By Jill Thurston

Michael Perella, his son Matthew and his wife Diane sat in their kitchen in Baldwin and kicked around names for their homemade hot sauce.

“My dad turned to me and said, ‘who would have thought two ugly mugs like us could start a company?’” Matt Perella said, “and my mom immediately said ‘that’s it! Two Ugly Mugs!”

An end-of-the-season garden experiment has become a rewarding family business for the Perella family. From local farmers markets and small delicatessens to Shark Tank pitches and grocery chain stores, the journey has been a “growing” experience.

The product was named and made in their kitchen, but the recipe came straight from their garden. Michael and Diane Perella always had a backyard garden and included their son Matthew and daughter Taryn.

“We’re an Italian family. We always had a garden and cooked and canned from our garden, so did my grandparents,” said Matt Perella, the director of operations and sole full-time employee for Two Ugly Mugs Gourmet Salsa.

The original hot sauce recipe was developed in 2011 by Michael Perella from vegetables harvested at the end of the season.

“Dad is a heat nut, so the original recipe was very hot,” said Matt Parella, attending Westminster College at the time. “We shared it with friends and family and everyone raved about it and told us we should start a business.”

To test the “market,” they continued to make the recipe in their home, shared it with others and even “peddled it,” as Matt Perella puts it, from their car at farmers markets and food shows.

Meeting the demand from their own kitchen was challenging.

Friends and family quickly spoke for the few gallons of the spicy sauce.

The Perella family recognized it was becoming more than a hobby and when a local Shop n’ Save owner in Castle Shannon ordered 20 cases of each recipe. Matt Perella said they knew they could no longer continue production in-house, so they took the next step, renting space from a local commercial kitchen two nights a week.

It was an ambitious effort. “I was still in college at that time and I would come home. My parents were working full time. We’d make the salsa in the commercial kitchen at night, sometimes cooking till midnight or after and then go back to work and school the next day,” Matt Perella said.

“It was all hands on deck,” remembers Mrs. Perella, a full-time dental hygienist and majority owner of the salsa business; her husband and son are part owners, her daughter handles social media and helps with events and in-store demos. “Whoever was available would come and help chop and cook. We’d work late into the night and then have to get up and go to work the next day,” she said.

The Shop n’ Save order was a big break for them. And the owner gave them some great advice, she said. “He told us if we wanted something that would really sell, turn this into a salsa. That was the best advice,” Mrs. Perella said. The ingredients remained the same, only the vegetables were no longer pureed but cut into chunks, and the “heat” was turned down slightly.

That order was a turning point for them, and Mrs. Perella thought, “What do we have to lose? Let’s keep going.”

While the commercial kitchen met the production needs, it was physically draining on all of them. “After a couple of rounds of that, we couldn’t keep up, so we started working with a commercial canner,” said Matt Perella.

In 2013, he said the family contracted with Stello Foods in Punxsutawney but continued on their own to deliver the salsa to the stores and smaller markets like Emma’s Market and Deli in Upper St. Clair. Owner Terri Emma remembers a friend of the Perella family recommended that they carry the salsa. “It’s a great product and it’s been a great seller,” she said.

So what makes Two Ugly Mugs Gourmet Salsa different? “From the start, we’ve used all-natural ingredients locally sourced when available with no additives, no preservatives. It’s vegan and gluten-free. And, we use habanero peppers ... that’s what makes us different,” Matt Perella said. The peppers are purchased from local growers all around central Pennsylvania.”

There are two salsa options: Sweet Heat and Muggin’ Hot. Sweet Heat is a medium, mild salsa. “The taste starts out sweet and then the heat creeps in,” Matt Perella explains. The “sweet,” Mrs. Perella said, “comes from the carrots, and the sugar content is very low.”

The Muggin’ Hot satisfies those who like more “heat” in their salsa. There’s also a heat addictive packet to turn up the heat and a dry season mix for making cold dips.

“It’s extremely versatile. It’s not just for chips. You can use the salsa on anything,” she said. Robinson’s Giant Eagle Market District has featured Two Ugly Mugs products in cooking demos in the past, she said, using the salsa on boneless pork tenderloins, rice, fish, eggs, and even enchiladas.

Several of her patients wanted to try the salsa after hearing her story. One of her longtime patients, Mary Dee Walsh of Green Tree, not only encourages the family in the pursuit of their growing business, she’s a huge fan. “It is probably the best salsa I’ve ever tasted. I buy it by the case. And, I thought it was fantastic that she and her son have done it together,” she said.

Another patient, Collette O’Leary, also from Green Tree, likes the hotter salsa. She helps with the marketing effort too. “I really liked it and started buying by the case. When I go to a party, I take a jar as a gift and I try to make a recipe using the salsa to take along and introduce it to others,” she said.

Matt Perella continued the effort to get the product on more shelves. He met Paul Abbott, Senior Director for Market District, about five years ago at a seminar on starting a business and introduced himself.

Abbot attributes the gains made by the brand within the Giant Eagle Market District chain to the family’s determination and the grocery chain’s commitment to supporting local businesses.

“Matt introduced himself and told me what he was up to with the salsa,” Abbott recalls. He shared that salsa is a difficult category; although Abbott thought the salsa was delicious, he warned the budding entrepreneur that many brands come and go, and salsa is a relatively “crowded” category. “We try to be very transparent and let them know it is a tough category. I wasn’t discouraging him from doing it, but the intention was to say you have to figure out how to navigate in a world where you need to stand out.” Matt Perella continued to follow up with Abbott, who then brought the product to a small, internal focus group at Giant Eagle, which gave the salsa favorable reviews. “The taste and the quality resonated with our internal group. From there we decided it would be worth going down a path and doing business with them,” Abbot said.

“We started in the Pittsburgh Market District stores and had good results. As you would expect, but don’t often see, they were very committed to the product. They would conduct product sampling and partner with us for in-store tactics associated with consumers and did the hard work of gaining the exposure.” After favorable results in the Pittsburgh stores, they expanded the brand into all of the Market District stores, including Northeast Ohio, Columbus, and one in Carmel, Ind.

Also in 2017, Matt Perella and his friend and supporter Ben Cunningham, now director of sales, went to Bentonville, Ark., to an “open pitch” at Walmart’s headquarters. The two trekked 700 miles to Arkansas for a brief 10-minute opportunity to show their product, and it paid off. Walmart reached out to them after the open call and started offering salsa in 40 stores. Today Ugly Mugs is sold in 150 Walmart stores.

Matt Perella and Cunningham stood for hours in a line of hundreds of people at the Rivers Casino in 2018 to pitch the product to Shark Tank producers when they visited Pittsburgh. And although it didn’t lead to a deal, they enjoyed the adventure. Matt Perella said the two rewrote their pitch to appeal to a television audience and tried to “be as bubbly as possible,” Matt Perella said. “They loved our story and all the feedback was positive, but we didn’t make the cut for the next round.”

Then Mrs. Perella saw on Facebook that Whole Foods was expanding and open to local products. “We had to appear in front of a board who taste tested the salsa,” she said, “we were added to all of the Whole Foods stores in Pittsburgh and later to the stores in Lancaster, Columbus, Ohio, and Princeton, N.J.”

The Perellas began using Pennsylvania Macaroni Food Service in Green Tree to satisfy another growing pain to distribute the salsa. Matt Perella still fulfills the out-of-state orders and online orders.

While it has become less labor-intensive over the years, there is still a lot to do. Mrs. Perella will retire from her job as a hygienist at the end of this year and begin helping full-time.

Since that day in the kitchen in 2011, Matt Perella can’t believe how fast the business has grown and how much he’s learned. “The early stages of starting a business take time, especially learning what is needed for your specific business just from a legal perspective,” he said. He admits it is a constant learning process,” especially in the dynamic and digitally evolving world we live in today.”

Going forward, the goal is not only to grow the brand but to really make it a Pittsburgh brand, Matt Perella said.

Local food shows and farmers markets have been foundational to building the business, and the family still loves to do those. “Food shows allow us to expand our base. We meet people that way and can share our story with them.,” she said. And the whole family gets involved. Mrs. Perella knows this endeavor has brought them closer together as a family. “What 31-year-old son wants to hang out with his mom on the weekends? I spend more time with both of my kids now.”

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