I think they just got through marinating the greens. — Yogi Berra
JOHNSON CITY — Yogi Berra was famous for his baseball prowess and for his malapropisms. The above quote is reputed to have been uttered on a golf course, in which case the immortal Yankees’ catcher probably meant “irrigating.”
One person who always knows how to use the word “marinate” properly is Rob Salamida, president, owner, and founder of the Rob Salamida Co., Inc. located in Johnson City.
A native of the region, he is credited with being the pioneer who first bottled a sauce for the area’s beloved Spiedies (pronounced SPEE-dees, derived from the Italian word “spiedo” meaning spit).
“Spiedies are cubes of meat that are marinated for at least 24 hours before skewered and cooked over a grill,” says Salamida. “Once the meat is cooked, it’s squeezed off the skewer onto a slice of Italian bread or a sub roll. There is no need to add anything else to the sandwich, because the marinade does the flavoring beforehand.”
Spiedies are the Triple Cities’ best kept secret. Salamida’s original mission was to share this secret with the nation. His expanded mission is to promote the versatility of marinades and spices to enhance the taste of many, different foods. “A good marinade has the right balance of vinegar, oil, herbs, and spices,” notes Salamida. “I developed my own recipe in 1975 and began bottling my State Fair Spiedie Sauce by hand in my parents’ rec room on a plywood panel laid over the pool table. During the lunch hour, I loaded bottles in the trunk of my car and delivered them to local grocery stores. Today, the company ships different marinades, sauces, spices, and a dietary supplement by the trailer-load to more than 40 states. Our growth has been … [explosive] expanding just in the last three years from distribution to 2,000 stores to more than 10,000, including Aldi, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Food Lion, Hannaford, Kroger, Price Chopper, Publix, Sam’s Club, Tops Markets, Walmart, Wegmans, and Weis Markets, as well as many regional chains.”
Forty-two years after launching his one-man business, Salamida employs 15 people (seasonally adjusted) working two shifts. His real-estate company owns a 17,000-square-foot building in which the production operation occupies 5,000 square feet. Currently, the operating company ships more than 2 million bottles annually. The Business Journal estimates it generates annual sales of more than $3 million. Salamida is the sole stockholder.
Keys to growth
“What accounts for the company’s success?” Salamida asks rhetorically. “[First,] I spent years growing the company slowly. This is a tough business, where the producer has to fight to get limited supermarket shelf space. The buyers are in the catbird’s seat, demanding free products, expensive promotions, up-front payments for displaying your products, handling charges, etc. It isn’t unusual to show zero profit for several years opening new accounts, which means you need cash flow to sustain growth. The buyers also change on a regular basis, so it’s hard to develop a long-term relationship.
“[Second,] … the business is changing rapidly with … [behemoths] like Walmart and Amazon reinventing sales and distribution in response to changing consumer demands. That means you have to be adaptable in how you conduct your business and understand consumer trends.
“Over the years, our product line has expanded from the original State Fair Spiedie Sauce to six varieties of marinades and sauces plus a new line of spices I call ‘Pinch.’ The original focus on cubes of meat has now expanded to enhancing the taste of fish, vegetables, eggs, and casseroles. I’m always trying out new recipes to diversify our product line, which I gladly share online. My marinade recipes include chicken-wing dip, Greek chicken pita, hunter’s pride easy jerky, pan-seared rosemary-balsamic pork chops, and pork teriyaki kabobs. My spices and rubs recipes feature Cajun deviled eggs, Cajun-style green-bean casserole, garlic-lovers deviled eggs, hickory-smoked pork chops, and hickory-smoked sausage stuffing. And, of course, there are recipes for Spiedie sandwiches.
“[Third,] grilling, which was a seasonal pastime when I was a kid, became year-round with the sale of gas grills,” continues Salamida. “This change allowed us to produce State Fair Spiedie Sauce all year, rather than just for the summer season. The popularity of sauces and marinades also drew us into the contract-manufacturing business where, beginning in 1991, we produced private-label products for Wegmans. Our 14-year relationship with Wegmans generated positive cash flow that helped me to build the business.
“[Fourth,] … when I started in business, people were communicating via black rotary phones; there was no Internet. The rapid expansion of the Internet has allowed the company to develop online sales to customers who still don’t have local access to our products. More importantly, the Internet has helped us to promote our iconic brand from local to national recognition.
[Fifth], I’m frugal. I learned a long time ago that every dollar I save in costs is equivalent to $3 in sales. I also learned the power of leverage: $1 of credit is worth $5 in cash. Supermarkets operate on razor-thin margins, so I have to be cost-conscious about everything in order to compete.
“[Sixth], one reason that our sauces are different is because our production methods are designed differently from most manufacturers,” emphasizes Salamida. “Instead of working with huge volume mixes, we utilize a small-batch system that guarantees a better blend. Not only is the quality better, but we are also better able to control the consistency. It’s just like homemade.
“The production facility includes custom-made equipment that is state-of-the-art and the multiple production lines and tight process-control position us for flexibility and quick turnaround times, which are ideal for private-label customer needs. And finally, I’m a contrarian. Most producers use food brokers to distribute their products; I prefer to sell directly. I learned how to sell as a teenager, when Jack Yoder, who owned The County Advertiser, took me under his wing. He taught me how to sell and gave me the confidence to approach anybody.”
The irrepressible capitalist
Salamida was influenced at an early age by his mother’s father, Pasquale Tierno, who was a Southern Tier entrepreneur and a role model of a hard worker with strong business ethics. He also was born into a family that loved to cook.
“When I was young, someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I answered: a capitalist,” Salamida recalls. “I sold bottles of soda from a cart at the age of nine. As the workers finished their shift, I positioned my cart on the McKinley Ave. Bridge so they all had to pass by my stand. At age 12, I was walking on the boardwalk at Ocean City, New Jersey when my older brother quipped to my father that the boardwalk would be a good location for me to make a fortune selling Spiedies. I thought it was a good idea, but couldn’t find any space to set up a stand … It seems that I always had multiple jobs at the same time: I delivered newspapers, shoveled snow, shined shoes, mowed lawns, sold advertising, and worked at a deli and in the family retail store in Endicott. Just before I turned 17, I set up a grill outside a beer tavern in Endicott and began cooking Spiedies using my own sauce recipe. At Bryant College, where I studied business administration, I sold advertising for the school newspaper and returned home each summer to set up my grill and sell Spiedies.”
The intrepid capitalist always wondered whether people outside the Triple Cities would appreciate the unique flavor of Spiedies. He decided to test his idea at the New York State Fair located in Syracuse. While a freshman at Bryant College (now Bryant University), he wrote letters to Bernie Potter, the fair director. After receiving no response to his monthly letters, he finally drove to Syracuse and pleaded with the director. His reward was an 8-foot booth at the end of the fairgrounds with only eight days to prepare. “I was really in the boondocks,” Salamida recalls. “That first year was a real experience. I rented a van and had help building our stand, where we slept for the duration of the fair. On the third day, the bread truck from Endicott didn’t show up, so I flagged down a bakery truck from Rochester which was passing by and bought out … [the contents of his] truck. Turns out the [Endicott] bakery driver wouldn’t pay the $10 entry fee to get into the fairgrounds. At the conclusion of the fair, I packed up and started to leave when an oncoming car cut in front of me, causing me to scrape the side of my rented van. The $281 profit I made that year went to pay for the damages.” At age 19, Salamida was undaunted by the experience. He came back to the fair 12 more times.
In 1975, on the first day of the New York State Fair, the Spiedies maven thought he was Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.” A violent storm was in the process of transporting his stand to Kansas when workers at adjacent stands rescued the structure. The storm left Salamida’s stand knee-deep in mud and convinced him this was a tough way to make a living. That’s when he had an epiphany: “Why go through all the effort to make Spiedies when I can put the sandwich in a bottle?” Thus was born the idea of a marinade. The next year he launched the first commercial Spiedies sauce in a bottle.
In 1974, our intrepid capitalist graduated from Bryant College, whose mascot is a bulldog. Looking back on Salamida’s vocational experience, the college symbol of tenacity seems appropriate as a metaphor for his character. “I took a sales job with Procter & Gamble and lived out of a suitcase for eight months,” he remembers. “I learned a great deal about selling, but didn’t enjoy the job.” Salamida quit and returned home to develop his marinade business. Since it was a seasonal business at that time, he turned to real estate to supplement his income. He obtained a real-estate license and began buying multi-family homes and bought his current factory in 1977. Spiedie Catering was launched in 1978 both to garner cash flow and to promote his Spiedie Sauce. The catering company handled a variety of events, including company picnics for area firms such as NYSEG and IBM. “On IBM’s annual appreciation day, we served 10,000 IBM employees,” Salamida boasts. “In 1987, I bought a meat company to furnish the meat for our Spiedies. It was unprofitable, so I sold the business after four years. The Wegmans contract introduced me to the growth potential of the private-label business, where I taught myself how to produce commercial recipes using preservatives along with natural products. At one point, I also owned a golf course/restaurant. While working on multiple businesses, I never stopped developing my sauce, marinade, and gourmet spice lines and expanding our distribution.
In 1983, Salamida and a friend, Paul Van Savage, cooked up the idea to have a one-day Spiedie festival celebrating the local, favorite grilled sandwich. The idea caught on and became the Broome County Spiedie Fest. The event, held on the first weekend in August, has expanded to three days complete with hot-air balloons. Today, the fest draws more than 100,000 people with the proceeds donated to charity.
“We’ve been on a roll the past three years, expanding our distribution,” avers Salamida. “And there’s plenty of room to grow. I know all the obstacles to growth: multiple competitors, the high cost of entry, the need for strong cash flow, and changing consumer preferences. In the face of all this, one of my strongest assets is patience. I have grown the business conservatively over the past four decades. But I think my greatest asset is my employees. They have been with me a long time and share my concern for producing excellent products every day. We do the training internally with emphasis on quality, consistency, and sanitation, requiring a daily recording of every batch and insisting on a third-party review of our sanitation techniques.
“Finding the best people is a mantra for every business,” posits Salamida. “It’s usually the biggest challenge wherever a business is located. The key is to find an employee with talent who wants to learn and grow in the job. Let me share one example. Seven years ago, I hired Jenny Schleig, who had no sales experience and was unaccustomed to business travel, as an office administrator. But Jenny was convinced she could sell anything if she believed in the product. Her efforts and persistence were instrumental in helping to expand our distribution five-fold in just the last three years.”
At age 65, Salamida isn’t slowing down. Despite his concerns about the Empire State’s tax and regulatory policies, he is tied to his family, his loyalty to the region, the quality of life, and his mission to bring Spiedies to the world and enhance the eating experience. He’s a “capitalist” and can’t help developing old businesses and exploring new ones.
What’s next? In 1951, Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed the U.S. Congress in his farewell address in which he said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Rob Salamida has no farewell address, because sauce makers never age, they just marinate and produce new ideas.