This story was originally created for and posted on Opportunity Nevada.
When the recession hit Reno about ten years ago, Sal and Val Gray (affectionately known as Papa Sal & Mama Val) both lost the positions they had been working hard at building for over 25 years. When they tried to find work, they were told they were too old to be hired (they were only in their early fifties!). So, they did what all good Italian’s do when they get bummed out, they made delicious food and fed their friends and family. It fed their souls and the Gray’s needed a little soul food, Italian style.
Friends and family had been enjoying their sauces for years and their good friend, Nicole, suggested they turn their love of cooking together into a business. The Gray’s realized that not everyone has time to cook all day and they decided to bring their sauces to the retail market. In 2012, in Reno, Nevada, Italian Hearts Gourmet Foods was born.
The Gray’s love foods that are fast to prepare, they just wanted them to be healthy. So, they worked on keeping their commercial red sauces the same as what they made at home by using wholesome ingredients they believe in for good health. They were very excited to give everyone hours of a head start to create fabulous meals in just a minute!
Taking a Leap of Faith
It wasn’t always easy for Papa Sal & Mama Val. “It’s been a journey and has taken a village,” says Mama Val. “We had little money and cashed in our savings and 401K just to survive. We prayed God would give us a sign to confirm that we were to step out in faith and create a small business. It was not very long after that we received our confirmation by way of a heart shaped tomato in our garden!”
Papa Sal & Mama Val have been blessed with very good friends that helped get them started. Their close friends, Larry & Melba, purchased the ingredients the Gray’s needed to make the first batch of sauce and Melba taught them how to can it. The Gray’s credit this friendship as the reason they survived the first year of building their business.
Italian Aroma Therapy
The Gray’s first event was a craft show in Reno. While setting up, Mama Val became nervous after breaking a jar of sauce during set up. Little did she know that the smell would bring everyone to their booth. People went crazy trying to locate where this most delicious smell was coming from and the Gray’s sold out in a hot minute due to the lovely “Italian Aroma Therapy” their sauces exude.
Words of Wisdom
Their business just took off after this and there has been no looking back for Papa Sal & Mama Val; however, they do have some words of advice for someone opening a new business.
“Owning a small business is not for the faint of heart! There are many ups and many downs. We pray a lot and God is faithful to send us heart’s in the most unusual places. Especially when we ask him ‘Are you sure God? Should we continue?’ God is faithful to keep us moving forward. It’s never easy, but we are always blessed.”
Local support is very important to the Gray’s; they choose to support the local economy by using ingredients from family-owned local farms and ranches. It is very important to them to know where their ingredients come from.
They started making their sauces in a shared commercial kitchen but quickly realized that sharing a kitchen, managed by someone else, was just not ideal for them. They knew they needed to have their own kitchen and that co-packers would not be able to make the sauces the way they required.
They were starting the build out on a location in Reno when another local business owner called them and asked them to come and look at her commercial kitchen in Gardnerville. She was moving to a larger space and was willing to give the Gray’s a good deal on her smaller space.
Mama Val says, “It was almost turn key for us, so we moved our production facility to Gardnerville, just south of Reno where we live.”
To this day, they are handcrafting their Italian Heart’s Pasta Sauces in small batches in this Gardnerville kitchen, using the same top shelf ingredients and canning their sauces for good health without processing them. It is truly a labor of love straight from their lovely Italian hearts.
From day one, the Gray’s had a goal – to get their sauces into Whole Foods Reno. It took them a year, but they did it! From there, they quickly grew, expanding into northern California, Lake Tahoe, Truckee and more.
In 2015, Italian Heart’s Pasta Sauces won Whole Foods Reno’s Small Producer Grant. This was quite an honor as Whole Foods Reno only selects one company per year. Best of all, it was the staff at Whole Foods that nominated them. In addition to this prestigious award, Italian Heart’s Pasta Sauces has won many other awards of excellence from the Governor and several other government officials. These awards are proudly displayed along the walls of their commercial kitchen.
What’s the Secret?
Italian Hearts Pasta Sauces are not like the other pasta sauces available in the stores. First and foremost, the Italian Hearts sauce recipes have been passed down from generation to generation, with additional touches that make them uniquely their own. The Gray’s use many local organic ingredients, including local meats, produce and herbs. Nothing artificial goes into their products, no additives or preservatives and they are GMO-free. Papa Sal & Mama Val purchase from local food producers and vendors as much as possible.
Additionally, the Gray’s own their own commercial certified FDA safe production facility. This allows them to maintain full control over their ingredients and production. Their commercial sauces are exactly the same ones they serve to their family and friends.
Last, but most certainly not least, they slow cook the sauces in small, handcrafted batches the old-fashioned way, using the best ingredients and building layers upon layers of intense flavor. Resulting in rich, flavorful and healthy gourmet sauces that can be used for everything from pasta to grilled foods, oven-baked dishes and slow cooker meals, or even as a soup starter.
Growth, Set Backs & Giving Back
A few years ago, the Gray’s experienced a shift. The region had severe rains and winds resulting in flooding and Papa Sal & Mama Val’s home was nearly destroyed. Insurance only covered a very small portion of the damage and they had to cut back on distribution to take the time to repair their home. To add insult to injury, the Amazon/Whole Foods merger took place and they were one of the many products across the United States that was cut. It was devastating to the Gray’s, but they decided they would make the best of it and shifted their hearts to local.
Mama Val says, “The phrase ‘it’s only business’ is not how we want to spend our time, it’s not how we do business. Everything we do comes from our heart. We understand how important it is to come along side each other supporting one another. It truly ‘takes a village’.
They decided the best way to do this was to open up their Italian Heart’s production facility to other food producers in need of a commercial kitchen to work from. This became The Biggest Little Commercial Kitchen. A commercial kitchen where beautiful unique foods and beverages are being handcrafted along with Papa Sal & Mama Val’s own Italian Hearts Sauces.
Italian Heart’s Pasta Sauces are a must have pantry staple. The Gray’s know that their growing customer base appreciates convenience, after all not everyone has all day to cook. They are delighted to bring authentic Italian red sauces, that are lovingly handcrafted in small batches, into so many kitchens to be easily and quickly turned into delicious, healthy meals for family and friends.