It’s not everyday you find business owners who are willing to throw away a year’s worth of work because the final product doesn’t represent core values. Although Vesper Bros. Foods struggled at first when searching for a packer that wouldn’t use preservatives, their passion for keeping simple family recipes alive, but slightly “improved,” paid off in the end.
The Signature Tomato Sauce, which they are now selling in over 25 locations, is appealing to all. So far it has passed many customer tests, from die-hard homemade sauce advocates and store managers to an Italian elder who claimed she “waited cent’anni (one hundred years) for sauce as good as this!”
They exude a happiness that only shines when one loves what they’re doing. The truly Italian, identical twin brothers are eager to talk about ingredients, future product ideas and especially family, as that’s the most important thing in their lives and the motivation behind this gravy.
How does your family feel about your business venture? Are they super proud or your toughest critics?
John: The one thing that’s interesting about that is our grandmother is our biggest supporter. She always has been for everything we do. She takes cases of the sauce and never makes it from scratch anymore. She would have never have used gravy out of the jar before and now she tells us, but she wouldn’t tell any of her friends, that she doesn’t make it anymore. She loves our gravy.
Bill: I think our grandmother, or everyone in our family, was really nervous to try it at first. Being from an Italian family, we ate pasta and gravy three nights a week, maybe four nights a week. Everyone knew what they expected it to taste like.
Bill: No, because we knew it was good. We had to hook up with a manufacturer to be able to produce it in a big way. We went to one manufacturer in the beginning but we were really adamant about what was going into it and how it was being prepared. The first manufacturer was telling us that they wanted to put preservatives in it, which was something we didn’t want. We didn’t want citric acid or anything like that. They told us we had to. If you look in the supermarkets today maybe 97% of tomato sauces have citric acid.
Is that why the other sauces don’t taste as good as yours?
Bill: That’s one of the big reasons. I mean we had time, energy and money invested into this manufacturer and we were thinking, since we were so new to the industry, that if that’s the way it’s going to be then that’s the way it is. So we got down to the end. The product was ready to be ordered and have cases made but we decided to mull it over for a week. We were sick about it because we knew we couldn’t have stood behind it if it had those ingredients. We finally called the manufacturer and said forget it.
John: We knew we couldn’t stand behind it 100%.
How much time had you put into the sauce up until that point?
Bill: Probably about a year. We were devastated. We started from scratch, got back on the computer and started making calls to find someone who was capable of doing it without the preservatives. When we found them, right off the bat they embraced our vision.
John: The owner of the company we decided to work with was Italian.
Bill: In fact, our family grew up in the deli business and the guy who worked with this manufacturer already knew about John’s Village Markets [their father’s long time deli business]. He knew we made good stuff. Once it was done the way we wanted it, we knew it was good so we didn’t have any trouble giving it to anybody.
John: We had been making it in the deli for a long time for the customers. Our dad started a deli when he was 21 years old in Wayne and now we have three locations. My dad runs one, my brother runs one and I run one. That’s like our “day job”. So the product was something we were already making. We put it on sandwiches and pasta. We started to talk about branching into another area of the food business, like having a product line and figured the tomato sauce is really good. As long as we could get it to taste the way it does when we make it here [the deli], but in a jar, there was confidence that we could sell it. That’s where it all started but we still work in the deli. In our “free time”…we run another business.
Going back to the “all natural” aspect; was that the way you were raised or did you just want to hone in on the growing market segment and current food trends?
Bill: It didn’t start as an all natural idea but worked out that way because of the ingredients. In other words, we didn’t set out to specifically make an organic or all natural tomato sauce. It was more about the way we were taught to cook. Italian cooking is simple ingredients done really, really well. It sort of just happened that way but as we create a large line of food, we want to stick with that business model.
John: We knew the ingredients were good and the recipe was good. Not until we started going out and selling it to stores and seeing people’s reactions, did we realize the all natural aspect was a bigger deal. I mean, if your grandmother was making gravy from scratch for the family, would she sprinkle citric acid in it? We didn’t want to make anything we wouldn’t use ourselves, or our wives or our moms, or someone elses mom. We say with confidence to people who tell us “I make it myself”, this is exactly what you would make. The tomatoes, the onions, the basil, the garlic….
From my experience with preparing homemade sauce, which my Nonna and mother jar once a year, there is oil and garlic and usually meat that needs to be added to give it the right taste. Can your sauce just be dumped in the pot and heated up?
Bill: If that’s what you want. We didn’t add meat because a lot of people don’t eat it and we kept it gluten free. If you want that taste, just add your meatballs, or sausage or pork and let it simmer. You’ll have the same effect.
John: It depends a lot on what you’re going to make. It’s very versatile. You can use it for a lot of different meals. If you’re making a tortellini or a ravioli and not doing meat with it, you can just heat it up in the pot and put it right on the pasta. If you’re making meatballs, add them. Our grandmother makes muscles with it. Use it as a dip with crusty Italian bread.
Bill: The bottom line is you don’t have to do anything to it for it to taste really, really good.
These other products that you make at the deli, are those the type of things you’re looking to sell under the new name in the future?
Bill: There are a couple things already in the works like Oil & Balsamic Vinegars, a local Chester County Marinated Portobello Mushroom, and then some variations of the sauce like a Spicy Marinara.
John: There is a pesto that we use in the deli on the sandwiches that is pretty popular. It takes a while once you start working on a product. There are so many steps and it’s a lot.
How has it been working in a brother system? Are there any hurdles you had to get over or is it just smooth sailing?
Bill: We’ve always worked together, since we were little kids. We played sports together, did homework together, and just hung out together. Even before Vesper Bros. Foods we worked at the deli together. Until the third location opened up, we were with each other every day. Now we wish we could be back in the same store. It would make operations a little easier. We honestly don’t know any other way.
John: We’ve always figured out a way to do it. When we played sports, one would be the quarterback and the other, a wide receiver. When we got into music, it was guitar and bass. We always complemented each other.
Besides your family and a rave review from an elderly Italian women, which is shared on your blog, what other reviews have you received from truly Italian customers?
John: The one that comes straight to my mind is our deli employee whose parents were both born in Italy and he’s VERY Italian. His mom has a thick Italian accent. She was one person I really wanted to try it. She loved it! Now she comes every Sunday to the Whole Foods market and buys a couple jars. That was a great endorsement! Another woman at one of our demo’s insisted she only makes her own sauce but then she tried it and asked about the ingredients. She found out they were exactly what she uses, grabbed some jars and walked away saying, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” We just laughed.
Bill: There really haven’t been that many people that don’t like it. We’re really blessed.
So you’re in the markets now and at a couple stores, what does the future hold? Events, restaurants?
Bill: You know, it’s been a whirlwind. Right after it launched we just hit the road and tried to get it into as many stores as possible. We try to do demos every single weekend somewhere. There is a Media Food Fest coming up in October and we’re talking about doing that.
John: There is a Tomato Festival that people say is a huge event every year and they asked us to come set up a stand. The demos we have to schedule in advance and we are pretty booked, being at Whole Foods every Sunday and some other spots on Saturdays.
Bill: Every week we just sort of plan for the next one because you never know. We have a lot of fun at the markets. We’re getting to meet really great people especially at the Whole Foods, (people such as) Thais of Dia Doce, Rival Brothers Coffee and the Ka’Chi truck. Those people are really cool and it’s fun. It doesn’t even feel like work.
John: We still find time to spend with our families. We bring our wives along with us when we man the stands! It’s fun because people ask who the Vesper brothers are and if they’re real and we get to tell them it’s us!
Bill: We both married Italian girls so that helps.
As the gravy talk wraps up, I joke about how our families wouldn’t accept a significant other unless they are Italian. Not that I doubted them in the first place, but because they understand my joke, I know they are very familiar with old Italian culture. My other closing remark is not a joke when I tell them I’ll try their sauce that evening.
As they suggested, I emptied the contents into a pot, solo, and slowly heated. With a little al dente pasta and a nice glass of cabernet sauvignon, there is nothing missing from my meal. The flavors are robust enough so you know the right ingredients are there, but not overwhelming. Balancing the hints of basil, garlic and oregano is a pure and delicious tomato sauce that makes me very happy they said no to the first manufacturer.
If you were skeptical before reading this interview, or even still convinced it can’t be as good as your own, the only thing left to do is try it for yourself. Just a short trip to one of their many locations will land you a jar of the Signature Tomato Sauce and, most likely, a pleasant chat with Bill and John.