The Arizona Republic
In a small business, the owner and the employees can have an immediate effect on their customers and industries. These Arizona firms have carved out their niche.
S mall but mighty.
A company with a great idea and fewer than 100 workers can have an outsize impact on its customers, its industry and its community. Here are four Arizona examples, all powered by their leaders’ vision and strength. One owner tossed aside a high-tech sales career to pursue a culinary passion. Another leader pursued technical innovation to try to improve customers’ quality of life. A third nurtured the potential of a small storefront business. And one owner, who once ran a banking business from her kitchen, now leads a factory that delivers its product nationwide. Their examples can offer direction to those who want to follow in their footsteps.
Paola Tulliani says God has handed her miracles.
Sitting in her sprawling office, filled with the tantalizing smell of almonds, chocolate and caramel, Tulliani is far from the poverty of her childhood.
She is far from the uncertain, early days of her baking businesses, when a good day meant baking 250 pounds of biscotti with a couple of employees.
Now, her company, La Dolce Vita, has about 100 employees who produce about 45,000 pounds of sweets daily. She supplies roughly 30 products to major companies, such as Costco, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks.
Her goods travel from a massive factory mixing bowl on the western edge of Glendale to store shelves as far away as Puerto Rico, Georgia and Florida.
Since she first tried her hand at commercial baking in her kitchen two decades ago, Tulliani’s business has moved to Scottsdale, Phoenix and Deer Valley and landed in Glendale in 2010. Each time, she added more space and more equipment.
Eventually La Dolce Vita began competing with larger biscotti companies, including Tulsa, Okla.-based Nonni’s Foods LLC, which produces about 75 percent of the biscotti in the U.S. grocery-store market.
Last year, Nonni’s acquired Tulliani’s business for an undisclosed sum. The deal was finalized in December.
“My competitor has become my partner,” said Tulliani, 64. “It’s a sweet ending.”
The acquisition still leaves Tulliani at the helm in Glendale, and the same employees will work at the production site.
Tulliani is a part of the Nonni’s management team and is a Nonni’s stockholder. Her products will still bear the La Dolce Vita name.
The goal is to expand the Glendale facility, said Peter Hetrick, Nonni’s Food Group vice president of sales and marketing. The company plans to double the amount of production in Glendale over the next three years and introduce La Dolce Vita products to larger markets around the country, Hetrick said.
Buying smaller competitors is part of Nonni’s expansion plan.
Nonni, Italian for grandmother, was started in the 1990s by a couple of college students in the San Francisco Bay area, who used one of their Italian grandmother’s recipes for biscotti.
The business split off from its parent company, Chipita America, in 2011. A year later it acquired THINaddictives, a company that produces slender cookies packed with fruit and nuts.
La Dolce Vita brings more variety to the company’s collection of sweets, Hetrick said.
Nonni’s biscotti recipes take a contemporary American twist — they are drenched in chocolate or salted caramel. Tulliani also uses chocolate and caramel, but she is most known for making traditional biscotti, using ample almonds and anise, hallmarks of the artisan Italian tradition.
Before the deal, Nonni’s officials watched La Dolce Vita for about four years, Hetrick said.
“We had a respect for what each other had accomplished, and we believe that by joining forces that we could take some of our expertise and some of her expertise, we could become stronger as one,” Hetrick said.
Tulliani said she plans to stay with La Dolce Vita for at least five more years before she decides what to do next.
Tulliani has loved baking since childhood. It took decades for her to transform that passion into a successful business.
Tulliani’s family left Venice, Italy, in 1956 when she was 7 years old. After World War II, the city had few job opportunities, and many jobs were lowpaying. In Italy, Tulliani’s father, Angelo Zen, supported his wife and five children as an engineer, earning $90 week.
A cousin found him a job at a machine, tool and die company in Chicago and the family moved to the United States.
In Chicago, Tulliani’s mother, Lina, cooked and cleaned for a Catholic church to pay for her children to go to Catholic grammar school. When Tulliani was 16, her father died of cancer. She and her 17-year-old brother went to work to help support their family, and she found a job working as a cashier at a paint shop.
“We’d be on the bus at10:30 at night when the stores closed and so we’d give my mother the check,” Tulliani recalled. “I would do anything to help provide.”
Later, Tulliani worked for a hotel, which sent her to Scottsdale at age 24. Eventually, she opened an interior-design company called Tulliani Interiors, a business she ran with her thenhusband for about15 years until she decided to leave the industry. She turned to baking. In 1993, Tulliani and her daughter, Renee, started making biscotti in her kitchen. Tulliani was in her 40s and Renee
LA DOLCE VITA
Location: 10875 W. Northview Ave., Glendale. Chief executive/principal: Paola Tulliani. Employees: About 100. Recent success: Acquired by Nonni’s in December 2012. Products: Biscotti, macaroons, cookies, brownies. Pounds of sweets produced daily: 45,000. was 21 . She named her corporation Villa Veneto Corp. but labeled her products La Dolce Vita.
Tulliani called Price Club — before it was enveloped by Costco — and asked if it would be interested in selling her baked goods. After trying her sweets, the company said yes.
From then on, Tulliani continued baking and building the business.
She scanned phone books, sifted through magazines and spent afternoons calling prospective customers. Some days, she would book a client and feel giddy with success. On others, she’d lose a client and worry that she’d never meet her own expectations.
Some relatives said she’d never earn enough money by baking.
But her daughter often kept her going.
“I’d say, ‘I don’t know, Renee, it’s really tough.’ I was testing her. ‘Should we give up?’ ” Tulliani recalled.
“She’d come in and put out her arms and say, ‘We’re going to be huge!’ ”
Tulliani did whatever it took. She baked the Italian treats she loved and whatever customers wanted. She whipped up cakes for hotels and made tiramisu for AJ’s Fine Foods.
Nine years ago, feeling stressed, Tulliani took a drive and told God to just take over.
The next morning, she got a call from a gourmet-food store in Massachusetts. It wanted a semitruck load of sweets. It was her largest order yet.
Despite occasional setbacks, Tulliani steadily grew La Dolce Vita.
Today, in Tulliani’s 60,000square-foot Glendale building, a mixer spins 700 pounds of batter every 12 minutes.
The facility is busy around the clock. The baking crew works at night. Another group of workers comes in at 4 a.m. to slice and package treats.
Tulliani started her company in her home, but now she tries each new recipe in an expansive test kitchen in the Glendale plant. The best go out for production.
The December acquisition is the biggest milestone yet in a career shaped by little miracles and hard work, she said.