Simple vision Featured

11:14am EDT July 21, 2004
For Tony Dellamano and Mark Kuperman, marketing a brand new food product involves a simple plan -- let people taste it, and they'll spread the word.

Applestix, the product of the Johnny Applestix company, are battered and flash-fried apple slices, seasoned and served with a choice of tasty dipping sauces. The founders take a straightforward approach to advertising and getting the word out about their creation.

"For us, it's all about creating a buzz," says Dellamano. "And this product is very buzzable. It's about free samples, getting the product introduced and tasted."

Johnny Applestix made its Cleveland debut at Jacobs Field this season, even though that wasn't the original plan. But the baseball field has turned out to be a great place to launch the business here, giving the high volume of passersby the opportunity to smell and taste the product. A tray of applestix sits in front of the concession stand, and the founders often pass out samples to get people's taste buds going.

Marketing and branding are major factors with any start-up venture, and Johnny Applestix is no exception.

"It's different," says Dellamano, "and it's easier to market because it's new and fresh. Word-of-mouth has been our biggest vehicle for marketing."

Word-of-mouth advertising is an age-old tactic. As with referrals in the service industry, getting people talking about your product is paramount to any successful marketing campaign.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," says Kuperman. "We see what works and what doesn't, and we go from there."

The venture has received strong financial backing from key investors in the Cleveland area. They include Paul Dolan, president of the Cleveland Indians; the Ratner family of Forest City Enterprises Inc.; and John Shields, chairman of Wild Oats Markets.

"People in Cleveland were excited about a start-up," Dellamano says. "They embraced it."

Shields, who serves as chairman of the Johnny Applestix board, has been instrumental in helping Dellamano and Kuperman shorten their learning curve and avoid the common mistakes start-up venture often make.

"Everything we've done has been through this great team of people," Kuperman says.

That includes plotting the company's expansion beyond the gates of Jacobs Field. Plans include six stores in the Cleveland area over the next 12 to 18 months, with an ultimate goal of 500 stores nationwide. And, says Dellamano, the possibility of growth internationally is good.

"We have a great contact in Japan, and we would love to open up a store over there in the next few years," he says.

Finding the right locations for expansion is important, and the founders are considering several types of venues, such as airports, strip malls and stand-alone kiosks. They want to keep the focus on the presentation and preparation of the product, which helps separate them from other food chains.

But Dellamano and Kuperman don't want to rush things. They say they're dedicated to a slow and steady expansion, which will allow the company to develop and mature at its own pace.

The applestix concept seems to be catching on, and the product has been successful across several demographics. That ability to appeal to a variety of audiences provides a new challenge for the partners -- to find the right balance to attract the widest range of customers possible.

"We try to make decisions with the logo, brand and product that do not exclude any demographics," says Kuperman.

In the end, sticking to a simple business model and down-to-earth marketing strategies are working. And Kuperman and Dellamano say their goals are clear -- keep things simple, fresh and delicious. How to reach: Johnny Applestix, www.johnnyapplestix.com