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Going retail

How to get on the grocery shelf when your name’s not Puck. Supermarkets are crammed withWolfgang Puck’s soups, Emeril’s spices and Bobby Flay’s salsas.

But do you have to be a celebrity chef to get a piece of the retail action?

Not if you’re willing to start small and be patient. That’s how Chad Walldorf, co-founder of the 20-unit Sticky Fingers, went from supplying one grocery out of the back of his car to landing his barbecue sauces in 4,000 stores 15 years later.

“In 1992, we took our Memphis Original sauce—made from a recipe created in my partner’s dad’s BBQ restaurant—to a co-packer, thinking we could sell a few jars in house,” Walldorf recalls. “We were so clueless, we didn’t even realize that ‘packing’ included labeling, so we made and affixed our own labels.”

Next, Walldorf met with the manager of a Harris Teeter store near Charleston, South Carolina, and convinced him to buy a few cases. The sauce sold well, so he leveraged that first sale and expanded to other Harris Teeters, eventually contracting with Bi-Lo, a second grocery chain. By 1993, all five Sticky Fingers’ sauces were on shelves. But Walldorf was tired of closing at midnight and waking at 6 a.m. to make deliveries. It was time to hire a distributor.

Talking to grocery store receiving clerks, he heard about a local couple that had the distribution franchise for a pretzel company. Walldorf worked out a deal with them to buy his sauce for a profit of $3 to $4 a case. In 2000, Harris Teeter put the product in 120 locations and advised Walldorf to contact one of their suppliers to recommend a broker to rep the brand. The broker lined up a national distributor and acted as the middleman, taking orders from the distributor and faxing them to Sticky Fingers. “The broker got a 5 percent cut,” Walldorf recalls.

The distributor’s sales force pushed the product into other chains, including Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion, without paying the high slotting fees typical for new brands. “They explained that we are a small company and couldn’t afford the huge fees. We also gave away free product to get shelf placement,” Walldorf says. Some chains were looking to stock the sauces at the request of customers, so they were willing to take a lesser cut.

By the end of 2007, Sticky Fingers was selling 100,000 cases of sauce a year, contributing about 5 percent to the company’s bottom line. “It’s not a huge percentage of our total sales volume, but the benefits are enormous in terms of building brand recognition and customer loyalty,” Walldorf notes.

As Walldorf has proven, you can get a signature rib sauce into the big time by more or less winging it. But Karen Karp, president of Karp Resources, an industry consultant, believes a business and marketing plan is a smart idea. “And have a clear understanding of production runs, packaging and marketing costs, health regulations, legal requirements and slotting fees,” she adds.

Once the product is developed, sell it at the restaurant and on your Web site to test response. Then, “invite buyers, brokers and distributors to dinner so you can sell the story as well as your product,” Karp suggests. She’s also an advocate of exhibiting at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade expo. “The NASFT Fancy Food Show is the target to build retail sales and distribution. If you can’t afford your own booth, there are opportunities to share.”

Once you get onto those crowded store shelves or the Web, how do you stand out? “Your product has to be  irresistible-not only in taste, but in packaging and design,” Karp says. And it helps to keep your finger in the pot. Early on, Walldorf handed out samples and coupons in the supermarket. He still walks the aisles, stopping to rotate jars so all the labels are facing shoppers.

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