If it’s fresh, then it’s in the pasta
It was in Florence, Italy that Leigh Foster and Rachel Marshall fell in love with eating fresh produce and making pasta. Though the future entrepreneurs didn’t know each other at the time, they happened to be studying a mere two blocks away from each other. As fate would have it, their paths would cross three years later and their fondness for pasta would turn into a joint business venture.
Foster, 26, and Marshall, 27, met while sitting in neighboring cubicles at a Boston design firm. They quickly became friends there and discovered that nine-to-five desk jobs were not for them. In the meantime, the two women often spent their lunch breaks and any free time bonding over food, fresh ingredients and cooking.
“I was interested in cooking from when I was really little,” Foster says. Growing up on a farm, Foster was around fresh produce all the time. “I used to read cookbooks and watch cooking shows, and my dad was a great cook.”
For Marshall, her love of cooking did not develop until mid-college when her best friend and roommate at the time began teaching her. The passion grew when she studied at Apicius Culinary Institute and later at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
Neither of the ladies wanted to be chefs, so they found themselves asking: “How in the world can we enter the food business without being chefs?”
While dreaming up ways they could turn these passions into reality, they were suddenly struck with the reality of being laid off. Most would consider this a misfortune, but it was a blessing for Foster and Marshall back in December of 2008. Unemployment offered the perfect opportunity for these women to draw up a business plan and create their pasta company.
A shared love for pasta and fresh ingredients prompted Leigh Foster (left) and Rachel Marshall to create Nella Pasta in 2008.
(Photos courtesy of Nella Pasta)
“Nella,” meaning “in the” in Italian, made its debut at the Hingham Farmers’ Market May 20, 2009 with three flavors of fettuccine: white, wheat and wheat & ground flaxseed.
“I love our pasta because it’s a complete meal,” Foster says. Nella Pasta is made with only locally grown ingredients and the ladies agree that their pasta does not require any sauce. The flavor is already “in the” pasta and they suggest all that is needed is a touch of butter or olive oil and grated cheese.
The wheat is grown and harvested at Four Star Farms in Northfield, Massachusetts. The produce is selected at local farms in Massachusetts and the cheese comes from the Narragansett Creamery in Providence, Rhode Island. Foster and Marshall work seven days a week shopping, cooking and selling their pasta, and admit they have their hands in all facets of their business.
The process begins on weekends searching for produce at local farms. In the last two and a half years, the ladies have built relationships with Allandale Farm, Spring Brook Farm, Stillman’s Farm, Brookwood Community Farm and Busa Farm. Says Marshall, “It’s easy for us to reach out to them and see what they have available.”
It is important to Foster and Marshall that they take their customers’ opinions into account when developing new flavors. Initially, Nella Pasta experimented with making a variety of pastas, including fettuccine, linguine, angel hair, rigatoni and wagon wheels. Nella Pasta still sells linguine, but now focuses mainly on ravioli.
“We couldn’t make enough of each thing to make people happy and we knew that we could do a better job and expand if we narrowed our focus,” Foster says. Then Marshall chimes in. “And ravioli was definitely the best seller and we knew investing in that product would be in our best interest.”
Their ravioli currently comes in 12 varieties. The fall and winter ravioli selection includes: Brown Butter, White Bean & Cranberry; Smoked Mozzarella, White Bean & Sage; Kale & Currant; Roasted Winter Squash and Sage; and Mushroom Duxelles.
If these flavors don’t make your mouth water, there are also spring and summer varieties. Those include: Swiss Chard & Currant; Broccoli, Feta & Toasted Cashew; Roasted Beet & Goat Cheese; Roasted Red Pepper, Goat Cheese & Chive; Zucchini & Caramelized Onion; Grilled Balsamic Eggplant & White Bean; and Fresh Corn, Caramelized Onion and Thyme.
Nella Pasta has come a long way in the past few years, while remaining true to its mission of “using only ingredients from neighboring farms.” These women are not only working with the freshest produce and ingredients they can find, but they also care about the environment. They recycle all their cardboard, paper and plastic, in addition to composting food waste.
They also give back to the local community. Foster and Marshall donate their pasta surplus to Community Servings, a nonprofit in Jamaica Plain, which uses it to help supply 750 free and healthy meals a day to people living with a serious illness.
The ladies knew they had a sustainable product when they won DailyCandy’s “Start Small, Go Big Contest!” in October of 2010. “That for us gave us a boost of confidence not only in ourselves, but in the business and just really gave us the push to move forward and take a lot of risk,” says Marshall.
They started Nella Pasta with only $3,000, two Kitchen Aid mixers and their bare hands. Now, they have a state-of-the-art combination sheet and ravioli machine that produces about 2,200 units (12-ounce packages) every month.
Though business is good, Foster and Marshall are eager to see it grow. They now have four part-time employees, but they both agree that one of their goals is to hire some full-time employees in the near future. They are also interested in increasing farmers’ markets sales, exploring the idea of franchising, as well as the possibility of opening a storefront.
“I want us to support our families with this job,” Foster says.
Nella Pasta is available in select stores and farmers’ markets. For a complete listing, visit www.nellapasta.com.
Alexandra Hakim contributed to this article.