A Taste Of Greatness: Entrepreneurs add flavor to San Antonio

Every woman has one — that single recipe that she won’t divulge simply because it is her signature dish. It could be that wonderful guacamole she brings to every gathering, the decadent brownies she totes to every school bake sale or the candy that she hand delivers to the neighbors during the holidays. It’s the food that her friends not only beg her to make but even encourage her to sell. The following four women heeded that advice and made their treats available to the masses. From farmer’s markets to grocery shelves, these women have met with encouraging success and developed almost cult-like followings. Even if you hate to cook, their stories might just inspire you to roll up your sleeves and get back in the kitchen. Who knows — you too might have the right recipe for success!

Margaret Anaglia

Al’s Gourmet Nuts

Call Margaret Anaglia “nutty,” and she is more likely to be flattered than insulted. In fact, she and her husband, Albert, are known in most circles as simply “the nut lady and the nut guy.” The monikers are not in reference to a personality quirk, but rather to the fact that the Anaglias are the family behind Al’s Gourmet Nuts, an award-winning company that serves customers from all across the United States — and they do it all from their modest Northeast San Antonio home. Why? Because they want to keep family first. “In this house we are all about food, fun and family,” says Anaglia, a former city government employee, who juggles the creative and marketing end of the business with her role as mother of two boys ages 5 and 7. Retired research technician Albert is in charge of operating the 50-year old German roaster located in the licensed commercial kitchen behind the family’s home. “Big Margaret,” Anaglia’s mother, helps out at the farmers’ markets and craft shows where Al’s Gourmet Nuts are sold. Even the boys get in on the act.

“Our youngest son told a man at the ice cream shop that he needed some Al’s Gourmet Nuts on top, and then he gave him the Web site,” giggles Anaglia. So how do a city government employee and a research technician find themselves in a full-time gourmet nut business? Like many successful careers, this one developed from a hobby, in this case the couple’s love of arts and crafts. Anaglia says the couple spent weekends at local arts and crafts fairs selling a line of hammocks and other home and garden products. It was at these shows that they met a retired chef selling gourmet candy pecans. Little did they know that this man would eventually make them an offer that they couldn’t refuse. “I said out loud to the universe, ‘This would be a great business to buy if you wanted to buy a business,’” says Anaglia. “One year later the owner announced he was retiring and selling the business.”

With absolutely no food or manufacturing experience, the Anaglias purchased the roaster, the recipe for cinnamon pecans and a little bit of training. “It turned out to be more difficult than we thought, but we knew the product was good and that it would sell itself,” she explains. And it did! Anaglia took the first batch of cinnamon pecans to the Gruene Market in New Braunfels and immediately sold out. But rather than capitalize on that first success and start turning out large quantities of nuts, the Anaglias spent the first six to 12 months perfecting the business and getting the manufacturing part down to a science. “We decided to keep it part time and do craft shows only,” she explains. “We wanted to grow the business at the rate that we wanted.” Anaglia also wanted to tap into her creative side to come up with new ideas. Hand-selected unique packaging, along with several new and interesting flavors, grew out of Anaglia’s creativity, but it was when she drew on her own experiences within the corporate world that the business really took off.

“I knew that in my former line of work I was always looking for good corporate gift ideas,” she says. “You can give an impersonal gift, or you can give a gift that brands your business.” To that end, Anaglia started putting together made-to-order customized corporate gifts and gift baskets, and the orders began rolling in, with the holiday season being the busiest time of year. “I always say order early and often for the holidays,” she warns clients.

The packaging is often Texas-themed by request, and as a member of Go Texan, Al’s uses Texas ingredients whenever possible, from the nuts to the lavender to the honey. Even with so many orders, the Anaglias have kept the business personal, treating corporate clients with the same one-on-one attention normally reserved for customers of the craft fairs and farmers’ markets they still frequent. They produce gluten-free, oil-free, butter- and trans-fat-free nuts in their commercial kitchen, and they only produce the nuts in 2- to 5-pound quantities to preserve the full flavor. But just because they are still producing from home doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking big. Anaglia continues to dream up new ways to grow the business. Future endeavors include specialty flavors designed for the Pearl Farmers’ Market, recyclable bags and even a blog on their Web site featuring salad recipes that incorporate Al’s Gourmet Nuts. “We do this because we love it,” Anaglia says with a big smile as her two boys run in to say hello. “Our world is a fun place to be.”

Heather Hunter

Cowgirl Granola

Heather Hunter, creator of what some are calling “terribly addictive” Cowgirl Granola, knows a thing or two about family traditions. This fifth-generation native San Antonian, along with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, used to spend the holidays together baking 30 different varieties of Christmas cookies. “My grandmother would decorate these big tins, and we filled them up with the cookies and took them home,” recalls this vivacious entrepreneur. “Each year at Christmas we brought the tins back for refills.” Her love of cooking firmly ingrained, Hunter continued her grandmother’s tradition of culinary gifts into her adult years, treating friends to cookies, homemade vinegars and, in 2001, a homemade granola. “Everyone loved it,” she exclaims. “My friends started begging me for it, and they promised me that if I would make it, they would buy it.” But it wasn’t until May 2009 that Hunter combined her “foodie” sensibilities with her marketing background and experience as a resort owner to take Cowgirl Granola to the public at the Farmers’ Market at Green Vegetarian Restaurant. She promptly sold out, and the buzz began to spread among even the most unlikely of granola fans. “One woman told me that her Harley-riding husband, who eats only meat and potatoes, ate an entire bag of it,” she laughs.

He’s not the only one. Other customers share tales of putting it on yogurt, eating it with milk or simply keeping a bag in the car for those times when the munchies hit. “It is so rewarding when I get those feel-good stories from customers,” says Hunter with a smile. Some might expect the success she has achieved in just three short months to go to her head, but the only real change she has made is to move to a commercial kitchen for production. Her husband, an investment broker, is still in charge of tying the rope around the cellophane packaging. But keeping things simple and natural is what Hunter is all about. It is why her recipe for Cowgirl Granola consists of only 12 ingredients, eight of which are easily identified simply by looking. It is also why Hunter has chosen to forgo expanding into the retail world for the time being and focus instead on her direct, Web-based and farmers’ market sales.

”I’m just not ready to go retail yet because I like the personal interaction,” she explains. She adds that the farmer’s market crowd tends to be more concerned with what they eat, and they appreciate the quality and freshness of her product. Those individuals literally eat up the fact that one-quarter cup of Cowgirl Granola has approximately 150 calories, seven grams of sugar and seven grams of fat. “It is the perfect blend of carbs, proteins and ‘good’ fats,” Hunter says.
Going forward, Hunter plans to create holiday blends that will include dried apricots for Thanksgiving and decadent dried cherries for Christmas. “I don’t think healthy food has to taste bad,” says Hunter. “You can eat healthfully and enjoy what you eat.” And though healthy granola is a long way from 30 varieties of delicious Christmas cookies, Hunter credits her grandmother for getting her started on her path to culinary success. Does she think grandma would approve? “I think she would be thrilled,” she says proudly.

Sally Drew

Sally’s Sassy Salsa

When you meet Sally Drew, it quickly becomes clear why one of her business associates christened her “Sassy Sally.” This is one no-nonsense businesswoman who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to try new things. Perhaps it’s because this Ohio farm girl has the food business in her genes that she seems to have an innate sense of what works and what doesn’t. “I actually traced my genealogy back to the Civil War and discovered that my great-great-grandfather was a commissary sergeant,” she reveals. Add to that a grandfather who was a baker in World War I and a father who worked for A&P food stores, and it becomes obvious as to why Drew was destined for her field. As with the other women in this feature, Drew’s now-famous salsa sprang from a homemade recipe that had friends begging for jars every Christmas. But unlike the other women, Drew had a background in the food industry. A successful career in purchasing and inventory at Pace followed by the position of specialty food buyer for the H-E-B Corporation taught Drew the ins and outs of the retail food market. When she began marketing her salsa in 2003, she was more than ready. “I did so much market research at Pace that I knew the salsa market inside out, and I knew the specialty market from my days at H-E-B,” she says. Drew hired a company to produce her no-water-added, thick homemade salsa in their commercial kitchen, and she did all the sales and marketing herself. Her first sale was in 2003 to United Grocery in Lubbock. They ordered three pallets. Now Sally’s Salsa is carried in approximately 140 H-E-B stores across Texas as well as select Kroger’s, Sweet Bay and Whole Foods stores, and she ships two to three pallets nearly every week. At 176 cases to a pallet and 6 jars to a case, that’s a lot of salsa!

Why is Sally’s so popular? A Go Texan member, Drew credits her love of fresh ingredients. “Growing up on a farm, you just go out and pick something and then do something with it,” she explains. “Every day in the summer we picked and then took what we picked to my aunt’s house for canning. I guess that’s why I prefer everything to be as natural as possible.” As Sally’s salsa business grew, so did she, branching out into dips, applesauce, spices and more. In 2005, she acquired the Lamb’s Store brand, opened her own processing plant in Converse and began doing business as Home Grown Design (HGD) Foods. Along the way, she stumbled into yet another niche — the gluten-free market. “My daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease, which means she must follow a gluten-free diet,” she explains. After much research, Drew developed a line of gluten-free baking products, including pizza crusts, brownie mix, pancake mix, muffin mix and more. All of the corn in the Lamb’s all-natural gluten-free cornmeal is ground fresh, and Drew’s is the only totally gluten-free processor in Texas. “It really is a nice niche business,” she says.

But even with her products on grocery shelves across the country, Drew doesn’t forget her roots, and she is still growing. She works with her son-in-law, a former chef at Macaroni Grill, to develop new recipes, and she still doesn’t pay herself for her six- to seven-day workweeks. She can also be found weekly at the Pearl Farmers’ Market selling her gluten-free mixes and other goodies to other local “foodies.” So what does the future hold for this sassy 56-year-old? “I would like to have the business set up to sell off a part of it,” says this busy grandmother of three. “It would be nice to be in my 60s and be able to go to Disneyland anytime I want.”

Sandra Steen

Oats to Joy

Can an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie really inspire pure, unadulterated joy? Sandra Steen thinks it can. “Have you ever walked into a room with a plate of broccoli?” she laughs. “You don’t get the same amount of joy as when you walk in with a plate of cookies.” Steen, the author of Who Stole My Joy, is a motivational speaker who got her start at the tender age of 5 one Easter Sunday when she made an impromptu speech that had the congregation on its feet.
“Everyone was clapping and crying,” she recalls. “I’ve just always been able to tap into people’s ability to be the best they can be.” As a motivational speaker, the award-winning Steen has traveled the world inspiring joy and helping some of the world’s largest corporations through her custom-designed assessment program and training curriculum. To show her appreciation to her clients, Steen began looking for a meaningful way to say thank you. Her answer? Cookies! “No one expects a CEO of a company who travels all the time to stay home and bake cookies,” she explains. Her clients loved them, but it wasn’t until she served them to a high-profile Motown executive and his family that an idea began to take shape. “I made the cookies at this family’s home in California,” she says. “The smell began filling the house, and all the members of this busy family sat down and had cookies and milk together. They told me it was the first time that had happened.”

Raised by her grandmother, Steen has fond memories of conversations shared between them in the kitchen, so bringing families together seemed like a natural component to Steen’s joy-sharing mission. She began packaging her wholesome oatmeal cookie mixes in mason jars and selling them at Honeybaked Ham and Dillard’s stores. The demand soon became so great she had to rethink her packaging, taking it out of the jars and putting it in boxes on H-E-B grocery store shelves.
“Central Market told me ‘no’ seven times, but they told me why,” she says. “By the eighth time I got it right.” Did she ever! Steen’s cookie mixes have spawned a line of oatmeal muffin mixes, ready-to-bake muffins and cookies and a thaw-and-serve variety that she plans to market to the military and school districts. The cookies also led Steen to another audience for her joy — children. “I host Joy Afternoons with the kids,” says Steen, explaining that she takes cookies and milk to elementary schools and tells them her original story, I Dream of Cookies. “I tell them what my dream was, and I ask them to tell me their dreams,” she says. “Then I teach them my method for achieving those dreams.”

That method is RIGHT, which stands for respect, integrity, giving, humor and terrific — all qualities that Steen implements in her own joy-filled life. “My grandmother was one of the most motivational women I know, and she always taught me to count my blessings,” she says. “Anyone can play a good hand, but life is about taking your hand and making it good.”

Author: Bonny Osterhage

Photographer: Paul Lara

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