Italian Restaurant Carbone’s CEO On Getting Saucy And Going D2C

While the past 13 months have been enormously difficult for most restaurateurs, the creators of New York Italian-American restaurant Carbone — chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi and entrepreneur Jeff Zalaznick — have found creative ways to grow and evolve. In addition to launching a thriving takeout and delivery business, the founders’ restaurant group Major Food Group also opened several restaurants in Miami and, most recently, launched a consumer packaged goods (CPG) brand, Carbone Fine Food.

Spearheaded by Eric Skae, a CPG veteran and former CEO of Rao’s Specialty Foods, the brand is starting off with a line of three tomato sauces available in select grocery stores, on Amazon, and direct-to-consumer (D2C) through the brand’s online shop.

“The Major Food Group Founders … have been wanting to enter the consumer goods space for quite some time, but were very specific in their vision and wanted to make sure whatever they put in a jar or any packaging was up to par with the quality that Carbone is known for,” Skae told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “We had been thinking about this for a while, but the pandemic really expedited things. We saw it as an opportunity to target an increased interest by consumers in home cooking … willing to invest in more premium products.”

Expanding Carbone’s Customer Base

As Carbone’s restaurant continues to see consistently high demand for its premium meals, the line of packaged sauces offers the chance to reach consumers who are not in any of the cities that have a Carbone’s location — New York, Miami, Hong Kong and Las Vegas — or who may not be able to afford the restaurant’s meals, which can be $40 or more.

“Carbone has been very successful, but as a restaurant, there is only a select [number] of consumers you can reach on any given night,” said Skae. “By offering our sauces both in-store and online, we’re able to give more people the opportunity to enjoy our sauces no matter how they shop.”

While there may be a wide variety of pasta sauces available at any given grocery store, Skae believes that there remains a significant opportunity for Carbone Fine Food to build a sizable following.

“It’s a $2.5 billion dollar category, and we firmly believe premium sauces have the opportunity to take part of that share,” Skae said. “Right now there is only one major player, Rao’s, and then a lot of other smaller players.”

He added that this “an opportunity for Carbone to grow,” offering a more upscale option in the developing “super-premium category.”

“For sauces in particular, it’s a long process to get right if you were to make it at home from scratch, and many consumers just don’t have the time or desire to do so,” added Skae. “With premium sauces on grocery shelves, it gives shoppers an opportunity for a quick and easy meal, that matches the same elevated food quality they would expect from a restaurant.”

How The Restaurant And CPG Brand Work Together

According to Skae, the Major Food Group founders, Carbone (the chef, not the restaurant), Torrisi and Zalaznick, were very involved in the creation of the sauces.

“[One] benefit we had when developing the sauces was having two award-winning, Michelin-Starred chefs who know their stuff when it comes to sauces,” Skae said. “They oversaw the entire production process from start to finish to ensure restaurant-quality sauce in every jar.”

Additionally, he noted, the three founders came up with the idea to base the CPG products’ labels on the restaurant’s menu, “which helped immensely in the brand development.”

Of course, the brand would be doomed from the start if Carbone (the restaurant, not the chef) did not already have significant name recognition. Skae reflected, “There has to be something special about a restaurant in order for it to be successful in the CPG space, whether it’s an accredited chef, the history and legacy, reputation for quality food, etc.”

New Products, New Regions And New Opportunities

In addition to the three original tomato sauces — Marinara, Arrabbiata, and Tomato Basil — the brand has also announced a Roasted Garlic flavor coming soon.

“We’re open to exploring other categories down the road, but right now we’re focused on laying the right foundation for the sauces,” said Skae. “There is a lot of room in this category for us to grow, so we’ll get our sauces done right and then look at where we want to go next.  There are a lot of adjacent categories that you can go into.”

He added that Carbone (the chef) and Torrisi are involved in product creation, saying that they are “into it and particularly involved in what we’re putting out.”

While the products are available D2C across the country, they are only available in grocery stores in parts of the Northeast right now.

“Getting into retailers takes time, and right now our focus is in the Tri-State area, followed by other regions along the East Coast,” explained Skae. “By offering our sauces through D2C in tandem, we’re able to offer our sauces to consumers nationwide, even if they don’t live in a location where they can find Carbone in their local retailers.”

Of course, grocery store shelves can be a key acquisition channel for customers across the country who may not be as familiar with Carbone and who may not know to look for the sauces.

“Hopefully, [next year] we’ll be talking about how Carbone’s sauces have become a top choice for consumers across the country and the expanded availability in new retailers and markets,” said Skae. “[We] will be moving up and down the East Coast in the near future and eventually make our way to other parts of the country, including the West Coast, so I’d love to be able to tell that story a year from now.”

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