Vino de Milo, more than a decade strong and growing

By JOE HIGGINS Messenger editor

People can’t seem to get enough of Vino de Milo’s wide range of products and that’s fitting since creator Jonathan Milo Leal couldn’t be more grateful to the consumers and the many who have helped put the company on the food map.

Leal moved to Athens in 1995 to attend Ohio University. He earned three degrees during his attempt to “avoid getting a real job.” Cooking was always a hobby he had enjoyed, and he found he was pretty good at making sauces.

He did some cooking and catering on the side and people started talking about his sauces. It was suggested that he start bottling the product and sell it.

“How hard could that be?,” Leal mused.

“Famous last words,” he joked.

Leal joined up with the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) and there he found a place to cook on a larger scale and try new recipes. It was the suggestion of adding wine to the sauces that really hit it big for the new business which was then dubbed Vino de Milo.

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I tell people that all the time. I was clueless,” Leal said. “We were lucky to hit on that concept.”

One of those products, the Creamy Vodka Parmesan sauce, has been selected as The Messenger’s Product of the Month for March in conjunction with the celebration of ACEnet’s 30th anniversary. The Creamy Vodka Parmesan sauce is made from vodka from Fifth Element and cream from Snowville Creamery, both local companies. It is part of a line of a wide variety of pasta sauces made by Vino de Milo.

The March Product of the Month is sponsored by Mathews Insurance, located on Columbus Road in Athens. Russell Norris, of Mathews Insurance, said the business has been working with Vino de Milo since Leal started the company.

“Our view is that there is nothing better than helping our clients succeed and these business endeavors grow every year,” Norris said.

Leal said that like many new small businesses, it was a struggle at the beginning but through incredible persistence, the company now produces 45 products — including salad dressings, sauces, bruschetta toppings and fruit preserves. Vino de Milo also makes products for other companies, is sold internationally and is looking to continue a staggering recent growth rate that has been steady at 30 percent per year.

The first product to roll off the line was the Chunky Tuscan Vegetable sauce which includes fire-roasted eggplant, squash and zucchini combined with Merlot wine and oregano. That was 12 years ago. In that time, the business fell into sort of a lull but a complete redesign of everything other than the recipes themselves pushed Vino de Milo to a whole new level.

The products began appearing in whole food stores, T.J. Maxx became a large corporate buyer and overseas sales took a jump. Locally, Vino de Milo products can be found at the Nelsonville Emporium, Ohio University’s Baker Center, The Village Bakery, the Farmacy and the Athens Kroger, which Leal credits with being extremely supportive of local products over the years. Leal said the Athens Kroger does better on sales of his products than any other single retailer.

Looking back, Leal could never imagine being the success Vino de Milo has become but at the same time, he hoped for it. Initially, he projected lofty goals that were, as he said, “not based in reality.” The fact that Vino de Milo has experienced such success has made Leal both humble and grateful. The story is one of persistence.

All the persistence in the world may not have made a difference if it weren’t for ACEnet, however. Leal said that not only would Vino de Milo not be at its current level without ACEnet but that the company would probably not exist at all.

ACEnet has been there for Leal through all the various business needs he experienced as a new entrepreneur and continues to experience a decade later. From advice to providing shipping assets and working through loan details, ACEnet has been an invaluable resource, according to Leal.

Vino de Milo utilizes the facility’s kitchen and ships from the Nelsonville Business Incubation Center. It works with other companies to purchase supplies together at discounted rates and Leal considers himself and others fortunate to have ACEnet.

“I’ve talked to other people in other places in the country about starting up businesses and the costs associated with that. It’s so expensive in those places,” Leal said. “We are so unbelievably lucky to have a place like ACEnet.”

ACEnet provides virtually everything a startup company may need but with Vino de Milo, Leal also credits the experience and dedication of his employees. Leal said that of the 10 employees with the company, several key pieces with about 50 years total experience have been the keys to Vino de Milo’s engine.

With the support of ACEnet and the heart of the employees, Leal has his eye on eventually graduating from the business incubator and moving out on his own.

“We have specific goals in mind,” he said. “(Graduating) is one of them.”

Posted: Sunday, March 1, 2015 4:00 am | Updated: 8:28 am, Sun Mar 1, 2015.