Before launching their gourmet food business, Dan and Debbie Hochstatter and their three children would load up their red wagon with salad dressing samples and hand them out in their Lake in the Hills neighborhood.
Dan asked that his neighbors anonymously mail back a survey critiquing the product. The glowing reports provided Dan with the reassurance he needed to market the balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil-based dressing.
He started Cuginos, which means cousins in Italian, in his garage where he created more products.
Thirteen years later, Dan and Debbie operate the growing company from a 6,000-square-foot building they say is "busting at the seams" in Lake in the Hills.
Despite a weakening economy, the company did about $2.6 million in sales last year selling about 45 different products.
Dan, says he has a knack for putting foods together. He creates the recipes that are bottled in Chicago. Before launching the business, Dan worked as a children's book illustrator. He now designs the logos and labels for all the products.
"The packaging of product is really, really important," Dan says.
Right after the salad dressing, a four cheese garlic spread helped get the Cuginos name out there. The blend, selling for about $10 for a 16-ounce jar, features provolone, mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan cheeses with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice; it has become one of the company's hottest products.
The product was aired on the QVC cable channel several years ago. The Hochstatter's sold $76,000 of the product in six minutes, he said.
The company often offers samples of this product, and others, at food and craft shows across the country. Dan's motto is, "if you can get people to taste it - it will sell itself."
A line of dry soup mixes has turned into another top seller. It sells for about $2 for a 4-cup serving at Super Target.
"The tortilla con queso tastes like homemade," he said. "And the chili is remarkable."
There are nine different chili flavors in which the customer mixes in onion, water, ground beef or other ingredients listed on the directions.
Dan, who grew up in Arlington Heights and graduated from Rolling Meadows High School, has worked hard to get the products in stores across the country.
"It's not an easy business. It's a labor of love," he says.
Locally, the product is found at Woodman's Food Markets, Millrose in South Barrington, Caputos, Little Traveler in Geneva and Sunset Food stores.
"My goal is to be in every grocery store across the country," he said.
The products continue to thrive at craft and food shows as well. Sales are up between 10 to 20 percent at shows over last year.
"Our sales overall are up," Dan said, because people are going out to eat less and cooking more at home.
The products are also sold on their Web site, cuginos.com.