad good tonight,â€™ like we used to do at the dinner table.â€
To achieve the desired effect, Dan and Debbie mixed the first batch, loaded it into their kidsâ€™ wagon and hauled it around the neighborhood, asking everyone what they thought, Dan said.
At the same time, Dan dreamed up his companyâ€™s garlic spread, using mozzarella, parmesan, provolone and romano cheeses.
The couple then saught out guidance from area gourmet shop owners.
â€œWe wanted to be in gourmet markets because we knew those shop owners spent time with customers, telling them about our products,â€ Dan said.Â â€œIn a grocery store, they just stick the products on the shelf and if it sells, it sells.â€
The Hochstatters turned to Ralph Kuhlman, owner of Now Youâ€™re Cookinâ€™ in downtown Crystal Lake, in the summer of â€™95.
â€œWe spent time with him working on the labeling,â€ said Ralph, who runs the store with his wife, Carole.Â â€œWe spent two and a half hours looking at products on the shelves.Â Dan already had in mind what he wanted.Â He had his Cuginoâ€™s guy; he just wanted some input.â€
Dan and Debbie also tested their cheese spread at the Kuhlmanâ€™s store before deciding on the final formulation, Ralph said.
By December, the Cuginoâ€™s line was ready to roll, and Dan and Debbie distributed the products to five area stores.Â This December, the Hochstattersâ€™ creations are available at about 150 gourmet outlets nationwide.
â€œI didnâ€™t want to conquer the whole market overnight, but things have been going well,â€ Dan said.
Besides gaining shelf space, Cuginoâ€™s salad dressings have gone behind the scenes at area Dominickâ€™s Finer Foods equipped with the grocery store chainâ€™s new cafÃ© and grills.
â€œThey were using a balsamic vinegar dressing on their house salads and they decided to pick our dressing instead,â€ said Dan, who sent the company product samples earlier this year.
Dan now wants to add new flavors to the Cuginoâ€™s dressing line.
â€œIâ€™m thinking about doing Caesar, creamy garlic and gorgonzola and blue cheese, and using a different cousin on each label,â€ Dan said.
Dan designed a winking cousin â€“ or cugino, in Italian â€“ to serve as the company logo so the products would reflect the Hochstatter heritage.
â€œOur families have always been important to us,â€ said Dan, whose parents helped finance his $40,000 venture.Â â€œWe still all go to momâ€™s house on Sundays for dinner.Â We love to eat.â€
Apparently, so do his customers, especially when the meals include Cuginoâ€™s products.Â The company started making a profit this fall, and Dan and Debbie finally are paying themselves a salary, Dan said.