Neal McTighe flunked sophomore Italian, but when studying tomato sauce, he did his homework. He researched his topic thoroughly, ensuring that his thesis had all necessary ingredients. He's defended his case countless times, consistently earning high marks.
And now, in what feels like graduation day, he has the piece of paper he's dreamed about: a commitment from the 27-store South region of Whole Foods to stock and sell Nello's Sauce, his line of handcrafted tomato sauces that taste fresh from the vine.
The deal means that all four flavors of the Raleigh-based brand—including the new Provencal Pomodoro —soon will be sold in nearly 100 locations across nine states.
McTighe's business jumped more than 30 percent last month, "and that doesn't even include this new agreement," he says. Nello's Sauce has been available in Triangle Whole Foods stores since summer 2011. He says it is the top-selling sauce at the North Raleigh location, beating even Newman's Own. "It's a really big step for us. I feel like we're finally getting to where we want to be."
Dubbed Nello by Italian friends, McTighe has a particular destination in mind. He wants Nello's Sauce to be the No. 1 artisanal brand throughout the South.
It's a lofty goal for a fellow who grew up in suburban New Jersey, where Italian restaurants, pizza shops and memories of a gravy-making great-grandmother loomed large.
"I've always been interested in Italy, and I've always been obsessed with tomatoes," he says. "A college classroom just wasn't the place for me to make it all connect."
McTighe enrolled in a study-abroad program in Italy. What was intended as a brief cultural immersion became a three-year residence. He became fluent and traveled extensively, making a point to visit his great-grandmother's hometown of Carife, near Napoli. The fresh-tasting sauces he enjoyed there and elsewhere left a strong impression.
McTighe eventually earned his doctorate in Italian from the University of North Carolina. He is an adjunct professor in the Italian Studies division of Meredith College.
McTighe divides the rest of his time between overseeing sauce production at a commercial kitchen space in Hillsborough and conducting in-store tasting demonstrations. "I suppose I could buy ads, but nothing will deliver the conversion rate of getting a spoonful of sauce into someone's mouth," he says. "It really is that good."
While the economic downturn added risk to starting a new business, the timing seems to have been ideal for Nello's Sauce. Just six months after McTighe started testing recipes in his home kitchen in January 2011, the Original All-Purpose Marinara was approved for sale by Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. Other shops soon followed.
Cooked in 55-gallon batches, 14- and 25-ounce jars of Nello's Sauce are still hand-filled by employees. McTighe figures he'll need to invest in an automated system soon to keep pace with growing demand.
To keep customers coming back, McTighe strives to push the boundaries on flavor profiles, which he believes gives Nello's Sauce an edge over stiff competition. In January, they added Hot Pepper Pasta Sauce, an arrabiata spiked with red pepper flakes; the Provencal Pomodoro followed in July. The latter is garlic-free and features classic elements of herbes de Provence: thyme and lavender.
"When we first tested it and told people it had lavender, the reaction was not what we hoped for," he admits. "But when they loved the other flavors, I'd give them a sample of the Provencal and ask them to try to identify the herbs. Not a single person ever guessed lavender."
The floral note is subtle but somehow makes the tomatoes taste more tomatoey. McTighe sources the lavender from Hauser Creek Farm in Davie County. He is searching for a reliable provider of North Carolina-grown thyme.
While he incorporates locally grown ingredients, McTighe gets his meaty Roma tomatoes from a California grower. "I'd love to use local tomatoes, but I need them year-round and I need them to be the same every time," he explains. "Customers expect consistency."
McTighe is developing another distinctive flavor that he hopes to have refined for tastings and production later this year. "The goal is to not be gimmicky but to create great sauces that no one else is making," he says. "It's what makes us memorable."
McTighe, who is accustomed to customers calling him "the tomato guy," says it's a great feeling to know that the brand is having such an impact.
"I was shopping with my dad one day in an antiques store. He was wearing a Nello's Sauce T-shirt and a woman came up to him to ask if he was in any way related to the maker," he says with the satisfied expression of a man who proved there is life after flunking college Italian. "It was awesome."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Failure inspires success."