Meet a Maker: Jane Ciccone, Onesto Foods

gluten-free crackers

Onesto Foods is a family business in the truest sense of the word. Founder Jane Ciccone, who created their line of gluten-free crackers when her daughter had a Celiac scare, uses her husband as a sounding board, her children as taste-testers, and her community as a focus group. The result is a hugely popular brand, one sold nationally in thousands of stores, and even named Best Cracker by Yankee Magazine. And as they prepare to launch a line of cookies, the world is sure to see even more of Onesto (whose name means ‘honest’ in Italian).

We talked to Jane about how Onesto, (with an office in Amesbury, Massachusetts, and a bakery in Bristol, VT) came to be, and how she maintains a sense of perspective about the business.

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gluten-free crackers

What’s the origin story of Onesto?

I have a background in teaching, but many years ago I started a jewelry business. When I did, the entrepreneurial bug totally bit me. Both my parents are entrepreneurs as well. I decided from that moment on that I couldn’t work for anyone else.

I stopped the jewelry business when we had children. But when they were very young, I started teaching family cooking classes at a local center that I was also taking my kids too. I was fielding so many questions in every class that I wondered if I could branch off and start something on my own, and that’s how Onesto was born. It started as just cooking classes.

Then, when our daughter was little, we thought she had Celiac. She loved crackers and cheese, so I created a gluten-free cracker recipe. I was constantly tweaking them and fiddling with flavor profiles. Whenever we’d go to friends’ houses, they would encourage me to try and sell them.

I started using my cooking class students as focus groups. No one believed me when I told them they were gluten-free. After a lot of encouragement, I started selling them at farmers markets. Soon after, I then started bringing crackers in baggies to local stores to see if they would pick them up. I am beyond grateful that some local stores took a chance on me and agreed to buy them. It grew from there.

What were the growing pains?

A few years ago, we looked at working in a shared commercial kitchen. But, the fees were so high and I knew I couldn’t produce enough to make it worthwhile. I realized there was a kitchen in my church that no one was using. After getting the required city and state licenses, we were able to bring in commercial equipment and hire staff, but we outgrew it in about 6 months.

At that time, we decided to move to a co-packer. As much as I’m sad that we aren’t employing people anymore, outsourcing everything alleviates so many headaches. We have an amazing bakery in Vermont that makes everything for us, and they’ve become like family to us.

What’s a challenge you’re dealing with?

Realizing that we can’t be everything to everyone. We field a lot of questions about why we’re aren’t nut-free, or why we aren’t making certain cracker flavors. I have to take everything with a grain of salt, and remember that I can’t take everything so personally.

We own what we are, and what we do, and we really believe in our product. But we have to be realistic – we’re not curing cancer. They’re crackers, there is no reason to be upset and question ourselves or our mission at the end of the day.

How does a food business compare to a jewelry business?

I hated the fashion industry. I like fashion, but I didn’t like that people didn’t validate what you were doing unless a celebrity endorsed you. Some celebrities did wear our stuff, but I could never understand why that mattered.

My belief is that when it comes to food, it can be as simple as getting together, eating a great meal and having a good time. There is something so basic and so beautiful about sharing food with those you care about. Food can certainly nurture our bodies, but sharing that food with loved ones can nurture our souls. That is so much more important to me than who wore a pair of earrings that I designed.

Are you a better entrepreneur now, on your second business?

I’m much older now than when I had a jewelry business, and I think I’m more realistic. I don’t get as frazzled, and I have good overall perspective. I don’t get caught up on the things that don’t matter, and that helps when you’re running a business. There will always be highs and lows that I can’t control, but my reaction to them is what is within my control.

We are successful, and I try every day to make sure that we will continue to be. I try to remember our overall goals and objectives every day and not jump at every shiny object that I see. This business is more about creating something that our family is proud of and wants to keep doing for years to come.

What have your biggest wins been so far?

Our biggest “wins” have been finding some wonderful people to help us grow our business. We were so fortunate early on to find a distributor that took us on when we were still very small and had a lot to learn. They have become mentors to us and I don’t think I could ever thank them enough for helping us make this dream a reality.

Our bakery that makes our products is second to none. We count our blessings every day that we found them. Not only do they share our values of sustainability and eco-minded practices, but they put their heart and soul into every cracker and cookie they bake.

I am also extremely thankful and proud of some of the stores that sell our products. To know that they care about what we do and believe in our products means the world to me. I will never take that for granted.

What’s the motivation when you have a tough day?

It’s my family. My two kids and my husband are three amazing individuals. On those tough days when things are hard, I try to remind myself that I have some pretty amazing people at home: my kids and my husband. They motivate me and keep me grounded. Also knowing that there are a lot of people out there who love our product pushes me to do my best every day. Our amazing customers care about what we’re doing and I refuse to let them down.

What kind of resources do you use to get answers?

My husband is a huge piece of this business. He not only has a great business sense but he is a calm in the storm. He has an amazing head on his shoulders. He helps me mitigate the highs and lows. He helps me remember why we are doing this and that it’s not going to happen overnight.

We’ve also been lucky to find people that share our values that want to work with us. Some of our distributors have thousands of brands they represent, yet, they make us feel like we’re an important, valued part of their business. We’ve grown because of their support, their expertise and their encouragement.

We definitely would not be where we are today with out our co-packer. They’re so savvy and wonderful, and they care so much. If it’s not me making the crackers and cookies, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it but them.

Lauren Abda from Branchfood is a resource I am so thankful for. She almost always has the answer, and on the rare occasions when she doesn’t, she finds someone who does.

What kind of tools and services do you use?

Our go-to tools and services are: Quickbooks, SquareSpace, HubSpot and Shipstation.

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