Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Center gives area businesses knowledge to sprout success

Dennis Dickey’s company began in the most unlikely of places: at parties with his friends.

Mr. Dickey said comments about his smooth, flavorful salsa were part of the inspiration behind creating Willy’s Fresh Salsa. The company, which began in 2006, now sells products in eight states and big-box stores such as Kroger.

“I used to take my salsa to parties, and everybody said if you sold this you can make millions of dollars,” he said, adding that his company is on track to cross the million-dollar threshold.

By partnering with Center for Innovative Food Technology in Toledo, Mr. Dickey received the business, marketing, and production knowledge he needed to turn his party-hit into a corporate infrastructure. The center lists Willy’s Fresh Salsa as one of the most successful brands it is working with at the moment.

Rebecca Singer, vice president and director of agricultural programs at the center, said Ohio entrepreneurs can take an idea and create a thriving business when armed with the right business plan.

“It takes quite some time to get to the large box-store level,” she said. “That’s not something they are going to be able to come in and do immediately. There is a whole process to getting enough sales to make your product appealing to that market.”

The center has helped more than 300 clients develop business plans since it was formed in the early 2000s. It has large-scale kitchens and manufacturing equipment to package foods.

Although not every idea turns into a profitable enterprise, the center is key for teaching someone the ropes, Mr. Dickey said.

“CIFT is the people that actually teach us how to do it,” he said.

Selling Willy’s Fresh Salsa in Kroger stores is part of a master plan to grow the company into a national brand, Mr. Dickey said.

It also helps Kroger Co.’s bottom line because customers want to buy locally made products, Kroger spokesman Jackie Siekmann said.

“We love carrying products that are local to our stores, and we know it’s important to support our local communities where we do business,” she said. “By selling products made locally, Kroger helps local farmers and suppliers, strengthens the local economy, and brings our customers fresher foods.”

Kyle Baker, who won a business development contest sponsored by the center, said he’s been increasing sales of Gertie’s Premium BBQ Sauce by 20 percent each year since 2009. This year, business growth could top 25 percent, Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Baker, who recently brought on two employees, eventually would like to employ more than 100 people. The center played a key role in teaching him how to label and market his sauce, which is a blend of his mother’s recipe and one from a friend.

“We want to expand. We’ve got a store in Youngstown that’s going to pick us up, and there are a few other places I have had contact with,” he said. “I really want to get down into Columbus and throughout Ohio.

“I'm proud of what Ohio is doing for small businesses.”

Contact Kris Turner at: or 419-724-6103.

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