New career puts spice in woman's life as she detours in seasonings business

April 21, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

Three years ago, Gayle Garivaltis-James decided to pitch her 18-year career in the insurance industry and look for a new trail.

Where the Columbia resident ended up was Route 66.

Route 66 Foods, that is, a Southwestern-style seasonings company her brother, George Garivaltis, launched after a trip to Albuquerque, N.M.

The idea for the company hit Mr. Garivaltis and his wife, Hilary, when they stumbled across a small line of chili and taco seasonings that an Albuquerque chef was hawking at a food trade show.

Mr. Garivaltis, who operates a small jams and jellies company in Massachusetts, promptly locked up the rights to the recipes for the seasonings and the Route 66 name, hoping to capitalize on the lore surrounding the fabled highway.

Then he got on the phone to his sister. Before long, she was a partner in the venture.

Mrs. James says she has no regrets about gambling on a partnership. "I knew it was going to be a big risk, but I was ready for a change. To me the good news was we had a terrific-tasting product," she says.

Mrs. James estimates that start-up costs for the company were about $50,000. Her share of that came largely from a home equity loan she took out. She faced the possibility of losing her home if the company had gone belly up.

Then there was the reality of entering a field in which hundreds of small, specialty food lines, from pasta sauces to chili peppers, compete for a niche in the specialty food market.

As for rewards, Mrs. James and her brother and sister-in-law have the satisfaction of seeing Route 66's small product line carried by small specialty food and gift shops from Massachusetts to Michigan, in addition to several local retailers catering to affluent, gourmet clients, whom the partners decided to target.

Vendors include Fresh Fields, an upscale grocery chain in the Washington-Annapolis region, Williams-Sonoma, a national chain specializing in culinary products, the gift galleries at Nordstrom's Washington-area stores, Eddie's Supermarkets in Baltimore and Graul's Markets in Annapolis and Ruxton.

In Howard County, Route 66's line of seasonings can be found at Extra! Extra! Read All About It, a shop at Savage Mill that specializes in corporate and personal gift baskets. And Mrs. James says Route 66 products should show up soon on the shelves of Produce Galore in Columbia.

Route 66's marketing hook to gourmets and the health-conscious is the absence of preservatives such as monosodium glutamate and anti-caking agents in the seasonings.

Vikki Day, co-owner of Extra! Extra! Read All About It, says she was sold on Route 66's line after including several of Route 66 seasoning packets in 150 gift baskets a bank ordered for a promotional event.

It wasn't long after the baskets had been delivered that Mrs. Day was getting phone calls from recipients clamoring to buy more of Route 66's seasonings. She says that was a sure sign that she should keep the product in her gift basket line.

"I also like the fact that Gayle will come down here and do a demonstration of foods made with the seasonings. That goes over very well with customers, and it really shows how excited she is about her product."

Mrs. James sees the food demonstrations as the key to the company's success.

That's why she hits the road several times a week with a cooler filled with dips, chilis and other foods prepared with Route 66's seasonings and jellies.

"To make it in this business, you absolutely have to get your product in people's mouths," she says.

Her other rule of thumb for success: Provide customers with recipes so that they can see the possibilities for using the seasonings. Her current recipe handout includes directions for making a salsa fresca meat loaf made with Route 66's Jalapeno Flakes, and a nonfat taco dip made with the Two Guns Taco Mix.

Kathy Ordon, marketing director, for Fresh Fields grocery, thinks one of the keys to keeping Route 66 flourishing in the highly competitive specialty food market has been Mrs. James' chutzpah.

"One of the big reasons we carry Route 66 is Gayle. She has a great product, but she also really believes in it and will come out to our stores and stand for hours and hours with her samples," Ms. Ordon says. "Our customers really like it when they can taste a product and meet someone to talk to about it."

Mrs. James will be doing just that one day a week for the next five weeks at the Fresh Fields stores in Northern Virginia and its store in Annapolis, where she will appear May 6 from noon to 4:30 p.m.

Demand among her retail customers for the food demonstrations has been so strong that she plans to hire several people to handle some of the food demonstrations. That, she hopes, will free her to concentrate on new projects.

The projects include packaging small gift boxes of Route 66 Southwest seasonings and jellies for mail order, experimenting with bulk packaging to woo the institutional market and interesting department store chains in adding the Route 66 line to their gift shops.

Juggling her many projects and hats leaves Mrs. James little time for golf and other interests, but you'll get no complaints from her.

Looking back, she says, she thinks the biggest mistake she made in starting up the company was not developing a more well-defined marketing plan.

The best move: "I just took the chance to make it happen."

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