By BETH ALTENA
John Caram said his background, Italian on one side of his family, Lebanese on the other, gives him a unique and delicious blend of cultural cooking. When he lost his job in the sign business four years ago, he decided to turn his unemployment into time to develop his own business. He co-founded Johnny Secreto Foods and has since been working hard to build up the company and its product line.
Caran knows that any start-up business is taking a chance. After loosing his job in Comstock Park due to downsizing, he talked with his wife, Mary Ellen, about turning his talent for cooking into a business and a career. He said he took two years off developing and researching with the help of Michigan State University’s product development department.
“MSU has an incredible program to help start-ups,” he said. His goal was and is, to focus on Michigan suppliers, from the tomatoes and merlot in the pasta sauce to the herbs and seasonings in the spice rubs.
“I call it the Domino effect of economics,” he said. When someone starts their own business, the spending locally spreads to other businesses here. His t-shirts, business cards, business banner, the supplies that go into the pasta sauce, BBQ sauce and spice rubs all are bought locally in Michigan.
Caram said he knew it was a risk financially and emotionally and in every other way to establish a new business. He also knew he would have to put in hours—and hours and hours—to have any chance of success. A year ago in May the preliminary work was finally all completed and the Johnny Secreto line of products—proudly labeled made in Rockford—was ready to go.
Ric’s Food Center is just a mile away from Caram’s home and he was already a well-known loyal customer when he approached Store Director David Brickner about carrying the Johnny Secreto brand.
“That’s how he got his product line in here,” admitted Brickner. “The last thing a retailer wants to see is another brand of pasta sauce, there are so many out there.” Brickner said he was impressed with the product and Caram, and began selling the sauce a year ago. Since then Ric’s has begun carrying the Johnny Secreto BBQ sauce as well.
“Ric’s is a true Michigan retailer and a family business,” Caram said. “I remember when this store went in, this was a big deal for us out here.”
The Ric’s Food Center culture has long been a proponent of local suppliers when possible, so it seemed a good fit. Johnny Secreto’s is nothing if not a family business, named after Caram’s great uncle Johnny Secreto. The photo on the label is an actual photo of him as well. Secreto was Caram’s grandmother’s name. One of his sons, Wade LeFever, is among the founders of the company.
“I’m also a Johnny,” Caram said. The name runs through his family for generations. Half Lebanese, half Italian, he said he grew up in a family of two cultures where men cook. “You watch those Mafia movies where the men are always cooking,” he said. His dad’s dad was born in Beruit, Lebanon and was “the best cook ever.” He remembers his grandmother, born in Genoa, Italy, making the best Italian food. The pasta sauce is her recipe.
Caram is proud to be a business owner in Rockford. Originally from Detroit, he moved here 29 years ago and to the Rockford home 12 years ago. He said even before becoming a resident himself, he visited Rockford. “We used to always come up for Christmas to do our shopping. When we had family from out of town come in, we always took them to Rockford.”
He said he can see the city has good leadership and is impressed with City Manager Michael Young. “A lot of towns have been closing down in this economy, Rockford is going strong and as charming as ever.”
Brickner is equally impressed with Rockford where he relocated his family from Mount Pleasant when he came here to run the Rockford Ric’s Food Center. A downtown resident, he has a youngster in elementary school. Caram’s son Connor graduated from Rockford Schools two years ago.
“This has become a destination town,” Caram stated. He cited Red’s on the River, The Corner Bar, Bostwick Lake Inn and Honeycreek Inn as class acts that bring in people. “They are all solid.”
Not that Caram has had much leisure time lately since starting Johnny Secreto Foods. He said he markets his food by demonstrating at farm markets, including Rockford’s. He spends every weekend either at a market, or doing free samples at one or more of the 14 retailers who carry his lines.
“I don’t go on vacation, not now,” he said. “The business is like a baby and that’s what we are doing now, nurturing it.” His theory of success is three-fold—hard work, a quality product and enthusiasm. He believes he has all three going strong.
Caram said he has been one of the local vendors taking part in the Taste of Ric’s events since he started, and is often found there on the weekend handing out free samples. In his experience, once someone tastes the product, he has a sale and a fan. Sales are going better than he dared hope for since putting the product out a year ago last May, and he is already working on new products—a second flavor of pasta sauce.
You can pick up Johnny Secreto pasta sauce or BBQ sauce at Ric’s Food Center and know you are buying a product created right here in Rockford. If you do, you will also have a taste of something money can’t buy—a success story of how to take a dream and turn it into reality.
“It’s pretty incredible what happened. It’s been an incredible ride this past year. I couldn’t have done it without a lot of help.” You can find out more at www.johnnyawcreto.com on facebook or twitter.