Aileen Magnotto, founder and president of MagNoodles, has a unique position as a natural entrepreneur. As a former conventional supermarket owner, she's seen product trends come and go, but tapped into the staying power of organic and clean foods long before other retailers in western Pennsylvania did. From this passion, she developed an organic, whole grain pasta with vegetables called MagNoodles.
After she and her husband sold the family supermarket, long-distance requests for the pasta sparked an idea to launch her product nationwide. She debuted at Natural Products Expo West 2011 to tasty reviews ("It doesn't taste like cardboard!"), but admits that the jump from retailer to product production has been tough. Here's her advice for why you should be choosy when it comes to distributors and why you should always follow your passion.
newhope360: What inspired you to create MagNoodles? (A clever play on your last name, we might add!)
Aileen Magnotto: My husband and I were conventional supermarket owners of a large 50,000 square foot store. In 1999 we expanded into a new store. I thought it should have an Italian flair, so I bought a pasta machine from Italy and put it in the store thinking we should be offering homemade pasta. It was a niche. Nobody around here [western Pennsylvania] had done that. I had three small children at the time, so I wanted to make it as healthy as I could. Then I came up with a whole grain pasta made with vegetables and found something my children would eat. I married Italian—my last name's Magnotto—and the family loved it so the name became MagNoodles.
newhope360: What else did you do in your store to promote healthy food?
AM: We were the very first store to have an organic section in our area, in 2001 or 2002. And we just kept expanding on healthier food choices. We would hold cooking classes and healthy food classes. We sold the store in 2008 and then it closed. We were doing things that were ahead of their time, and I would incorporate MagNoodles because most people hadn't tasted a whole wheat pasta and if they had, they didn't like it. But they liked my blend.
newhope360: How did owning a supermarket inform how you get your product onto other reatilers' shelves?
AM: I have a whole different way of thinking. It is difficult to make that leap from being in retail to the production end. I have a retail mode of mind. I love to test market my product and do my own demos. It is a hard transition, but I guess you could see the retail end was all my test marketing being that I owned the store. I view what the consumer wants differently because I have been on that side for 10 years prior to launching MagNoodles.
My biggest hurdle is I like to do it myself because I'm so passionate about my product. And I'm looking for the brokers and the distributors who feel the same passion I do because this is not just another product. We had a lot of people come in and pitch a lot of products to us [as supermarket owners]. I don't want my product just to be pitched. I want my product to be understood.
newhope360: How is your product different from others on the market?
AM: It is a blend of whole grain durum, whole grain spelt and whole grain kamut blended with semolina. This is probably the worst time to get into the market with this pasta because I want to keep my product sourced in the United States. But after the floods in the plains in North Dakota and Montana, whole grain—especially organic—is taking a huge rise in cost. I want to keep this a product for families, so to go over $5 a box could be prohibitive to their budget. Right now it's in a 14 oz box and it's between $4.50 and $4.99 a box.
newhope360: How are you cutting costs?
AM: I am not expanding as fast [outside of the Midwest]. I am working a lot myself as far as brokering and distributing.
newhope360: Your noodles are vegan, organic, kosher—how did you decide on these labels?
AM: I wanted to get back to the basic healthy food, without any additives. I think what's confusing is there are a lot of "super pastas" out there. They'll say right on the label "super pasta" and better for you. But those are all enriched. Those have additives and they're not organic or clean. I am a breast cancer survivor. I had breast cancer in 2005 and my husband had prostate cancer in 2006, which really was the catalyst for us to exit the supermarket business because we were a 24/7 store. I always look for healthier, clean products and in MagNoodles I wanted to make sure that it was the healthiest, cleanest product I could produce.
newhope360: Was it always your plan after the supermarket to start this product?
AM: I actually didn't have a plan. What happened was, when we announced we were closing the store I had people calling from a two-hour drive away seeing if I had any of the pasta left because they knew we were liquidating our stocks. I knew I was making and selling hundreds of pounds of pasta a week, I just didn't realize it was being shipped all over the country! People would come home for the holidays, buy and ship it back.
newhope360: Describe your typical workday.
AM: I eat, sleep and live how I'm going to market MagNoodles. The retail end of me is always coming out. So since I live in western Pennsylvania and I'm not near my production and I'm not near a lot of the stores where it's being sold, I'm constantly on the phone. I am also doing a lot of my own demos, and I try to use social media (much to my children's humor) to post where I'm going to be.
newhope360: What stores are you targeting—conventional and natural?
AM: Both.My product does do better when the consumer is aware of what the value of organic is. If they're looking for a .99 pasta, there's no way I can convince them.
newhope360: Would you ever consider making a gluten-free pasta?
AM: No, I'm all about how healthy I can get the pasta with different whole grains. It's amazing how bread has been a staple in our diets for thousands of years, and now all of sudden people can't tolerate it. I think a lot of it has to do with how we're genetically engineering the wheat crops and our foods. We have to get back to pure, clean foods.
newhope360: Do you have a new product that you're launching at Natural Products Expo West 2012?
AM: I'm going to keep with my formula. For my hashtag on twitter, I always use #DoesNotTasteLikeCardboard. When I ask customers, "Do you want to taste the best whole grain pasta on the market?" they usually scrunch up their nose. I'll say, "No, it doesn't taste like cardboard!" I actually stole this phrase from customer feedback when they bought it from my supermarket. So, I'll be launching different shapes of this blend of pasta [at Expo West].
newhope360: Where do you see your product five years from now?
AM: I would love to be walking down the street and hear a child say, "Mom, can we have MagNoodles for dinner tonight?" I would love for it to be a mainstay where families understand they can have whole grains and it can taste good, too.
newhope360: What advice do you have for other natural products industry entrepreneurs?
AM: Be passionate about their product. I have met a lot of people who want to just do a trend. But if it's a trend and you're not passionate, it's just a trend and it comes and goes. This is a product I want to stick around. I want to educate people on the value of non-GMO, organic, healthy grains.