Bella Lucia finds room for growth

Gluten-free company to triple production­

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Contractor Chris Cook goes over renovation plans for the new Bella Lucia Bakery in Juniata with his mother, Mary Ann.

When Mary Ann Cook made her first Italian cookie in her Logan Township kitchen in 2009, she had no idea how her business would grow.

Bella Lucia Gluten Free Pizzelles, which moved to 726 N. Fourth Ave. in 2013, soon will be tripling its production.

After leasing space from Nunzio Rehm, Cook has purchased the entire building, giving her business about 6,000 square feet.

“We doubled our space by purchasing the building. It is going to allow us to triple our production output,” Cook said.

When finished, half of the building will be devoted to baking pizzelles, which now come in six flavors — vanilla, anise, chocolate, lemon, cinnamon and chocolate-striped.

“We will have three baking stations instead of one. Each has the capacity to hold 16 pizzelle irons. This will enable us to have 48 pizzelle irons. Each day we can produce 40-45 cases of pizzelles. We will be able to produce 120-135 cases per day with one shift,” Cook said. “If we keep growing, we would have to consider a second shift.”

The expansion project is expected to lead to the creation of two to four part-time jobs. The business presently employs five full-time and five part-time workers.

The expansion also will enable Cook to double the size of her store front, which offers gluten-free products, including pasta, both dry and frozen, sauce and other Italian treats.

DelGrosso’s pasta sauce is a recent addition to the store.

“We will be expanding our product line,” Cook said.

Cook said she decided in January that she needed more space.

“I noticed in January our numbers were double the previous year. February was the same; we knew we needed to have a bigger output to keep up with demand. We looked at other real estate. Nunzio said we could buy the building. Our business has about doubled this year alone,” Cook said.

Cook said the business is on target to do about a half-million dollars in sales this year.

The addition of new packaging also has helped sales.

“We have new packaging that we came out with in 2016. It was made by Chris O’Brien, who designed the La Familia label for DelGrosso Foods. I attribute our growth to the new design. It has made a huge difference,” Cook said. “We are using natural craft paper because we use all natural ingredients. We wanted the packaging to say a lot about our products. It has more curb appeal than the old packaging.”

Bella Lucia products are now in 35 states at 600-plus locations.

A recent addition is Mom’s Organic Markets.

“We had tried to get in since 2011. When the new packaging came out, they took us on. They have 18 stores in the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. area and are still growing,” Cook said.

Bella Lucia has more business in the works.

“We are attempting to secure government procurement contracts, which would enable us to work with state and federal government and various institutions,” Cook said. “We are just starting to do business with the United Arab Emirates. In six months, we may know for sure; we are in a holding pattern. Our hope is to begin exporting in six to 12 months.”

Cook said determination has been the key to her business’ success.

“Determination and innovation, trying to keep ahead of trends. I think the biggest thing is determination, the good-old, all-Amer­i­can entrepreneurship,” Cook said.

She admits she is surprised by the growth of her business.

“I never really knew this was possible. In 2009, I would have said no. Where it is and going is bigger than any of my dreams. We started on a shoe-string budget. We started in 2009 with a dozen eggs and a bag of flour,” Cook said.

In 2016, Bella Lucia was named winner of the Young Emerging Business Award by the Blair County Chamber of Commerce.

“How do small businesses become large businesses? By having a great product and being willing to absorb the risk that comes along with business growth. Mary Ann and her staff are true believers. Bella Lucia is no longer ‘young and emerging.’ They are young and emerged,” said Joe Hurd, chamber president/CEO.

Cook and Allen Fuller, who recently came aboard as operations manager, are optimistic about the future.

“I’ve talked about duplicating this in other parts of the country. I can take the model of the business anywhere. I can see the future is limitless; it is only limited by how hard we want to work and push it,” Cook said.

“I see us as untapped; we are just in a small part of the country. We see an untapped market. We expect it to continue to grow,” Fuller said.

Local outlets for Bella Lucia products include Everything Natural Under the Sun, Giant Eagle and Lajo’s in Altoona and Wegman’s in State College.

Bella Lucia will hold an open house from 9 a.m. to

3 p.m. Nov. 15-17 and from

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 18. Samples of gluten-free Italian food will be available.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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