Using Your Noodle

David Skinner bought some manufacturing equipment a few years ago to automate parts of his pasta-making business. It was used equipment, but quite expensive for a start-up.

So when he heard the driver, who had hauled it across country in three tractor trailers, drive onto his Ohio farm and say, "So, where do you want this junk?" Skinner remembers thinking, "Oh, what have we gotten into?"

The California company he had bought the equipment from sent two engineers to help set up "the contraptions," but they left after two weeks with a "You don't need us, you've got better help here," Skinner recalls.

Indeed. He credits his Amish employees' seemingly innate knowledge of engineering and design for not only rebuilding that equipment, but enhancing it to surpass its original design.

"Any inspector who walks through our facility now they say 'Wow, we've never seen anything like that.' It's a work of art."

Food maker Amish Naturals considers its employees a large part of its success. (Photo courtesy of company)

Amish Naturals, a maker of organic pastas and snack foods, is located in Holmes County, Ohio, home to the world's largest Amish and Mennonite population. More than 80 percent of that population works in the more than 1,000 micro enterprises in the region, according to Skinner. Eighty-five percent of Skinner's employees are Amish or Mennonite.

The idea of Amish Naturals was born out of a flood. Skinner, a retired criminal investigator for the IRS, and his wife ran an inn in North Carolina that was decimated by Hurricane Ivan in 1994. Some Amish friends were staying in the Skinners' cabins on their farm and returned to help. They brought 20 workers and rebuilt the inn in two days. They wouldn't accept compensation for their efforts. In return, the Skinners visited their friends' hometown of Hope, Ohio, where they bought a horse-drawn wagon and stocked up on Amish-made pastas, jams and sauces and sold them at the inn and a country store "where guests flipped over them," he said.

Amish Naturals founder David Skinner. (Photo courtesy of company)

Because Skinner was having a hard time keeping up with the demand, he contacted noodle makers to see if they were interested in starting a private label using the Amish recipes, but they weren't. The company continued to make its own product and Skinner sent a few cases to a rabbi friend in New York, who was wowed by the noodles. The rabbi put Skinner in touch with his friend who was retiring the next day as head of ConAgra's Hebrew National division. The seasoned food executive told Skinner he should start a national food firm to sell the product and expand.

With the executive's help, a focus group was set up to compare the Amish-made product against a leading pasta producer. Eighty three percent of respondents in a seven-state area liked Skinner's pasta better.

In October 2006, Skinner started Amish Naturals in Ohio and called himself CEO of the company. He created an office in a 1,000-square-foot chicken coop but eventually moved into a bigger facility.

Because of what he credits as the Amish know-how, his company was able to adapt machine technology to duplicate the hand rolling, kneading and cutting of the dough, "but we never changed our mixing standards and we maintain it as a hand-done method," said Skinner.

The company also received the backing of an investment banker and used those funds to build a large manufacturing facility that meets some of the most stringent organic certifications.

The Amish Naturals brand is now sold at more than 3,600 stores and the 26-person company is expected to make $15 million this year.

Lately, the firm has been branching out into other products like pasta sauces and in a few weeks it will launch a granola line. Part of the expansion is growth, but part is strategy as the firm, like many, "got hit hard," said Skinner, on fuel and other production costs. He said the cost of raw materials rose nearly 300 percent recently as the price for flour rose and delivery and freight charges skyrocketed.

The company has benefited from a deal it signed with Acosta food brokers. The relationship put Amish Naturals products on shelves throughout the country, including in large chains like Food Lion, a big expansion from the organic markets the firm had been selling to exclusively.

Skinner is not Amish and although he's set up shop in Amish country, "it's not easy to be an Amishman," he said. His ties to that community became stronger after he retired from the IRS and began working his farm.

A horse and buggy in Holmes County, Ohio, where Amish Naturals is located. (Photo courtesy of company)

While on the hunt for some wagon parts, he found it difficult to contact the Amish farmers who could sell them to him because they didn't have a phone or other means of modern communications. When he met with them in person, he offered to set up a Web site to sell their goods. The Amish don't advertise, but the farmers gave him permission to create the Web site and sell their products himself. He started selling Amish-made wagon parts, harnesses, horse collars and related items online, soon developing a friendly working relationship with the Amish as a distributor of their products.

Skinner said the "real traditional" Amish won't have anything to do with technology, but there's a "new order" whose members are comfortable using a cell phone or other technologies for business although it's still not permissible at home.

The business is growing so quickly that Skinner this month voluntarily stepped down as CEO to let the search begin for "someone who really knows the food industry," he said. He's staying on as a board member and vice president of manufacturing.

"Every day is a new experience...There are some hard days, but it all just evolved. It's sort of a magical story and I'm the last person to think I'd be involved in a pasta business."

By Sharon McLoone |  August 21, 2008; 1:52 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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