It may sound like a big leap to go from a nurse to a start-up business owner. But for Amanda Santoro ’97, it made sense.
A busy mother of three, the registered nurse was expecting her fourth child. She soon realized, however, that some simplification was in order. So Santoro, who had long prided herself on making her children’s baby food from scratch, decided to start purchasing food.
Growing awareness and demand for organic foods free of additives and preservatives would mean she could find plenty of options on store shelves, right? But despite the organic labels and all the right buzzwords, Santoro found that wasn’t the case.
“It’s the same stuff in different packaging. It’s highly processed. It breaks down the nutrients so that it can be shelf-stable for two years. I felt frustrated by that,” she says.
Her frustration quickly gave way to inspiration. Little Food Company was born in June 2017, becoming the purveyor of the homemade baby food Santoro wanted to serve her own children (and did).
“It’s ironic,” she laughs. “I didn’t have time to make my own food, so I wanted somebody else to do it. Now, I’m making everyone else’s baby food.”
As Amanda makes the leap from nurse to entrepreneur, she finds herself drawing on her Alverno education – including plenty of public speaking – more than ever.
“I had a really well-rounded education,” she says. “All of the speaking experience I gained helps me now as I switch gears and talk to people about my business.”
Her experience as a mom and a nurse, including happy years in labor and delivery, enrich her business, just like the seasonal herbs and flavors she painstakingly selects to enrich organic, locally grown produce. She has found fast success with flavors like watermelon-carrot, or apple-fennel-date. She roasts, steams or otherwise cooks what’s in season and creates inventive combinations inspired by soups, stews, smoothies.
“My goal is to rotate through the seasons to provide a great variety and expose the baby’s palette to a lot of different flavors so that as they grow they can be less picky in the future,” she says.
Without advertising but with plenty of passion, Santoro quickly gained a loyal following at her local farmers’ market. She became a licensed food processor, found a commercial kitchen and got a local grocery store to carry her food. She won a spot in competitive business acceleration program and two grants to help her company grow. Recently, she beat out businesses around the state to join famed Madison, Wis., grocery cooperative Willy Street Co-op’s Retail Ready Lab, which allows local vendors to sell their wares in its store for a month and get customer feedback.
“They are going to continue to sell my product!” Santoro exclaims. “They pulled it off the floor after the month was up, and people were asking for it. It has been tremendously successful.”
Santoro recently made the thrilling, albeit a bit frightening, move to quit her full-time health care job to give Little Food Co. her full attention. She was recently approved for the business loan that will allow her to move into her own private food processing facility in Kaukana, Wis.. This will let her pursue even more growth.
“A lot of wholesale opportunities have come up that I haven’t been able to fulfill until I’m in my own facility,” she says.
Through it all, her family have stood by her and lent a hand. Her 25-year-old daughter provides insight into her target audience: millennials. Her two teenagers help out in the kitchen, and her husband is helping with the new kitchen.
Perhaps the most important is Santoro’s youngest, Jake, age 3. He’s the answer to the question of what motivates her.
“Jake was born at 25 weeks weighing 1 pound. He missed four months of growth and nutrition and development in the womb, and each and every development milestone after he was born took so much longer and required so much extra effort and work,” she says. “He, out of all my children, needed really good nutrition for gaining weight and to boost his immune system.”
Today, Jake is a healthy boy, and Santoro still prides herself on ensuring he’s eating nutritiously. That includes the latest Little Food Company confections.
“He is our official baby food taste tester. Everything that comes through, he taste tests and he approves. A three year old will not eat anything unless they like it, but he eats my food at every meal,” she says. “I just feel better at the end of the day knowing he’s got some good nutrition in him.”