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Boston Business Journal

Raking in the Chips!

Raking in the Chips

Restaurateur turns her dreams of Regenie's into reality

Sean McFadden

Journal Staff

HAVERHILL -- If there's one thing Regina Ragonese has learned in her five years in the snack food business, it's how to bounce back from a setback.

Take a recent morning, when she arrived at her manufacturing plant in Haverhill, only to discover that she had been burglarized the night before. She lost a company vehicle and a flat-screen monitor in the ordeal, but those weren't topmost in her mind.

"Did they take any chips?" was her first question.

You see, Ragonese, 39, is for all intents and purposes the mother of two: There's her 13-year-old son, Zack, and then there's the chips.

Named for her childhood infatuation with the "I Dream of Jeannie" television series, Regenie's Crunchy Pitas, -- kettle-cooked squares of pita bread available in about 12 different flavors (think Texas Barbecue, Spicy Cajun, Honey Mustard and Tomato-Basil Parmesan) -- have helped Ragonese's Regco Corp., which focuses on "all-natural" foods, achieve $4 million in revenue in 2002. Additionally, the chips are currently sold in 2,500 stores, including 350 Stop & Shop locations, in 25 states.

As much as she loves being both a single mom and an entrepreneur, Ragonese admits that "to say that it has been easy balancing both would be disingenuous."

Before she got into the chip biz, Ragonese was toiling as a restaurateur, as the second owner of Ellie's Middle Eastern restaurant. She purchased the building that housed the Lawrence-based establishment from the state for $21,500 in 1992.

She retained much of former owner Eleanor Gulla's original menu items, including her own, slightly tweaked version of the pita chips that Gulla served to the delight of her customers.

"People loved the chips," Ragonese recalls. "I thought, 'I should start selling these.' "

She turned chip making into a secondary line of work, but says that juggling both businesses was "definitely a crazy time" -- one that taxed her efforts as a single parent. She recalls that Zack would eat dinner with her at the restaurant each night after closing and would accompany her to Ellie's on the weekends.

In 1998, feeling burnout from the restaurant, she decided to devote herself full time to her pita chips.

Using $40,000 in self-funding, she set up shop in Haverhill's Ward Hill Industrial Park, where she maintains 400 square feet of office space and 4,000 square feet of production space.

"Frankly, I entered into the business somewhat impulsively," she says. "I think if I had developed a more cohesive business plan at the outset, I might have been too intimidated to enter into the business."

In those early years, she says, she faced a number of obstacles: the cancellation of a major order at the last minute, the threat of being shut down by the city (which charged that she hadn't completed the appropriate paperwork to operate) and bad advice from various people in the food industry.

Still, she says, she remained undeterred: "Once you've been through (the experience of running) a restaurant, it toughens you up."

In 1999, she was awarded $300,000 from Mass Development to purchase equipment, including a forklift, scales, shelving, office equipment and other manufacturing necessities.

She found a legitimate mentor in Dave Dugan, a sales veteran with over 30 years of experience, who headed up Regenie's sales efforts for three years.

Dugan played a pivotal role in getting Ragonese's product distribution in such major venues as Shaw's Supermarket and increasing her involvement in industry trade shows.

"Her product was unique. It was going into that category -- all-natural -- that was just starting to burst open," Dugan says. "It was a product that had all the right ingredients -- a good crunch, low in fat and cholesterol."

Dugan, regional sales manager for snack food competitor Cape Cod Potato Chips of Hyannis, says Ragonese's growth as an entrepreneur has been dramatic: "She herself can do any sales call to anybody now.

Ragonese is currently producing about 104 million chips per year and says her company has achieved "in excess of 500 percent sales growth" in its first five years of operation.

Her staff has grown to about 19 -- four in the office, 15 on the production floor -- some of whom, she says, "have been with me since Day 1."

Admitting her formula is "not any great science" -- the bread is cooked in non-hydrogenated oil and then seasoned with a variety of ingredients -- Ragonese says the finished product has "a natural, home-cooked look and flavor profile unique to the marketplace."

A self-described "fitness fanatic," Ragonese says her formulation for the product contains about 150 calories per ounce, with about 6-7 grams of fat per serving.

Mike Whitmore, shelf management specialist at Scarborough, Maine-based Hannaford Bros., says Regenie's is currently being sold in about 75 percent of the company's 122 stores. He says the quality of the product "is excellent, by far the best" of the three pita chip brands he offers.

Ragonese continues to churn out variations on the product -- the latest being "Treasure Crisps," a lighter, airier, 45-calorie-per-serving version of her crunchy pita, retailing in two flavors.

© 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.

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