Ramona Waldecker has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years, but she’s never followed a recipe. Instead, she glances at the list of ingredients and doctors up the dish herself.
The same entrepreneurial spirit that Waldecker cultivated at age 9 — when she sold veggies from her backyard organic farm to neighbors in her wagon — can be found in her approach to business today. The former restaurateur started a line of salad dressings and marinades made from local products, which she collectively refers to as Ramona’s Kickin’ Chicken Sauces.
Waldecker sells about 6,000 bottles of her products each year in Central New York grocery stores like Wegmans and Price Chopper. Although she plans to move her business to grow in Tennessee, she’s counting her home base in New York for support.
Graduated from: Culinary Institute of America, Associate of Science degree
Based in: Syracuse, NY
Previous jobs: Restaurant owner; food broker [agent that negotiates sales for food producers and manufacturers]
How you got started: As a food broker, I thought bottling my own dressing would make great Christmas presents.
Moment you realized this could be a career: When I first introduced my dressings, a newspaper in my hometown of Baldswinville, N.Y., asked to interview me. From there, the phone started ringing off the hook – and one of those calls was to do a TV commercial. Through that commercial, I met buyers, which landed my products in the supermarket.
You already had a whole line of dressings? No, just one – my Sweet Country Italian dressing. That one will always be my baby.
And now? I have a whole line of Ramona’s Kickin’ Chicken products, which I started six years ago. That includes Sweet Country Italian dressing; Mildly Spicy Chipotle dressing; Cajun Black Bean dressing; Citrus Greek Feta dressing; and of course, Ramona’s Kickin’ Chicken Riggie Sauce.
What goes into your Kickin’ Chicken Riggie Sauce? Since I work in food services, I have access to restaurant-quality ingredients, like fresh cream and cheese from the farm. For the sauce, I use all locally-grown veggies, like cherry peppers, regular peppers onions, mushrooms, black olives, and fresh garlic.
Do you make it from scratch? I used to, which took two to three hours in the kitchen. I would taste-test each dressing about 50 times. Now, it’s made in bulk for me at a co-packer.
How did owning your family’s restaurant shape your career path? I started at The Good Times Restaurant at age 12, washing the dishes, which is when I first learned to be a workaholic. Now, with my own business, I still do everything any anything; there’s no being tired, no excuses. Plus, the house dressing I made at the restaurant turned into my Sweet Country Italian. It’s still served there, almost 40 years later.
Most important lesson learned: It takes a long time to get your brand out there. It doesn’t happen just because you have a great product; it can be the luck of the draw. But there’s also a snowball effect when good things start happening.
Best part of your job: Making people’s lives easier with my dressings and sauces – oftentimes, the lives of people who maybe couldn’t cook before.
Most frustrating part of your job: The slow pace. I’ll hear good responses from customers, but then they’ll forget to buy the dressing again the next month. It’s so hard to train people and change their buying habits.
How do you measure what tastes “good”? I’m very easily pleased when I go out to eat, but I’m very hard on myself. I can go to a restaurant, taste a meal, and come home and make it exactly – it just comes naturally to me. I’ve only goofed up one dinner in my life, and it was Chinese noodles.
Do you follow recipe books? No. I just look at the ingredients list, but never follow the steps. After I messed up those Chinese noodles, though, I went back to the steps to see what I did wrong.
If you could be a chef anywhere in the world, where would you work? Italy, even though I don’t know any Italian.
Your very first job: I had an organic garden at age 9. I’d load up my wagon with veggies from my garden and sell them around town in a 5-mile radius. Even at 9, I was an entrepreneur – I had business cards and everything.
You’ve always wanted to: Cook on a cruise ship. I love their decorations and presentations!
What are you working on right now? I’m moving to Tennessee, so I plan to grow my business there. But I’m counting on local customers in New York for support; my products will still be sold to supermarkets and smaller retailers in that area. I’m also writing a cookbook.
Where do you hope to be in 5 years? I’d love to go national. My inspiration is Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
Must-have kitchen appliance: A chef’s knife and large cutting board are still my favorite tools in the kitchen.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Ramona Waldecker dishes about business ventures centered on food.
1. Take a course that will teach you about being an entrepreneur, such as The Women’s Symposium. It gives you an idea of what you’re getting yourself into; you don’t want to spend a ton of money and then not sell any products off the shelves.
2. Join your local Chamber of Commerce. I think smaller ones are better, because they’re less intimidating and allow you to network with other businesses in more intimate groups.
3. If you love to cook and share, there’s ample opportunity out there. Lots of people are fulfilling their dreams at this very moment.
Check out all of Ramona’s recipes using her dressings and sauces, like Citrus Greek Feta Chicken and Cajun Chili.