Sunday Profile: Gina Cucina soup startup grows with love
If you thought there was a real Gina Cucina behind the array of soul-warming vegetarian soups popping up on local shelves, you’re half right.
The seeds of the growing brand were planted in Gina D’orazio Stryker’s childhood in Idaho, where she blended the can-do pioneer attitude of her mother’s family with the Italian passion for food on her father’s side.
“Sundays were spent in the kitchen with my grandfather,” she recalled. “He trained the old-fashioned way and cooked his way across Canada before retiring in Idaho.”
D’orazio Stryker honed her cooking skills in Florence right out of high school, but ended up in a number of other trades culminating in the film industry. After she had her first set of twins, she and her husband, Rod, began looking for somewhere other than Los Angeles to raise their kids. He had spent a summer in Basalt once, and they came to the Roaring Fork Valley around 2003 to check it out.
“The first day we were here, we made an offer on a house,” she recalled.
When her second set of twins reached kindergarten, D’orazio Stryker started looking for a new career and began catering for Rod’s meditation retreats. The venue lent itself to simple foods, and soups became the staple.
“I think a soup can be a meal,” she said. “Our French lentil soup is so hearty you don’t need anything other than a spoon and a loaf of bread.”
It wasn’t until later that she thought to bring a batch to a farmers market, which sold out in less than an hour. That inspired her to start canning her soups and selling them as “Gina’s Kitchen.”
“It just became the natural progression, because it was what I was already doing,” she said. “The recipes were already tried and true.”
It turned out there was a market for low-sodium, no-sugar-added products with a comprehensible ingredient list and seed-to-shelf organic attitude.
“Here I am doing what everyone told me to do at 22 but I don’t think the time was right,” she noted. “Right now, people are really wanting to know where their food comes from.”
As the business grew, though, it became apparent that “Gina’s Kitchen” was too generic to nab a trademark or website. Rod thought of highlighting the Italian influence and dubbing the brand “Gina Cucina.” It was also time to expand from a one-woman show to a team effort.
That’s where preschool teacher, massage therapist and water buffalo rancher Cameron Miranda comes in.
“Cammie is the best business decision I’ve made,” D’orazio Stryker said. “I’m really a creative entity, but she methodically moves things forward. She truly has shown up for me in a way that nobody else ever has.”
With the help of local and regional partners, the two were able to navigate the myriad hurdles of production, testing and packing to get on the shelf. It started with Crystal River Meats’ now-defunct storefront, then moved to Dandelion Market. Now, Gina Cucina is in 16 Natural Grocers around the state, with Albertson’s and Whole Foods on the horizon.
With increasing demand, D’orazio Stryker’s brother stepped up with an extensive organic farm back in Idaho and, more recently, a commercial kitchen that can handle mass production.
“Once we have that up and running, we can go into any market,” said D’orazio Stryker, who lives in Missouri Heights.
The kitchen, which is being from Willits to Carbondale, will work perfectly for testing new recipes and supporting the company’s growing online business and soup of the month club at ginacucina.com.
“It gives us an opportunity to have a direct relationship with our customer,” she explained.
Of course, it also comes with all the challenges of shipping.
Luckily, Erin Rigney of Rainy Day Designs, which designed the current logo, alerted the little company to the existence of a small business grant competition from FedEx. With only a weekend to get the application together, Gina Cucina applied and managed to assemble enough votes to make the second round.
“We have amazing customers. They wanted us to win, and it’s because of that that we did,” D’orazio Stryker said. “Not just locals, but all the people I’ve fed over the last 10 years.”
In the end, Gina Cucina made the top 10 cut and got $7,500. More than the money, the program created the opportunity to exchange advice with other startups and get direct support from FedEx.
“They get behind us in a real meaningful manner,” D’orazio Stryker said. “We’ve had a lot of issues with shipping, and within two days they’d solved everything.”
There are still challenges. Both women have gone without paychecks for months at a time, and continued expansion makes it hard to stay out of the red.
“When you start a company, you have to put every penny back into it,” D’orazio Stryker said.
Still, she can’t help but think down the road to other products that serve her “crazy dream of feeding the world and feeding it well.”
Once things are more solvent, she hopes to use the company’s success to help support organizations such as the Trust Women Conference and The Kitchen Community.
“I feel like I’ve been fortunate and blessed in my life, and I want to give back in some fashion,” she said.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the first ingredient listed on all Gina Cucina soups is love.
“I think that’s part of what’s been missing in the creation of food,” she said. “We have fun in the kitchen. We love what we’re doing. I think that’s such an important part of life.”
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