In terms of the actual product itself, use the best quality ingredients possible that come from reputable sources. When you offer good quality, nutritious, and sustainable ingredients in your products you know that you are doing the world a favor and it sets up a model of good business practices. My products are made using age-old techniques by family businesses that have been passed down from generation to generation. The land that the ingredients come from is nutrient dense, and each ingredient is picked and handled with care. I know that my products can play a major role in someone enjoying a healthful, Mediterranean-style diet. These details are important to both myself and my customers.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Riolo.
As an award — winning, best-selling, author, chef, television personality, and educator, Amy Riolo is one of the world’s foremost authorities on culinary culture. She is known for sharing history, culture, and nutrition through global cuisine as well as simplifying recipes for the home cook. A graduate of Cornell University, Amy is considered a culinary thought leader who enjoys changing the way we think about food and the people who create it. Amy is a food historian, culinary anthropologist and Mediterranean Diet specialist who makes frequent appearances on numerous television and radio programs both in the United States and abroad, including Fox TV, ABC, CBS, NBC, The Hallmark Channel, Nile TV, The Travel Channel, Martha Stewart Living Radio, and Abu Dhabi Television. She also created and appeared weekly in cooking videos entitled “Culture of Cuisine” which air on nationally syndicated news shows on 28 different channels across the United States, totaling a reach of over 300 million people. One of her videos reached a record of four million hits.
Amy is the brand ambassador for the Pizza University and Culinary Arts Center and Ristorante d’Amore in Capri, Italy. In 2019 she launched her private label collection of premium Italian imported culinary ingredients called Amy Riolo Selections which includes an extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and pesto sauce from award-winning artisan companies. She recently shot a pilot for a television series called Taste Travel and Traditions which will explore the cuisine, culture, and healthful lifestyle habits in the Mediterranean region.
Prior to the pandemic, Amy was a Chef/Instructor for the Casa Italiana Language School in Washington, DC. as well as Italian Sensory Experience, a company which she leads Eno gastronomic tours in Italy with as well as Indigo Gazelle Tours in Morocco and Greece. Her work has appeared in numerous print media including USA Today, Cooking Light magazine, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Wall Street Journal, Parade Magazine, Gulf News, The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Popular Anthropology Magazine, Ambassador, The Examiner, The UAE National, as well as hundreds of other national and international newspapers and magazines.
Amy released the second edition of her award-winning, best-selling Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook in May 2019. She has written multiple books with The American Diabetes Association and was the National Spokesperson for their 2018 release — the Quick Diabetic Recipes cookbook. In 2018 Amy also released Creating a Cookbook: How to Write, Publish and Promote Your Culinary Philosophy on Amazon. Her seventh book, The Italian Diabetes Cookbook was released on January 12, 2016 and was the #1 New Release on Amazon.com. In April 2015 she released The Ultimate Mediterranean Diet Cookbook which earned multiple 5 star reviews on Examiner.com and Amazon as well as many other positive endorsements. Her third book, The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook, (American Diabetes Association) was released in March 2010, received a starred PW review, won the 2011 Nautilus Book Award and was named “Best. Diabetes. Cookbook. Ever. “ by DiabetesMine.com. Amy’s second book Nile Style; Egyptian Cuisine and Culture (Hippocrene Books) won the World Gourmand Award for “Best Arab Cuisine Book” in the United States and was just released in a second edition. Her first book, Arabian Delights; Recipes & Princely Entertaining Ideas from the Arabian Peninsula was chosen as one of the “16 Volumes Worth Staining” by the Washington Post (Capital Books, 2007).
In addition to her professional work, Amy spends a great deal of her time supporting philanthropic efforts. She is a member of Cornell Club DC, Les Dames d’Escoffier (Global Culinary Initiative Chair), Slow Food DC, The James Beard Foundation, The National Organization of Italian American Women, and the Culinary Historians of Washington. Amy can often be found mentoring culinary students, teaching children’s cooking classes, and participating on panels for charity events. One of the highlights of her volunteering career was chairing the Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committee which enabled her to obtain a grant to provide clean drinking water for a village outside of Luxor, Egypt. Amy is based in the Washington, DC area and spends a great deal of time working in the Mediterranean region — predominately Italy, Greece, and Morocco.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Of course! I started cooking and baking with my family as a young girl. The earliest times I can remember was when I was around 3 years old. My mother would sit me on the counter where she was cooking and let me roll meatballs and cookies while she cooked. She used to cater and make cookies for weddings, so that was no small feat, and the first professional technique that I mastered was rolling. My paternal grandfather lived next door to us, and he was a cook in the military, so when I helped him he taught me how to make substitutions and swap outs when cooking, because he rarely had the luxury of cooking with prime ingredients, and wanted me to be prepared. My maternal grandmother was a fabulous cook and baker, and I got to learn all of our traditional Calabrian and other Italian baked goods from her. My father is what we refer to in Italian as a “buon gustaio,” someone who really enjoys food and has good taste. Cooking for him and shopping with him is always a treat for me. As I grew up, I became more and more aware of the difference between high quality products and others, both in terms of taste and nutrition, and I always made buying the best food I could a priority. Even though it may cost more, better ingredients are actually a better value. They cost more, but they have a better impact on our health, so they save on health care down the road. They oftentimes help small growers and producers and improve industry in certain communities. Whenever I could, I chose the best quality ingredients. By the time I attended Cornell University, I was so obsessed with authentic Italian cuisine that I had a poster hanging in my apartment kitchen that read “The Art of Italian Cuisine” and the image below it was a paint brush (with bristles made out of spaghetti strands) that dripped in red, white, and green colors like the Italian flag. It was a good foundation for the career path I would eventually take.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Actually, ever since I started writing cookbooks on the Mediterranean lifestyle, I became interested in referring my readers and cooking class students to the best ingredients possible, so that they would have the best results in making the dishes and enjoy good health. I used to always refer my friends’ and colleagues’ brands because they were traceable. I had been to their farms and tasted their products. But when you are dealing with books sold internationally and small producers, it is not always that easy. On my ingredients lists for recipes, I used to always write “good quality olive oil” but soon thereafter I realized that people didn’t know what that meant.
The labels were becoming increasingly ambiguous and for good reason!
The more educated people are about EVOO, the less of the fake stuff gets purchased, and that influences the profits of a lot of major companies. So I began educating myself with all of the information that I could find from UNAPROL (Italy’s olive oil consortium) and UC Davis. I read the latest research from Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Tunisia. During my culinary tours that I co-lead in the region, olive oil tastings are always an important component. The Italian Government also began sending me to Italy as a journalist to learn even more. It was a great time because the more I learned the more curious I became, and it took at least 6 years before I even considered myself well-versed in the world of olive oil.
Since then, I have given presentations internationally on olive oil for organizations such as The North American Olive Oil Association, Georgetown University, Cornell University, The International Trade Center, television shows and more. A few years back when I was returning from Italy, my longtime friend Stefano Ferrari, owner of LIFeSTYLE suggested that I introduced my own private label because I was known for olive oil, and it would be great to have my own brand.
Truth be told, I had been dreaming of that for years, but had no idea how to get started. Stefano explained the process to me and said that we could work with the producer of my choice and that he would handle the importation and distribution. I then contacted my business partners in Italy who I was leading tours with through a business called Italian Sensory Experience, and asked them to assist me in creating my own private label. Both of my partners, Francesco Giovanelli and Antonio Iuliano were extremely helpful in making this come true. We decided to collaborate with Trappeto di Caprafico, an olive mill rated the 3rd best in the world, which we knew well because we took our travelers to visit their mill during trips. I felt very proud to be able to offer a product from an orchard that I knew and had witnessed winning awards at VinItaly each year in Verona.
The Amy Riolo Selections brand was born and my private label EVOO, pesto sauce, and vinegar can now be purchased everywhere from Pennsylvania to Bermuda. LIFeStyle in Bedford, PA, DITALIA in Missouri, Tastings Gourmet in Annapolis, Maryland, The Mediterranean Way in Washington, DC, Stellina Pizzeria in VA, Milan Milan in Bermuda, and other outlets now sell my products.
This eventually led to additional products, such as my White Balsamic Dressing from the famous Castelli vinegar company and Sundried Red Pesto from Alessandro Anfosso’s award-winning Anfosso brand in Luguria. This year we plan to expand the line even more. My Italian business partners and I also started a business in the United States called ISE LLC, which is a marketing and consulting company for fine Italian foods.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the funniest “mistake” would have been having a dream and not telling anyone. I didn’t even know that my friend Stefano, even though I had been to his store and restaurant a million times, had an import business. I thought that he just distributed. Had I known he had the power to import products, I would have probably asked him to collaborate years before and I could have gotten in to the business earlier.
My mistake was not asking for his advice sooner. What I have learned is that you can save time and achieve your goals by asking for advice from colleagues or professionals as soon as ideas occur to you.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
This is a hard question to answer because there are many types of food lines — from large to small — that cover all types of demographics. My experience is specifically with superior quality, high-end imported goods, so I will speak directly to that market, even though there is some overlap into other areas as well. I have seen the following mistakes:
- Some companies do not have a strong sense of purpose aligned with the products. Meaning, they offer a line of products that do not go together or don’t tell a story. If a person or a company is known for Asian cuisine, for example, and their target customer is people who seek out high-end Asian products, it might not be in their best interest to offer a line of olive oil.
- Some people do not do the research to determine what their customers want. Stefano and I study sales of my products to determine patterns and trends, so that we know which products will sell. I also keep an open dialogue with my consumers via social media and direct mail.
- It is important to separate your own tastes from the brand. Your customers obviously have a need, and it is in your best interest to fill it for them. I have learned over the years that while I might have a particular preference for extremely bitter olive oil, lots of spicy chili pepper, and very strong, aged sheep’s’ milk cheese, those flavors may not agree with my main customer base. So from the business sense, it is important for me to choose products that I can endorse proudly and believe in, but also appeal to a wide variety of palates.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
- Do competitive market analysis. See what else is out there and decide why your product is needed and how it could be marketed. Their needs to be a need for it, in order for it to do well.
- If possible, find a mentor in the business who is willing to help and collaborate, or a paid coach if necessary.
- Read as many books on the industry as possible.
- Familiarize yourself with government regulations — FDA, etc regarding the food that you plan on producing or importing.
- Make sure that you have all of the necessary business requirements — licenses and permits, food handling certificates.
- Learn the difference between state and federal laws with your product if necessary.
- Create a business plan and take a close and honest look at how this venture will create money for you before proceeding. Determine all of your costs and resources needed to make this a reality.
- Network with culinary organizations, food stores, other food producers, chefs, etc. on social media and in person when possible. These relationships may lead to professional partnerships.
- Decide which roles you honestly have time/expertise to handle within the business and determine whether or not you could delegate the rest to someone else.
- Create a marketing plan for the line and keep in mind that it takes years before new businesses turn profits, so the more you can do in the beginning to get it started, the better.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Having a food line takes a lot of hard work and dedication, so if someone struggles with manifesting ideas in general, this probably is not the best idea for them. People have to be very passionate and committed to make a business like this work. If someone is sure that they can handle the required effort, then I would say create a line that makes you so excited that you want to jump out of bed in the morning to tell the world about it. You will need that inner drive and desire to succeed to make the business a success. Food lines are not usually known for selling themselves, so you really have to want it to make it happen.
When tasks seem daunting to me, I often use guided imagery in the mornings and meditate on the ideas that I am already successful in achieving my goal and how wonderful it is. This helps set the energetic pace that takes me over hurdles. It also opens up space in my mind for the right mentors like Stefano in my case, or business partners, such as my Italian Sensory Experience colleagues to be cooperative.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
It depends. If they are totally new to the arena and don’t have professional contacts/mentors or friends and family to show them the ropes, then yes. Professional career coaches and mentors are also great resources. In this case, though, I would hire someone to help with the actual business and framework for the line before worrying about which product it would be. Then, once all of that is in place, an invention development consultant, or other recommended professional could help with the actual product.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
They both have advantages. Bootstrapping can be an easy choice if you are starting small and have dedicated clients and partners waiting for your product. I would only suggest bootstrapping if you have the money needed to start the line as excess money, and that the money is not taken from anything else needed. It can also be a backup if you can’t secure venture capital.
Obtaining venture capital adds additional time to the start of the business because you will have to pitch your product and be sure that those you are pitching it to are convinced of your success and decide to invest. This is a separate process that takes time, so it must be figured in. The good news is that along with the funding often comes additional tips and resources to help you succeed, but they will have ownership rights to your company which may prevent you from taking certain options. If venture capitalists are not interested, angel investors are another option.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
My products are privately labelled from existing purveyors, so I don’t have to worry about patents and sourcing raw ingredients. The retailers (with the exception of one) that we work with were all companies that I had already collaborated with previously and so I believed in them and their products and knew that mine would be a good fit. I met Vince Di Piazza from DITALIA through Stefano Ferrari, because he is one of their importers, and their products are completely in line with mine, so it was a natural and positive partnership. I partner with award-winning and highly reputable single estates and reknown brands in Italy to make Amy Riolo Selections. Since their products are already well known and highly traceable, it is easy for me to collaborate with them because I know that they offer the best products on the market.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You need a strong mission for your food line. What needs can it fill and how does it fill a void in the market? In my case, I had tasted a particular blend of Italian extra-virgin olive oil in the orchards from the producer himself, and I knew that I wanted Americans to be able to experience it — both for its’ flavor and health benefits, so that became my mission. I like to offer high quality Italian food products to people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to enjoy them.
- Passion and dedication. If you are not interested in doing the work to set up the business, do your research, develop the line, and then market it, you are wasting your time. If you are so dedicated to what you are doing however, that you know it will be a success, then you are on the right track. My business is a collaboration between the people who actually make the products, Stefano, my importer and distributor who takes care of those specific details, the vendors who sell my products in the United States, and myself, who does the majority of the marketing and PR around the products. Even that one role can be a full-time job, so you need to plan accordingly.
- Cover all of your bases in terms of roles. Make sure that your business plan gives a detailed description to who will do what so that no detail gets left undone. Even though I handle the marketing and PR around my products myself, for example, I still create yearly, monthly, and weekly business plans so that I stay on top of everything that needs to be done to ensure that my products are visible.
- In terms of the actual product itself, use the best quality ingredients possible that come from reputable sources. When you offer good quality, nutritious, and sustainable ingredients in your products you know that you are doing the world a favor and it sets up a model of good business practices. My products are made using age-old techniques by family businesses that have been passed down from generation to generation. The land that the ingredients come from is nutrient dense, and each ingredient is picked and handled with care. I know that my products can play a major role in someone enjoying a healthful, Mediterranean-style diet. These details are important to both myself and my customers.
- Determine what foods you would like to promote. If you would feel proud to promote those items (whether you are your own spokesperson or you hire a celebrity), it is always good business practice to create what you would like to use yourself. I sample my products several times, and think about how I could serve them and how my clients can serve them. If I would not offer them to my most beloved friends and family with pride, then I do not sell them.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Yes, it is very important to be passionate and excited about what you are offering and to marry that excitement with a need in the market. If you are truly “crazy about” your products, and you have a team of people that feel the same way, it becomes very easy to spread that feeling. There are people and companies who analyze trends to come up with the next best thing, but I have never done that. I prefer to introduce the items that I have found while overseas that can provide solutions to my readers’ problems. So, for example, when everyone used to ask me “What kind of extra-virgin olive oil do you recommend, it became clear to me that I needed to offer my own oil that I knew was high quality. That led to a complimentary vinegar and pesto which were of the same authenticity level.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have built my entire business model around my mission of helping people to live with pleasure and health in mind. My books, products, tours, presentations, and videos all help people to achieve those goals.
In addition, around once a week, I donate my time lecturing and presenting Mediterranean lifestyle and other info to groups, foundations, and associations so that they can raise money for their activities. I volunteer for many organizations as well. A few years ago, I began an initiative with Dr. Sam Pappas called Culinary Med Life which shares culinary medicine tips, research, and recipes on social media, in podcasts, and at live events to help people achieve optimal health. I also mentor people writing cookbooks and starting out in the culinary field.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would start a movement to help people reap the rewards of the Mediterranean lifestyle from anywhere. I would like to help others nourish their minds, bodies, and spirits to live better and longer.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Martha Stewart because of her amazing and inspirational success story and ability to create highly successful product lines.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.