Some entrepreneurs might say their startup began with a “light bulb moment." But for Neal McTighe, it all began with tomato sauce splattered all over his apartment.
His interest in sauces spawns from his Italian ancestry, which he embraced in college after a life-changing year abroad in Italy. McTighe graduated with a B.A. in political science and later earned master’s and doctorate degrees in Italian, in pursuit of a career of teaching and scholarship. But when the economy tanked in 2008, he ended up in an academic publishing position at Duke University Press.
Outside of work, McTighe liked to experiment with different sauce recipes. After a year and a half of making mess after mess after mess, he stumbled on the right concoction. The recipe evolved into Nello’s Sauce when McTighe quit his job two years later, making a full-time commitment to building the company.
Today, Nello’s stands as a bootstrapped company with a healthy, locally produced sauce that’s available in over 700 stores throughout the United States. Three summer interns and a group of bloggers join McTighe in promoting the brand and extending its reach daily, while also strengthening a campaign to fight hunger.
And coming soon is expansion into larger chains of grocery stores, and new product lines meant to put more organic sauce offerings on grocery shelves.
Bringing the cleanest packaged food to market
The secret to Nello’s is some combination of vine-ripened tomatoes grown on American family farms, along with three unique flavors—marinara, lavender and hot and spicy. Available in 14 and 25-ounce jars, sauces are gluten and cholesterol free, vegan and non-GMO, with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. A new Tomato & Basil sauce will be released later this year.
Nello’s also has the first ever commercial biodynamic tomato sauce in the United States. Certified by the Demeter Association, the sauce comes from self-contained, self-sustaining farms.
McTighe’s motivation for making the biodynamic sauce was more than just making history.
“I wanted to bring what is arguably the cleanest packaged food to market,” he says.
Thanks to funding and support from friends and family, McTighe has run Nello’s on his own since the start. This meant he couldn’t sue himself when he injured his back from slipping in his kitchen or when his car kept having problems after consistently being weighed down by pounds of Nello’s jars.
But despite setbacks, McTighe’s hard work paid off in a big way.
Nello’s Sauce first hit shelves in 2011 at Weaver Street Market, a community-owned grocery store with locations in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough. Now it’s on sale in chains like Ingles, Whole Foods and Harris Teeter. Nello’s has been featured in mainstream publications like Southern Living, The New York Times and Entrepreneur.
Fame aside, McTighe stays true to the hard-working discipline that made Nello's successful in the first place.
Doing a lot with a little
To get Nello’s where it is today, and without raising venture capital, McTighe has had to be resourceful. That means getting inventive with every part of his business, from hiring to marketing to manufacturing.
A new internship program is one of his creations. This summer, McTighe hired three college students to bring their individual skills to Nello’s space at HQ Raleigh.
Evan Schaeffer, a NCSU junior in marketing and economics, edits photos and creates visual content for the brand’s social media accounts and events.
Jonathan Romang, a senior at NCSU majoring in business administration, is the newest member of the team. He writes press releases and other content for the website and focuses on connecting Nello’s to community events like food drives.
McKinley Thompson, a senior in marketing and professional writing at Meredith, takes control of the brand’s social media presence and digital engagement.
Despite having different roles within the internship, the group has a collaborative team dynamic. They’re all working hard to boost the brand not only because they love Nello’s, but also because they want to give something back to McTighe for having faith in them.
Romang sums this up well. “You can always find one person that’s going to believe in you,” he says. “Neal has a trust in each one of us by giving us this internship and we want to work hard for him.”
McTighe says the internship has a strong “give-take” element.
"Once the internship is over and they go on to other things, I hope they’ll know that I can be there to help them, because that’s what others have done for me,” he adds.
For publicity, McTighe has launched a “Mombassadors” program that gives food bloggers a chance to spread the word about the product online, in exchange for a free jar.
Last year, he reached out to bloggers and asked them to fill out applications to join the program.
Elissa Ducar, a financial analyst and “self-professed foodie” from Texas, was one of the select few Mombassadors McTighe chose. Immediately after meeting him via phone call, Ducar knew he had a big heart, perhaps different from most CEOs.
"He hasn’t lost sight of those of us who enjoy his sauce," Ducar says. She’s reminded of this whenever she receives her free jar along with a personal letter thanking her for spreading the word.
Dedication to good social, environmental, financial practices
Altruism is another way McTighe thinks about marketing and having an impact. In 2013, Nello’s launched “Our Hearts Beat Hunger,” an annual pledge to give money, sauce and goods to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. As of the beginning of 2016, Nello’s donated over $500, more than 700 jars of sauce and nearly 300 pounds of shelf-stable food and household supplies.
Another campaign, #SauceSelfie, engages Nello’s customers to help build awareness of the fight against hunger. For every #SauceSelfie-tagged photo of customers with the sauce on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, Nello’s donated a jar of sauce to the food bank. By the end of the campaign, Nello’s had donated 480 jars of sauce—an over $3,000 retail value—to the food bank.
Nello’s also held a successful food drive last week at Cameron Village, collecting over 300 household and pantry items for the food bank. McTighe hopes that Nello’s can increase donations to do even more good in the future.
Some upcoming plans might help make this a reality. In July, McTighe will launch American Pasta Sauce Company, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified, competitively priced organic brand. McTighe also says plans are in the works for Nello’s to expand to a major retailer this year. He's staying mum on the details, for now.
What strikes me most about McTighe is his infectious confidence and energy, and how he balances it with humility and strategy.
He's obviously proud of the brand he's built and his accomplishments along the way with no private equity or venture capital fueling him. He says the company’s success doesn’t come from deep pockets, but from both hard work and passion.
“When it comes down to it, Nello’s is a bootstrapped, hardworking company that sells a lot of sauce,” he adds.