Dominic Losacco already knows Sonny’s BBQ restaurants serve great food. The challenge for the franchise is getting a new crowd to come into its restaurants and give its brand of barbecue a try.

“Sonny’s average customer is 55 or older,” Losacco says. “We’re trying to not only still appeal to that audience, but entice a new crowd into our restaurants.”

The first Sonny’s restaurant opened in 1968 in Gainesville, Fla., and was the invention of Floyd “Sonny” Tillman and his wife, Lucille. Word of its brand of slow-smoked, Southern barbecue quickly spread, which led to the opening of several additional restaurants within Florida as well as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

It is currently the third-largest barbecue franchise in the country, but Losacco hopes its changes will boost it up the ranks. “The brand has been very successful over the years,” he notes. “We wanted to update some things – we looked at everything from the restaurant design down to the uniforms.” One thing the company knew it wouldn’t have to alter was its food. 

In the constellation of pizza places that dot Ohio, Romeo’s Pizza has been showing off its star quality since its beginning more than a dozen years ago, and winning awards on a consistent basis. Founder and CEO Sean Brauser proudly recounts how Romeo’s Pizza was named Best Pizza in the Midwest in 2002, just a year after he and his staff fired up the pizza ovens in the original location in Medina, a Cleveland suburb. That accolade came from the North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show.

“In 2004, we won it again,” he says. “We’re the only company that ever won it twice.”

Later that same year, Romeo’s captured the Best Gourmet Pizza in America title in New York’s America’s Plate competition. The honor recognized the gustatory excitement created by Romeo’s Great Ranch and Potato pizza, a pie that features red potatoes, ranch bacon sauce and almond slivers.

“I then got an appearance on the Food Network. It all kind of snowballed into a lot of publicity,” Brauser says. “It really just propelled us into growth.”

Professional Produce owner Ted Kaplan was raised in the produce business.  Being a third-generation produce individual has had its advantages, lending to an education and comprehensive understanding of the needs from grower to customer and everything in between. Kaplan draws from his own experiences as well as those of his father and grandmother as he leads the company into the 21st century. “Being raised in this kind of business, you just have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful in it,” Kaplan says. 

That deep understanding of the business has helped Professional Produce become one of California’s most trusted suppliers of fruits and vegetables for retailers and foodservice customers across the country. Kaplan says the company continues to find new ways to distinguish itself from the competition as the marketplace becomes more hotly contested than ever. The high level of customer service and food safety standards that Professional Produce brings to the market are the company’s greatest advantages and these have helped the company form long-term partnerships with customers and farmers. 

In the burgeoning craft beer segment, it is better to create trends than follow them, says Tomme Arthur, director of brewery operations and co-founder of Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey. “We’ve done a really good job of what we call being ahead of the curve,” Arthur declares. “We never look at the trend. We’re always evolving. One of the goals of the company for us is to not be concerned about what others are doing, but concentrate on what we are doing. If we focus our energy on what we can do, we should be OK. My point is that we don’t tend to react to trends or look to be a part of them.”

Port Brewing and Lost Abbey does not reason backwards by trying to find out what style of beer people want to drink and then brewing a product that matches consumers’ tastes. Rather, the brewery has proceeded confidently to brew what it likes and assume that drinkers will follow its lead.

That is pretty much proving to be the case with the company’s two brands of beer: Port Brewing creates an aggressive, California style reminiscent of “imperial” beers – such as imperial red or India pale ales – whereas Lost Abbey updates the traditions of monastic brewing.

Panola Pepper Co. wasn’t founded on lofty ideas of creating a Louisiana-style hot sauce empire, but if that is what comes of the family owned and operated company, it will surely take it. To Panola Pepper, new business is an opportunity to employ another one of Lake Providence, La.’s residents. 

Grady “Bubber” Brown, a farmer at heart, was torn at the end of each year’s harvest, knowing he would have to send his employees home for the winter. With the motivation to fulfill his employees’ desire for year-round employment, in 1983, Bubber cooked large batches of his mother’s time-honored secret recipe for Panola Gourmet Pepper Sauce. At his own expense, he paid his farm workers to make and store the first batch. It was a quick hit, and turned into a year-round  and growing operation. 

Merisant’s focus on efficiency and product innovation is allowing it to make the world a sweeter place. Expansion into international markets and different product types is a high priority for the company, which markets and manufactures the Equal®, Pure Via® stevia and Canderel® tabletop sweetener brands. 

“We have a vision to double our size,” says Paul Block, CEO and president of the Chicago-based company. “In particular, we’re very excited about future growth in Africa and Asia, two continents where we see significant growth opportunities for food and beverage products in general.”

The company in recent years has expanded its distribution channels and product lines to grow with market demand in China, India and South Africa. Merisant also has significant marketshare for sweetener products in Europe, where consumers are again beginning to make more discretionary purchases following the worldwide recession. “European consumers are becoming more energized, and that bodes well for us,” Block says. 

Much has changed for Mary Ann’s Specialty Foods since founder William “Bill” Korleski first set up shop in a small meat locker plant in Iowa in 1965. The company has relocated, greatly expanded its meat processing capabilities, added new products and reached out to customers far beyond its geographic home base.

One thing has remained the same for Mary Ann’s, named for Korleski’s wife. “We continue to stand by the model that we’ve always had in our business, which is to make the best products in traditional manners that allow time for marinating, curing and seasoning and not rushing processing to cut a penny here and there,” says co-owner Kelly Korleski, William’s son. “We want to make products people see as having higher quality and higher value and as being above the standard of products they see in the market.” 

Mary Ann’s specializes in processing meats including pork, beef, chicken and turkey. The company’s products include Kor-Bert bone-in and boneless pit ham, a favorite of families throughout Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Other products include bacon, bratwurst, kielbasa, chorizo and other varieties of sausage.  

It may be the end of an era for the traditionally round 1-pound soup base jar. Major Products Co. Inc. brought an idea over from its sister company in Europe, Major International, that the sister company has been using for more than two decades. However, Major USA took it one step further and picked a square, environmentally and logistically friendly jar.

Of the many advantages, a few big ones stand out. “If you look at a traditional case of the round jars, you will see a lot of air pockets of wasted space,” points out Valerie DeRose, Major Products co-owner and COO. The new case is a much smaller cube, which helps out distributors with their shelf space. Additionally, the new jar uses 60 percent less plastic per pound in comparison to the traditional rounds. 

Another advantage of the new container is more space for a larger label. “With the larger container, instead of having six smaller jars, you have two,” DeRose explains. “You have a lot more real estate to actually explain what the product is and have it in multiple languages. We like that it touches a larger audience, and that’s been really exciting.” 

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