Uncapping Memories: Favorite Sauces Still in Grocery StoresMay 27, 2022 03:16PM ● By Kara Schweiss
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Landmark Italian restaurant Mister C’s closed in 2007 after operating more than a half-century in Omaha, but fans can still enjoy eating its signature spaghetti sauce and Italian dressing 15 years later—at home.
“Customers loved our sauce and dressing at our restaurant. They often told us, ‘you should bottle this,’” said David Caniglia, president of Mister C’s Wholesale Foods, Inc.
In the late 1980s, David’s brother, Larry Caniglia, consulted with local manufacturer Albert’s Fine Foods to develop Mister C’s recipes on a larger scale for retail sale. Products can still be found in grocery stores in and around Omaha or online.
“Since the start, sales have grown exponentially,” David said. “Our sales increased after the closing of Mister C’s…Our wonderful customers kept the tradition alive, serving their families our products at the dinner table. Now, we have a whole generation that has never heard of Mister C’s Steak House but are die-hard fans of our products.”
Omahans with fond memories of Omaha’s sole Pizza Shoppe, which closed in 2017, can drive three hours to visit one of the Pizza Shoppes in Kansas City, where the small chain originates. Or they can purchase the restaurant’s “Pink Stuff,” an aptly-named, pink-colored, creamy garlic salad dressing, in local grocery stores or online.
Several active area restaurants who offer take-home products in their restaurants have also expanded to retail. Gus Sgourakis, whose family owns Greek Islands, said the restaurant has sold its branded salad dressings (regular and sugar-free) in-house for around 20 years but began selling through local Hy-Vee grocery stores in 2015. The response has been “superb,” he said, but the team intends to keep distribution small for quality control.
“It’s important to preserve the integrity of the product,” Sgourakis said.
Amigo’s offers online sales. Its food products are packed with gel packs or dry ice for shipping, but some items—including Amigo’s ranch dressing, salsa, and spicy cheese sauce—have appeared on store shelves in the past few years as well.
Lincoln-based Valentino’s has sold sauces through retail distribution since the early 2000s, president Tony Messineo said.
“There are three different jarred sauces: our original spaghetti sauce; my wife’s recipe from years ago, a sweet basil; and our pizza sauce,” he said, adding that the first packaged products were developed with a manufacturer for Midwest distribution in response to years of customer requests.
“We took about a year and a half for R&D [research and development] to see if we could replicate it, because that’s not easy,” Messineo said. “If I were to give you a taste test of what I’d package from our stores and a bottle of the sauce you’d buy retail, they’re so close they’re indistinguishable.”
The company, which also offers products online, expects to sell 200,000 jars this year. Messineo said distribution remains limited because of the challenges in shipping glass jars, but he’s not willing to switch to plastic containers because it affects the products’ taste. Valentino’s more recently began selling frozen pizzas at Omaha and Lincoln grocery stores, and are also shipped all over the U.S. “We make those ourselves,” Messineo said. “There is extremely high quality control.”
There’s good news for locals who’ve enjoyed eating a Thunderbird salad in years past at Happy Hollow Club or the Omaha Press Club. Omaha Press Club Executive Director Steve Villamonte Sr.’s father, Chef Luis Villamonte, established the Thunderbird salad as a house salad at various venues. Steve trademarked the Thunderbird dressing and began selling it in 2000 through Villamonte’s Cuisine. Hy-Vee carries the products, which can also be ordered online.
“I share all recipes and the classic Thunderbird salad is on the bottle,” he said. “My Reuben dressing is in demand also and used by Runza for the Reuben Runza...My label has a picture of the Blackstone hotel but it’s my own recipe. When someone uses it on a Rueben they don’t go back to another dressing.”
Recent supply-chain challenges combined with high demand have made the products scarce at times, but Steve said he is working on solutions that should improve long-term availability. He also intends to make the dressings available through Amazon.
“I have requests and demands from all over the U.S. and Canada,” Steve said.
Ivy Sprague with Hy-Vee’s corporate office said individual Hy-Vee stores are not only happy to carry locally produced restaurant-brand food products, they’re encouraged to, in response to consumer demand. A documentation process is in place to ensure food safety.
“Our stores are run autonomously,” she said. “Any local producer or restaurant owner can approach a store director if they have a product they think customers would like.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.