July 2007 Issue
An Athens foodie uses his knowledge of ethnic cuisineto create wine-based pasta sauces and salad dressings.
Jonathan Milo Leal never intended to own a specialty food business. In fact, his love for European lan-guages prompted him to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees in French from Ohio University. Then 9/11 happened, and like so many others, Leal had a hard time finding a job. "What was I going to do with my life?" he says. "Because of that, I had to create something."
Fortunately, Leal was surrounded by people with discerning palates. In fact, both food and international travel run deep in his family. The son of missionary parents, Leal spent six of his childhood years in Nepal and another year in Mexico. Between living and studying abroad, he has spent significant amounts of time in more than 30 countries, and his entire family has a tremendous appreciation for ethnic cuisine. So, Leal obtained an M.B.A. and began an Athens-based catering business in 2002. The pasta sauces he made were the kind that friends suggested he bottle and sell.
"It was a lucky coincidence that I lived near a food business incubator that helps small businesses get off the ground," Leal says, referring to ACEnet in Athens. In 2003, he founded Milo's Whole World Gourmet and started marketing his Vino de Milo wine-based pasta sauces. Almost four years later, the products are being sold in all but two of the continental states, as well as Canada. Leal also introduced a line of salad dressings last November. "Now we are at the stage where we are looking for investors to take us to the next level," he says.
Finding a Niche
It's been far from easy to build a food business from the ground up. "Having the right product is only 10 percent of the equation," says Leal. "It's so much harder than that. It's like climbing a glacier with a spoon."
During the first year, Leal was plagued with rejection, almost no sales and plenty of bad decisions. After pouring too much money down the drain, he finally hired a business coach. "You need to pay for that advice because it will save you so much money," he says. "I should have known that. This is a very specific industry with very specific ways of working, and there is an enormous learning curve."
Still, it was Leal's determination that got his pasta sauces on the shelves of specialty-food markets. The process began with focus groups.
"People in the focus groups kept asking, ‘What makes you different?'" says Leal. "And there wasn't anything." That is, until one person suggested using wine in the products. "From that time, wine became one of the key things about our products," he says. Leal's culinary experience made a big difference in choosing the type of wine that would be the foundation for each sauce. That means the Pinot Grigio used in the Mediterranean sauce is an Italian wine, ensuring authenticity.
In addition, the pasta sauces have no added sugar, are low in sodium, contain no saturated fat and have as little as 40 calories per 4-ounce serving. "By accident, we realized we had created a product with no sugar, and that became our second calling card," says Leal. That makes the product a good fit for folks who are watching their sugar intake.
Best of all, many of the fresh ingredients are from the Athens area, known for having one of the best farmers' markets in the state. "Athens is all about good food, good soil and the local food scene," says Leal. "We use those fresh, local ingredients as much as possible." That includes what Leal refers to as "tons of basil" purchased from a local farm. Tomatoes are from the Hirzel Canning Co. & Farms in Toledo.
While Leal is thankful to be in Athens because the community is so supportive of the local food scene, the town is not located in a freight corridor, and his products are heavy to ship. Nevertheless, he believes that negative is outweighed by the cheaper cost of living and lower cost of production that characterize the area.
Milo's pasta sauces are chunky, so it's easy to see what you're eating. That includes everything from dried tomatoes to chickpeas, zucchini, eggplant and mushrooms - all with a touch of wine. Then fresh herbs are added just before the sauce is put into the jar. For instance, the Mediterranean Pinot Grigio sauce contains green and black olives, whole kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, capers and anchovies with a citrusy pinot grigio, creating a sauce that pairs well with fish or chicken.
That leads to probably the best thing about Milo's sauces: They are not just meant to be tossed with spaghetti. It's why Leal provides a number of recipe suggestions for using the sauces with fish, chicken and pork.
The 25-ounce jars are easy to spot, with their colorful, eye-catching chef logo designed by Athens artist Kevin Morgan, and they are available at many stores throughout Ohio. "The thing I really like about these sauces is that they are visibly chunky," says Nathan Paris, demo and special events coordinator with Zagara's Marketplace in Cleveland Heights. "People like that because it gives them more of an impression of homemade rather than pureed."
Last fall, Leal introduced a line of salad dressings using the same wine-based concept. Though he spent more than a year researching the dressings, Leal says the marketing process evolved much more smoothly. "We are better at getting things done than when we first started," he says.
The dressings are also no-sugar-added products and are considered low fat because they contain more fruit than oil. These, too, are versatile, doing double duty as marinades and dips. Pomegranate Port, Mango Lemongrass Chardonnay and Gorgonzola Pear Riesling - the names provide a glimpse of what's inside the bottles, but tasting them is what makes the difference. Leal knows that with all food products, it's the taste that counts.
These days, Leal is optimistic about the future of Milo's. "We have been doubling our sales from year to year for four years straight," he says. "We project that to continue for several more years." His goal is to add a new product line each year. "We will stay wine-based with no sugar," he says. "That is what we are about."
Leal is also about helping others. Perhaps because he spent a great deal of his childhood living in areas of extreme poverty, he has made it his mission to donate 10 percent of the company's post-tax profits to charitable organizations.
Leal may have never imagined himself in the food business, but he has made the leap. He clearly thrives on the business and its possibilities.
For more information on Milo's Whole World Gourmet, go to www.vinodemilo.com
or call 740/589-6456.
Rustic Meatloaf with Vino de Milo Tuscan Merlot Pasta Sauce
1 pound lean ground beef or ground turkey
1/2 to 3/4 cup bread crumbs
1 25-ounce jar Vino de Milo Tuscan Merlot Pasta Sauce
1/2 cup Asiago cheese, grated
1. Preheat over to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, beat the egg. Add the breadcrumbs, beef (or turkey) and half the Vino de Milo Tuscan Merlot Pasta Sauce. Mix until fully blended.
2. Form a low mound of meatloaf in a square baking dish. Pour remaining Vino de Milo Tuscan Merlot Pasta Sauce on top.
3. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 50 minutes or until a thermometer registers an internal temperature of at least 170 degrees.
4. Sprinkle grated or shredded cheese on top and bake again until cheese melts, about five minutes.
Spinach, Fig and Strawberry Salad with Vino de Milo Pomegranate Port Dressing & Marinade Serves 2
This light, elegant salad pairs well with corn muffins or crisp parmesan-crusted toast.
2 to 3 cups baby spinach
4 to 5 ripe figs, if in season (or dried mission figs, plumped a bit in some warm water or port)
1 pint ripe strawberries, hulled and halved
4 to 6 very thin slices red onion, separated into rings
Toasted pecans (to taste)
Shaved Asiago or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (to taste)
4 tablespoons Vino de Milo Pomegranate Port Dressing & Marinade
1. Cut figs into small pieces. In a salad bowl, mix spinach, figs, strawberries and onions with Vino do Milo Pomegranate Port Dressing & Marinade.
2. Sprinkle with toasted pecans.
3. Shave a generous amount of the cheese over the salad and serve immediately.