Gina Cucina

Gina Cucina

How Gina Cucina Delivers Love, Soup and Pesto to Customers’ Doorsteps
Published August 2016

Organic, non-GMO soup, pesto and sauce, delivered to your door.

2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Winner
Gina Cucina
Carbondale, CO

Gina D’Orazio Stryker is a full-blooded Italian, with an inherent love of food, nutrition and cooking. Her grandfather on her father’s side was an Italian chef. And, although Stryker was raised far from Italy, in a tiny mountain town in Idaho, population 724, it didn’t take long for her to learn that food was her passion, too.

“I started cooking at a very young age,” said Gina D’Orazio Stryker, founder and recipe artist for Gina Cucina. “But, it never really occurred to me that food would become my career.”

When Stryker was a senior in high school, her beloved grandfather died.  

“I had this sense that I needed to go to Italy to culinary school, to immerse myself into my grandfather’s world,” she said.

Stryker was 18 years old at the time — the first in her immediate family to take a commercial flight or own a passport. She was scared to death, but ended up having the time of her life.

“I went to Florence and it was magical. I studied cooking, the language and the history of Italy,” Stryker said. “Instead of reading a book about Michelangelo, I could stand in front of something he created.”

That was only the beginning of the adventure.

Stryker came back to the United States, landed in New York and lived there for two years, working in theater. She went home for the summer and met famed film producer Frank Marshall, who offered her a job in Los Angeles, working as his assistant. So, at the age of 23, Stryker headed west, and learned the movie business.

Her life took another turn when she met and fell in love with a yoga instructor named Rod. Shortly after they married in 2004, the couple moved to scenic Carbondale, Colorado, where Stryker settled in as a full-time mom to one, then two sets of twins.

From Yogi Caterer to Soup Entrepreneur

In the beginning, Stryker’s husband was on the road 20 days a month, teaching yoga instructors all over the world. To cut down on that travel, he decided to start offering training sessions right there in Carbondale. Finding a facility to hold the trainings and house the yogis was no problem. However, feeding that health-conscious crowd was another story.

“I spent two months looking for caterers who would prepare organic, vegetarian meals for 50 to 100 people at our five-day teacher trainings, and I couldn’t find anything for less than $50 a head,” Stryker said. “So, I decided to do the cooking myself.”

For the next nine years, Stryker prepared meals for thousands of yogis, to rave reviews. Her soups were some of her most popular items, made using only the freshest local ingredients. The yogis wanted recipes and leftovers, and urged her to start selling her soups at the farmers market. Eventually, she decided to give it a try.

Stryker went to her favorite certified organic farmer with a value proposition: she’d use his produce in her soups if he’d let her share his farm stand. A friend who owned a bakery let her use her 300-square-foot kitchen, for free, to prepare her first few batches.

“We took 100 jars to the farmers market and sold out in an hour. The next time, we brought 165 jars and sold out again. We’re selling hot soup in the middle of July,” Stryker said. “My thirteen year old looked at me and said, ‘I think you’re onto something.’”

For a while, the newly named Gina Cucina soups were the darlings of the farmers market. Soon, Stryker added sauces and pestos to her product line.  She started getting orders, and thinking seriously about expanding her business beyond her hometown customers. She had a built-in market with the yogis, and had already seen that near everyone who tasted her soup, bought her soup. She knew how to cook. Now, Stryker had to figure out how to turn that talent into a business.

Opportunity Knocks — A Little Too Soon

Before she knew it, Gina Cucina landed on a major retailer’s radar.

“I got a call from a representative from a large, specialty grocer who picked up our soup at the farmers market and wanted to start carrying it,” Stryker said. “I was overjoyed, until I read through this very large document that explained everything I needed to do to get ready — like rebrand, test shelf life — a lot of things that would take money that we just didn’t have.”

Stryker’s best friend invested $100,000 in Gina Cucina, enough for her to rent a commercial kitchen, buy raw ingredients, packaging, and pay for shelf-life testing.

Everything started to seemingly fall into place. A natural grocer contacted her not long after, to carry her product in 97 stores in four states. Then, she went shopping for pots and pans at a big box retailer, and was invited to pitch by a visiting executive, who struck up a conversation when he noticed her cart full of cooking supplies.

Although everyone loved her soups, Stryker had a few missteps getting those products to market.

“We had some issues with the glass jars we were using, so we’ve been delayed getting into the natural grocer, but we’re working it out. The co-packing kitchen we hired failed the NSF audit, so my brother, who is also an organic farmer, is building me my own commercial kitchen back in Idaho on the farm, which should take care of that problem,” Stryker said.

Her watermelon habanero and heirloom tomato gazpachos, though both delicious, also had packaging issues early on.

“Because gazpacho isn’t cooked, it requires HPP, a cold pasteurization process that kills listeria and other unsavory things,” Stryker said. “I ordered $30,000 worth of fruit, made 500 pounds of gazpacho and the package exploded during the HPP process. We lost 20 percent of the product.”

Despite the setbacks, Stryker has taken it all in stride. She learned from every experience, and luckily, her soups are so good that people and retailers recognize that she’s worth the wait.

“The truth is, we jumped the gun and realized later that we weren’t ready,” she said. “But, I also am the kind of person who doesn’t give up. I’ve failed a lot, but, I’ve also learned a lot. That will make us a stronger business in the long run. ”

Her Soup-of-the-Month Club Hits the Spot

Although she appreciated the retail attention, Stryker is a relator — a self-proclaimed “sharer” who likes to build personal relationships with her customers. For that, e-commerce was the perfect vehicle.

“We put up a website and started our Soup-of-the-Month club, where subscribers get four packages of two different soups every month,” Stryker said. “I love the model because I can include an eight-ounce sampler of something new, with a feedback card. That way, I can get to know my customers, and their tastes, a little better.”

The subscription option quickly took off, with 120 Soup-of-the-Month customers, many of whom were yogis and farmers market fans who already loved the Gina Cucina brand. Although there were rough starts with website billing, Stryker’s “familiar, forgiving customers” were both patient and kind, even after she suspended the subscription option for a time.

They were willing to wait for the seed-to-table goodness that the company provides.

Winning a FedEx Grant

Stryker has long been a fan of FedEx, and the people who work there.

“We love our FedEx driver, Tom. He’s such a gentleman — always kind, always lifting the heavy boxes for me,” Stryker said. “Sometimes, he comes in for lunch. We always have something waiting.”

She heard about the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest from Erin, who does her package design and marketing.

“We really didn’t think we had a shot. We just wanted to be one of those ‘10 people,’ the winners. It’s an amazing thrill to be part of that group,” she said. “My two youngest kids were literally on the table, dancing, when we got the call that Gina Cucina won a grant.”

Stryker will use the grant money to fund her website’s back end to make it more efficient, as the company shifts attention to e-commerce. In addition, the Gina Cucina team will use the funds to help launch a new line of baby food, which Stryker is as passionate about as her soups, sauces and pestos.

A Taste of What’s to Come

Today, with the trials and tribulations of starting a small business behind her, Stryker is on an upward trajectory, with a new Head of Operations, Kameron Miranda, in place: a new commercial kitchen and a menu of healthy choices designed to nourish the soul, while feeding the hungry taste buds in the process.

“I think it’s important for my children to see me follow my dream, even when it’s a struggle,” she said. “I’m staying true to myself, and to my brand. In the long run, that means we’ll be just fine —and happy with the company we built.”

No doubt, the sweet taste of success is on the horizon.

 

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