True To His Roots at Hoboken Farms
A guy from Hoboken, 30 farmers’ markets and the little big sauce that could
It may not be lightning, but Brad Finkel has definitely bottled nostalgia. The owner of Hoboken Farms, Finkel began his business as a twentysomething delivering a taste of the old neighborhood to friends and family who’d left Hoboken for other areas.
“I’d be going somewhere and they’d say, ‘Hey, can you bring some of that great bread from Marie’s Bakery?’ Hoboken has this great culture of specialty food,” he says.
Finkel was a musician, but he saw an opportunity and created a one-man business delivering Hoboken’s most beloved bread and cheese to eager customers on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, southern Rockland County and the northern NJ suburbs. Soon after, in 1994, he was asked by a friend to help spur interest in a farmers’ market in Englewood by selling his most popular items there. This was long before farmers’ markets were popular. “I showed up with 50 pounds of mozzarella that I made with my friend Nicky (of Piccinni Deli), who made the best mutz in town, and 50 loaves of bread from Marie’s—and I sold out in an hour. The next week, I came with 100 pounds of mozzarella and 100 loaves of bread and sold out in half an hour!”
The farmers’ market wasn’t just a way for Finkel to peddle goods; it was also a place where he could develop the relationships that would later propel his product to the shelves of Whole Foods Market. “A farmers’ market is like a conversation with other people,” he explains. “You get tomatoes from this stand, a little basil from another guy, maybe some bread from someone else. It all goes together. Otherwise, all you have is a bake sale.”
It was one of those very conversations that got Brad Finkel thinking beyond bread and cheese. When a customer asked if he had any sauce, it sparked an idea. “I looked over to my left and my right and saw my friends from different farms. I got some ugly tomatoes from both of them and started making sauce.” Finkel’s sauce isn’t just any sauce. The Wall Street Journal named it the best jarred marinara in the country, but Hoboken Farms was far from an overnight success.
Finkel, whose business is not a “farm” at all, but rather a specialty food company specializing in best quality NJ products, didn’t go from farmers’ market to food-business stardom without a whole lot of hard work. Joking that his is definitely not a mom-and-pop business, Finkel says, “There’s no mom or pop. There’s just me.” Hoboken Farms products are sold in 30 farmers’ markets each week. “We participate in over 800 markets a year,” he says. Those markets account for just one revenue stream; sales in Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyond, and specialty stores account for another 20 to 25 percent of his business. Direct sales on his website make up the rest. The sauce is also available at the Hoboken Farms Sandwich Shop, which Finkel opened in Summit in 2011.
It’s About the Process
The farmers’ market is a perfect testing ground for products, since it’s easy to spot the winners—just look for the lines. That’s how Finkel was first discovered. “A woman came up to me and told me she saw long lines of people waiting to buy my sauce, and she wanted to know if I’d be interested in working with the Rutgers Food Innovation program. I said yes, and then she asked me the next question: What was my process? I thought, ‘My process? I don’t have a process!’ She said it might take me two weeks to figure it all out—writing the recipe, figuring out the step-by-step process. Two weeks? More like two years and $10,000!”
Why did it take Finkel so long to nail down the specifics? Most jarred sauces are filled with sugar, salt and/or citric acid to make them shelf-stable, but Finkel wanted to stay true to his roots and keep the sauce as fresh as possible. “Hoboken Farms sauce is stabilized through pasteurization and vacuum sealing. We have a very clean list of just six ingredients.”
While Finkel’s business may have its roots in nostalgia, he’s very clear that this is not your grandmother’s sauce. “Your grandmother’s sauce was typically made with less expensive ingredients. Each jar of sauce is made with two and a half tablespoons of olive oil. Good fats, health benefits—my grandmother didn’t know about any of that.” His dedication to crafting a good-tasting and good-for-you product isn’t a marketing gimmick. His wife is a yoga teacher, and their son’s severe food allergies alerted them early on to the benefits of eating right. “I believe you’re either going to the pay the supermarket or the doctor.”
Creating Fans, Not Customers
When Finkel was designing the label for his sauce, the one place he didn’t look was the sauce aisle at the supermarket. “I told the designer I wanted something different. I said to look at vineyards and their labeling. I wanted retro—that 1950s comic-book look.”
He is something of an evangelist when it comes to his sauce, spreading the message one jar at a time. “If I see someone buying jarred sauce in the market, I’ll often buy a jar for them and bring it over to them in the bag, telling them to try it. Who doesn’t like a gift?” He does his own best marketing, interacting with strangers who soon become converts.
Those interactions clearly bring him joy. “We have fans, not customers,” he says, before sharing a voicemail from a customer who received a few jars for Christmas and felt compelled to call and to share her love for Hoboken and the sauce. Despite 25 years in the business, he still seems humbled by the compliments. “People are passionate about what we do.”
It’s About the Money
From the food scientist to the graphic designer to the bread baker and the bookkeeper, it takes a team to keep Hoboken Farms running smoothly. Finkel employs 20 people, with six more added during farmers’-market season. He’s passionate about paying a living minimum wage and realized that $15 is the magic number. “Even $14.75 an hour isn’t enough,” he explains, adding that “at that number families are still living off credit cards with no savings.” Last May, Finkel sat his staff down and told them something was about to change. “I told them all they were getting a raise.” The catch was that it was an experiment—he is a businessman, after all. Finkel gave it a year to see results, but it only took six months.
“People worked harder because they felt valued. We had fewer parking tickets, fewer car accidents, and fewer sick days.” The price of the sauce rose a dollar to account for the higher salaries, but even that didn’t cause a stir. “Once the customers learned why the price was a little higher, they embraced it,” he says. “I talk to other business owners and tell them, sure, it’s a moral and ethical decision to pay your employees more, but it’s also really a good business decision. You just get better customer service from employees who love their jobs.”
Like many food entrepreneurs, Finkel was curious about the holy grail—Whole Foods Market. He called the owner of Joe Tea, based in Montclair, and asked him how he got his beverages into the market. The advice was simple, if slightly frustrating: “He told me, ‘They’ll find you.’” Indeed, Whole Foods did find Finkel. Rather like talent scouts who hit the clubs in search of the latest musician, Whole Foods’ foragers prowl the country’s farmers’ markets for the “it” food product. “Six years ago, before Whole Foods came calling, we produced 330 cases, or 3,960 jars. My goal was to sell all of it,” but Finkel wasn’t sure that was realistic. In 2017, his projected yearly sales are 25,000 cases.
So how did The Wall Street Journal happen to name Hoboken Farms Big Red the best-tasting tomato sauce in the country? It’s a typical Brad Finkel story, proving that even when you’re the boss, no task is too small. “We demo our sauce in Whole Foods stores, and I got a call one morning that the person assigned to demo that day in New York City was sick and couldn’t make it. I loaded the trunk and drove straight to lower Manhattan.” To top it all off, it was a miserable New York City day, and Finkel loaded the jars onto a cart only to see them topple and break all over the street.
Feeling defeated, he soldiered on and demonstrated what was left of his sauce—only to discover later that a writer from The Wall Street Journal had popped over to Whole Foods, tasted the sauce, and brought it back to the office. “I got a call that we were going to be entered in a blind taste test.” It was a few months before he got an early-morning call from an employee. He was expecting to hear from someone calling in sick. “I answered the phone and the person asked me if I had been online to see the news, because we won.”
AVAILABLE AT: 30 weekly farmers’ markets, Whole Foods Market, ShopRite, Kings, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Gary’s Wine.