Be or become a people person. This is a relationship-based industry and it is important to communicate and have your client gain your trust. There will always be new products to introduce to your client, product reviews, and other reasons why going back to a solid relationship will be invaluable.
Be humble. Mistakes will be made and rough patches will come — getting into this business means you need to understand and respect that process.
Be decisive and don’t be perfect as indecision is the thief of opportunity. Perfection is the enemy of progress.
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 Salvatore Russo-Tiesi. He grew up helping his Sicilian-born father with his Italian food importing business. Soon after graduating from college with a business degree, Russo-Tiesi had the vision to turn one of the products, Bono Extra Virgin Olive Oil, into a premium, top-selling EVOO in the U.S. His passion and drive convinced the family-owned Sicilian EVOO company to give him a chance, starting Bono USA. In just five years, Russo-Tiesi has transformed the virtually unknown brand into one of the fastest-growing imported olive oils in the U.S. Working with a lean team, Russo-Tiesi has landed chainwide distribution at Whole Foods following earlier wins at Wegmans, Rouses Supermarkets, Stop & Shop, and many others, including a recently launched Amazon page. Bono has also attained private label distribution at seven regional retailers and two national retailers, ultimately making their products available in all 50 states and online.
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”?
I was born and spent the first five years of my life living in Sicily in a very moderate, poor town in the center of the island where my father was the GM of Ford Motors’ Sicilian Branch. When the economic recession hit Sicily in the 1990s, Ford Motors’ Sicilian Branch was no exception to those feeling the financial downturn and my family made the difficult decision to leave everything and move to the US. Luckily, my mother is an American citizen, making the transition possible.
We moved to the USA with very little. My parents worked two jobs each to make ends meet for my family. My father had a few solid connections to Sicilian manufacturers because of his work with Ford, giving us a foot in the door into the Italian-American food importing business. Starting small, I began helping my Dad while I was still in school. I fell in love with the entire business and particularly the process of importing Italian food and selling it to the American Market.
After graduation from Seton Hall University, I petitioned my Father to work full time with him. Instead of continuing his accounts and working my way up, I saw a larger opportunity. Bono, the largest Sicilian producer of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (no small business on the Island) agreed to partner with me as I brought their transparent product into the US market, starting Bono USA.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
There is only 1 ingredient in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, so why is there so much confusion about what’s pure on the shelves? This simple question made it clear I needed to take Sicily’s most scalable EVOO and bring its clean, pure product to the US.
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?
When I first started, American grocery jargon was not yet in my lexicon. Acronyms like MCBs, OIs, OTFs, and more were all foreign to me. One of my first mistakes here was misusing the term ‘markup’ in place of ‘margin’. I booked a meeting based on a miscommunication of these terms. The meeting was a 4-hour flight away. Naturally, the true pricing and miscommunication came to light, and no sale was executed. That day, my most valuable resource — time — was wasted, and it was my fault. The lessons here were that you can never be too prepared before a presentation and to speak with precise language.
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?
There is a tremendous amount of research that needs to be done before starting a food business in a new category. Too often, I’ve seen this not happen as excited new business startups launch. Research like: is my product priced right? Are the ingredients being properly sourced? Can I attain the appropriate certifications? Is my product on-trend and in-demand? Is my product stable enough for the supply chain? You must create a product that you both love and can sell. Sometimes the two do not coexist.
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?
Exactly what’s stated above — research! Start with quality ingredients and move onto logistics such as cost analysis and market research.
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?
First and foremost, you have to have the courage to try and turn your dreams into reality. Secondly, know that success is an iceberg. People will see the surface and triumphs of your work, but they won’t see the depths, which are the risks, resistance, setbacks, and long hours. It will be hard, mistakes will happen, things will not always go your way, but with a clear goal and benchmarks, determination will lead to success.
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?
What has worked for me has been only hiring consultants once needed, not from the get-go. I recommend trying to start it up with your own in-house talent and hire consultants as needed.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Personally, I’ve found success in bootstrapping. There’s nothing wrong with venture capitalism, but it’s contingent upon the individual business and especially if a venture capitalist is the only choice. I’ve learned invaluable lessons from bootstrapping.
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?
I cannot personally respond to the patent based on experience. With regards to sourcing ingredients and manufacturers, I recommend utilizing third-party certifications, audits, and reports. Food safety is something we take very seriously here at Bono, as should any good food company. Additionally, it’s of utmost importance to ensure the manufacturers and the storage facilities of the raw ingredients follow all necessary protocols and have a full HAACP plan in place. After that, we move to organoleptically selecting the very best ingredients and manufacturers.
With regards to sourcing good retailers and distributors, I’d recommend starting with solid retail as the distributors come second due to their partnerships with each retailer. If you create a nice baseline of retailers, that will naturally create a distribution model for you, resulting in volume. This volume will then allow you to work with the distributor to pitch their other clients. Attaining retailers first alleviates the pressure off both you and the distributor because you’re doing the work alongside them.
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.)
1) First, one needs courage and heart to get the ball rolling on your business and not be phased by setbacks.
2) Knowledge of your product and product category. Get to know the industry and category to avoid rookie mistakes which cost time and dollars. As mentioned above, my first mistake was wasting time by misusing jargon I could have better researched.
3) Be or become a people person. This is a relationship-based industry and it is important to communicate and have your client gain your trust. There will always be new products to introduce to your client, product reviews, and other reasons why going back to a solid relationship will be invaluable.
4) Be humble. Mistakes will be made and rough patches will come — getting into this business means you need to understand and respect that process.
5) Be decisive and don’t be perfect as indecision is the thief of opportunity. Perfection is the enemy of progress.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
You need to solve a problem. With EVOO, for example, there are so many myths and much confusion about exactly what’s in the product and if any of it is ‘fake’. The crux of our product is certification so we don’t have to make any promises and can let third-party validators build confidence for us. Importantly, we offer products with the European Union’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) or PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) Certificates as proof of both authenticity and localized sourcing, which validates quality. We additionally offer lines including: non-GMO certified, Kosher, and USDA Organic. Bono branded olive oils have also received numerous accolades. Our USDA certified organic EVOO won two 2018 sofi Awards from the Specialty Food Association and our PGI Sicilia Organic EVOO received the coveted New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) Gold Award this year, to name a few. Bono also serves as the exclusive house purveyor of extra virgin olive oil for the James Beard Foundation in New York, one of the most important centers of culinary excellence in the U.S.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The US success of Bono has helped the Sicilian processing step into a sustainable future. With two facilities located in Sciacca, Sicily, Bono has had to adjust to an increasingly arid climate and frequent water shortages. To ensure against these issues, the company has invested in machinery that will dramatically cut down on water use — saving an estimated 1 million liters of water a year and yielding an even better quality olive oil. Additionally, Bono has turned to solar power for its two warehouses, where enough power is being generated by the energy-efficient sustainable resource to meet the company’s needs. I’m proud to bolster a company shaping the world into a more sustainable place.
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.
In my opinion, the two greatest issues in the world that are overlooked are mental health and child trafficking. An aspiration of mine is to one day be able to create a nonprofit centered around a help line and locations across our the country for safe emergency housing.
I believe strongly in the power of food so additionally, I’d love to provide meals and cooking lessons to those who wish to obtain practical home and even professional skills.
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.
After reading biographies on him, I am blown away and inspired by Elon Musk and his work. His determination, courage, and grit is everything every business should aspire for. Plus, the difficulties he has overcome to get where he is make him the ultimate leader in my eyes.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.