Pasta brings hope to town
Hope, N.D. - There's only one place in North Dakota one can buy La Rinascente's famous folded fideos. That place is Mic's Grocery in the city of Hope, population 300 and home to La Rinascente Pasta Co., North America's only pasta operation cateri...
Hope, N.D. - There's only one place in North Dakota one can buy La Rinascente's famous folded fideos.
That place is Mic's Grocery in the city of Hope, population 300 and home to La Rinascente Pasta Co., North America's only pasta operation catering to the culinary tastes of Caribbean Hispanics.
"I figure since it's made in town, we should be selling it," said Kevin McCullough, owner of Mic's. "People are pretty receptive to it."
McCullough has even rounded up some recipes for folks to try using the unique local noodles. And Hope residents are coming up with some of their own. La Rinascente, after all, brought 25 new jobs to town.
"It's a neat community," said Claude Smith, La Rinascente's CEO. "Everybody here is really supportive of the project."
The Thompson, N.D., entrepreneur led a group of 32 North Dakota investors who uprooted La Rinascente Pasta from its South Hackensack, N.J., home and relocated it to Hope.
John Natali, who owned the business for 41 years, in 2002 was facing a tough decision: Overhead costs were rising, and he would have to close the doors or find a buyer.
"It's difficult to make a commodity in New Jersey with the costs here. And the trend in the industry is to move pasta business toward the supply of raw materials," said Natali, who is close to retirement.
Enter Smith. The pasta veteran was put in touch with Natali through contacts in the industry.
"He didn't want it to die. It would have been like losing the family farm," Smith said.
Smith pitched the pasta plant relocation plan to a number of investor groups in the state. In the fall of 2002, he hit pay dirt with a presentation to the Hope Marketing Club. This company has potential, he told the 20 farmers attending the club's meeting. All we need is a feasibility study to see if it can be moved here and be profitable.
Randy Richards remembers the meeting well. "We're all farmers and just get together and discuss our markets, but we also talk about what we can do for our community," said Richards, who grows wheat, barley, soybeans and pinto beans near Hope.
Once the presentation was completed, Richards wrote a check for $500, put it in his seed cap and passed it around the room.
"We just looked at it as an opportunity to have some new business here, bring some jobs to town," Richards said. "We need good jobs here so we can bring people back to the communities around here so the communities can thrive."
Seed money planted in that seed cap - the marketing club eventually raised $20,000 - was matched by $20,000 from the Steele-Griggs County Empowerment Zone toward a $40,000 feasibility study.
The zone was created several years ago with the help of U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to help spur development in Steele and Griggs, counties which have experienced declining population for several decades. It is one of 10 empowerment zones created by Congress.
"We really saw this as a fit for our area," said Jon Goplen, CEO of the empowerment zone. "We have a policy here - we're never going to do something completely by ourselves. But if there's an ownership group really behind something, we're willing to help out."
With a positive feasibility report in hand, the marketing club formed La Rinascente Pasta LLC (limited liability company), with Richards as president of its board of directors.
Production continued in New Jersey while La Rinascente LLC set up a corporate office in the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation's rural technology incubator.
"It presented an opportunity in an area where North Dakota can be very strong," said Bruce Gjovig, director of the center at UND. "Acquiring a business, relocating it and infusing it with innovation and entrepreneurship can be a template for rural communities."
La Rinascente during its stay at UND received a $50,000 grant from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission. The total investment topped $3 million, according to Smith.
The Hope Development Corp. built a 12,000-square-foot plant in the city's new industrial park, which was leased to the business.
The first line of equipment was trucked from New Jersey to Hope last fall. Todd Benedict, a McClusky, N.D., native who had worked in pasta plants in Grand Forks and Cando, N.D., was hired to manage the plant.
Production began in February. La Rinascente, originally founded before WWII in the Bronx, started out as a traditional Italian pasta company. However, under Natali's ownership, it became a specialty company creating folded pastas - known as fideos - for Caribbean Hispanic markets.
Fideos, which are fist-sized loafs of pasta, are most often crumbled and used to thicken soups, according to Benedict. They can also be prepared like regular spaghetti or linguini.
Benedict said the actual composition of the noodles is very similar to Italian pastas such as spaghetti. North Dakota-grown semolina from hard durum wheat is mixed with water to create the pasta.
The trick is in the folding and in the 12-hour drying process.
Only 5 percent of the pasta produced and packaged here is shipped out under the La Rinascente label. The remainder is produced and packaged for other - mostly larger - companies, such as Goya Foods.
Products from Hope find their way to markets in areas with large populations of Caribbean Hispanics. For example, large shipments leave almost daily for the East Coast, Florida and Puerto Rico, Benedict said.
The semolina La Rinascente uses comes from Minot (N.D.) Milling and the North Dakota Mill & Elevator at Grand Forks. All of it comes from hard durum wheat grown primarily in central and western North Dakota.
North Dakota produces 70 percent of the nation's supply of durum wheat. Its density, combined with its high protein content and gluten strength, make durum the wheat of choice for producing pasta.
"None of us are durum growers," Richards said of investors. "We just believe in value-added agriculture. We buy the best semolina we can and make the best product we can."
North Dakota is now home to five pasta companies. In addition to La Rinascente, there is Conte Luna Foods at Grand Forks, Dakota Growers Pasta at Carrington, Noodles by Leonardo at Cando and Devils Lake and Golden Plain Frozen Foods at Leeds.
A second line went into production this month at Hope's La Rinascente. The plant is turning out 2,800 cases of pasta a day, but has more capacity.
Natali has stayed on, working from New Jersey, to help La Rinascente maintain and expand its markets.
Smith and Benedict, meanwhile, want to expand the product mix at the Hope plant. Potential products include larger pasta shapes such as lasagna, manicotti and jumbo shells.
"Our equipment is very well suited to make different products," Smith said. "This would be a little more mainstream, but still specialty stuff."
With additional products and markets, La Rinascente can increase profitability and expand, Smith said.
Already, said Richards, that first $500 he threw in the cap has turned out to be a great investment in Hope.
"You know, we already spend a lot of money on things that never work out," Richards said. "You have to try something or nothing will ever happen. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560