When Gina DePuma was diagnosed with celiac disease 10 years ago, forcing her to abstain from eating traditional pasta, it was nothing short of a crisis in the DePuma family.
“My wife is Italian, and she just loves pasta,” recalls John DePuma, a professional chef. “I said, ‘I have to find a solution to that!’ It really was a labor of love.”
With just $500 in seed money, and juggling the demands of a full-time culinary career, DePuma spent his free time in the home kitchen. He experimented with dozens of gluten-free recipes, striving for a combination that looked and tasted like conventional pasta.
Today, DePuma’s Gluten Free Pasta in Milford, Connecticut, is thriving. The company produces 200 to 300 pounds of hand-crafted pasta daily. DePuma’s 14 varieties – from bestsellers like cheese tortelloni, to spinach ravioli and cavatelli – are sold locally in Shop Rite, Whole Foods, and many specialty grocery stores. Sales are up 30 percent over last year.
Goodbye Paper and Clipboards
But while DePuma excelled in perfecting taste and texture, the company’s corporate side wasn’t as sophisticated. Some of his business tracking methods involved paper and clipboards. Occasionally he ran short on ingredients, and would have to do an emergency supply run. And his system for sales forecasting involved a little guesswork.
DePuma is a long-time friend of the daughter of UConn instructor-in-residence Wayne Bragg, and one day he asked Bragg for some business advice.
Bragg, who teaches in the MBA programs in Hartford and Stamford, was eager to help.
This is how ‘experiential learning’ should work, benefiting not only our students but also small businesses. — “Wayne
He selected Shirley Tarabochia ’17 MBA, one of his students at the time, to help enhance DePuma’s business practices.
In the spring semester, she carefully analyzed his business operation, reviewing processes, software, order history, and more. Then she devised a sophisticated computerized system that allows DePuma to improve inventory control, more precisely forecast sales, and better plan employee scheduling, as well as other tasks.
DePuma says Tarabochia worked hard on the project and treated it as if it was her own company. “It is very impressive to see what she was able to design and implement,” he says.
“This is how ‘experiential learning’ should work,” Bragg says, “benefiting not only our students but also small businesses.
“When students have an assignment at a large company, if they are lucky, they will work with one set of data,” he says. “Because DePuma pasta is a small company, Shirley was able to assist the company from start to finish. It was an unusual opportunity.”
Tarabochia, who has since graduated and now works with Amazon in South Carolina, says she enjoyed applying and putting into practice what she was learning, from statistics to finance, supply chain management to predictive modeling.
Bragg says that without this kind of data, it would have been difficult for his company to grow. “It would be unmanageable!”
Three Million Suffer from Gluten Intolerance
About three million people, or 1 percent of the population, in the United States suffer from gluten intolerance, an immune reaction to eating gluten that creates inflammation that damages the lining of the small intestine. The number of people diagnosed with the illness continues to grow.
DePuma, who has a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, started his career working at Foxwoods Resort & Casino, then became a sous chef at Tribeca Grill in New York City and later at the Union League Café in New Haven, and then became a chef at L’escale in Greenwich. While working at L’escale, he appeared as the executive chef on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.”
Eliminating the key ingredient from pasta didn’t intimidate him. DePuma’s ingredients include potato, corn starch, tapioca flour, eggs, and oil. Most of his business is based in the tri-state area, but he also ships his pastas – which include butternut squash ravioli, wild mushroom ravioli, and rigatoni – across the country.
Tarabochia, a native of Peru who taught herself English so that she could attend UConn, says she feels personally invested in DePuma pasta: “I want John to succeed. I’m always going to help him if he needs it.’’
DePuma says the management system helps his business run efficiently and saves him a great deal of stress. With more time available, he can introduce his product to new high-end restaurants and retail establishments.
But for Gina DePuma, the original inspiration for the company, says the pasta “has a perfect flavor. “I actually prefer my husband’s gluten-free pasta over traditional pasta, because it doesn’t give you that heavy feeling after eating it.”