Friends give leg up to Italian Hearts founders |

Friends give leg up to Italian Hearts founders

Anne Knowles

When Sal and Val Gray were down on their luck — both unexpectedly laid off from their jobs, looking for work in their 50s, getting by on savings — the couple did what they always do.

“When things get rough, we cook,” says Val Gray. “We made sauce for our friends and that’s how it started.”

What started is Italian Hearts Pasta Sauces, the Reno couple’s now fast-growing business selling three kinds of homemade tomato sauces, all based on a recipe handed down in Sal Gray’s family.

The trio of pasta sauces is now sold in eight retail locations in northern Nevada, including Reno’s Whole Foods, and in the next year the couple plans to open a café in Reno’s midtown Sticks project featuring a simple menu of several recipes using their sauces.

The Gray’s luck began to turn when friends invited for dinner suggested they parlay their pasta sauces into new careers.

“We thought it was a good idea, but we were completely broke,” says Val Gray.

So their friends chipped in, helping pay for supplies and the mortgage on the couple’s house. The first batch of sauces the couple made sold out at a Damonte High School crafts fair held three years ago. Encouraged, the pair then launched a Web site and started selling online. They acquired a business license and permits from the health department, all funded by sales and friends. Then they felt ready to branch out.

“We decided it was time to think about going to a grocery chain and we decided to go to Whole Foods,” says Val Gray.

The organic food giant liked the product but told the Grays they needed to work on the labeling and presentation. So the couple hired Incept Inc., run by friend Rick Allen, to help them with a makeover.

“He helped completely change our public profile,” says Val Gray. “He took our ideas and put them on the paper and designed a Web site for us.”

Eventually, at the invitation of Whole Foods, the couple completed training to become certified kitchen managers. Italian Hearts Pasta Sauces are now featured in the Reno store, not on shelves but in their own end-of-aisle display. The Grays recently held their first sampling demonstration there.

The couple plan to hold weekly demonstrations, whether in Whole Foods or Williams Sonoma in The Summit mall or at some of their other retail outlets, including Big Horn Olive Oil Co. or the Great Basin Food Co-op, both in Reno, or Hungry Mother Organics in Minden.

Italian Hearts Pasta Sauces are now made in an industrial location in Gardnerville in a commercial kitchen and equipment once used by Killer Salsa, the locally-made salsas sold in Nevada and California by Wal-Mart, Raley’s, Sav-Mart and other grocery stores.

“Fran (Pritchard, Killer Salsa owner) asked us if we wanted to buy her production equipment. She’s expanding and is going to do it a different way,” says Val Gray. “She’d been in that location for 20 years. So we’re going to follow in her already successful business footprint.”

Along the way, the couple has also acquired a 50-50 partner, Teresa Garren, an old friend living in Oregon who saw their posting on Facebook.

And they continue to enjoy the support of other friends and each other.

“We love doing this and we love being together,” says Val Gray. “We’re blessed that we like each other.”