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Who are you and what business did you start?
Leah Ferrazzani – I’m the owner/pastaia at Semolina Artisanal Pasta.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I used to make fresh pasta at home pretty frequently, but then I had kids and started relying on dried pasta more because I didn’t have the free time. I was always searching for locally made, organic pasta but couldn’t find any, so I started toying around with the idea of turning my passion for pasta into product development. I did a ton of research and even went to Italy to learn/study about making and drying pasta. A couple of years later, in October 2014, I launched Semolina Artisanal Pasta out of my home kitchen, converting my laundry room into a makeshift pasta dryer using some consumer electronics and a lot of moxie. Fast forward to today, I now operate a pasta lab/storefront in Northwest Pasadena, and my pastas are sold all over the country, proving that great pasta doesn’t have to be imported from Italy. I strive to make a product that is simply good and because it’s made locally, good for the environment and our community. As part of that commitment, I donate a portion of our profits to community organizations that focus on food justice, preservation and education.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
There are only two ingredients in dried pasta: semolina and water. Semolina is the flour, made from Durum wheat and milled a particular way, and it is fundamental to the flavor and texture of dried pasta. Through my research, I discovered that the U.S. exports about half the Durum wheat we grow to Italy, which they make into pasta to send back to us. So once I determined that we had the right raw ingredients I went about sourcing flour, which was not easy at my size. While I was working on getting the best Semolina I could, I started studying different drying methods and phases, what kind of extruder I would need, and building and purchasing equipment. l made and dried a lot of pasta until I started producing a consistent product that cooked well and tasted great.
While I was testing/refining the different pasta shapes, I started working with a graphic designer to figure out how to visually express the brand: I wanted to convey transparency, Italian tradition with a California edge. Once I had my branding locked in I then set a date to launch the product.
Prior to launch, I made a few hundred pounds of each shape so that I would have enough inventory to get started. I dropped of samples with a couple of local purveyors— a local miller and an artisan cheese shop. They immediately placed orders! Shortly after securing my first few accounts, I debuted Semolina Artisanal Pasta to the public at a local event in Los Angeles called Artisanal LA.
From there, the business grew bit by bit, and eventually, I had to rent commercial kitchen space once I secured larger wholesale accounts. The new space was better, but more expensive than I anticipated with lots of hidden costs, so I had to move into my own shop. I opened the shop/pasta lab in May of 2018.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
I originally used Squarespace to launch my website, but quickly realized I needed Shopify, which offered everything I needed from website to e-commerce to POS, all while integrating with accounting and inventory software. It was quite easy to set up, the most time-consuming part was photographing all the product and loading it up.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Besides making really great food?? (Hee hee.) I think what attracts people to my brand is my story. I love connecting with customers. They believe in what I’m doing. They want transparency and quality in their food, and I give that to them. Having a retail location has really been helpful, too, our signage really draws people in off the street, and the quality of the product and the personal level of service when they come in brings them back. I want to help people cook better, and they get that.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Semolina is doing great. We are growing day-by-day. Ultimately, I would like to expand, make the shop just a production space and then open a second location that would be an Italian market and deli. There I would focus on selling both our dried and fresh pastas along with wine and other provisions from local artisans.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned lots of things that are very helpful. All I do is learn! Seriously, I see every day as an opportunity to learn. Some of it is easy and some of it is hard. I work hard to connect with my customers and listen and to adapt in a way that is authentic to me and my vision. The most valuable thing that I’ve learned is that there are a lot of ways to run a business. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. What works for me is trusting my own instinct on how to develop and grow the brand. When I’m successful it feels authentic, and in return, the brand thrives.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Shopify – online fulfillment
- Social Media (Facebook / Instagram)– online marketing
- MailChimp – email marketing
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Trust yourself! I would also recommend having people from varying backgrounds as sounding boards. It’s good to talk to people who have been in your shoes as well as not. It can reveal blind spots and allow you to see different ways to approach a situation.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Currently, I’m still doing all the pasta production. I do have a couple of part-time employees that help me package and run the shop on the weekends. I’m hoping to hire a production manager in the next six month so I can focus more on growing the business.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
You can visit www.semolinapasta.comor follow me on Instagram @semolinaartisanalpasta