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Carolyna Shares the Secret Sauce

In conversation with Carolyna De Laurentiis of Our Pantry

Carolyna De Laurentiis, photography courtesy of Our Pantry

When Carolyna De Laurentiis became a mother, she had a lot less time to cook from-scratch meals—but she didn’t feel good about feeding ready-made grocery store sauces to her family. “In so many products that you might ordinarily find on the supermarket shelf, you'll see very long lists of ingredients,” she explains. “Often, I found myself wondering where those ingredients were coming from and what the quality behind them was.”

So Carolyna founded Our Pantry with the goal of creating the clean, flavor-boosting kitchen shortcuts she wished had existed. She partnered with three New York-based female chefs to develop a line of four cooking sauces using ingredients from a traceable, climate-friendly supply chain. “We have spent years sourcing ingredients so that our customers can feel good about their meal and every step leading up to it,” she reveals.

Carolyna’s decade-long career as a digital product leader for direct-to-consumer brands like Ritual and Beautycounter prepared her to launch her own company, while her personal history inspired her to focus on food. “I like to joke that tomato sauce runs deep in my veins,” she says. “My father's family is from Naples, Italy, and they had a pasta manufacturing business. He peddled his pasta along the Amalfi Coast and I think he would be proud that I’m slinging my sauce.”

Here, Carolyna shares the secret sauce behind her sauces.

Mast Journal: Our Pantry is based in Los Angeles, so how did you decide to partner with New York-based chefs to develop your sauces?

Carolyna De Laurentiis: After college, I spent several years working in the hospitality industry in Philadelphia and in New York City, so most of my professional culinary network is actually based on the East Coast. When I had the idea to launch Our Pantry, some of my first calls were folks who I trusted and respected in the New York food scene. 

I’m working with culinary icons like Chef Adrienne Cheatham, who was at Le Bernardin for almost a decade and worked under Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster and who now runs pop-ups throughout Harlem and just launched her own cookbook. And Sylvia Barban, who runs and co-owns Larina Pastificio e Vino in Clinton Hill, and Mariana Velasquez, who is a cookbook author based in Brooklyn. 

With the three of them, we created our tomato products that touch on three different cultures. You have the American South with our Sweet Ginger BBQ, Italy with our Cherry Tomato Sauce and Cherry Tomato Arrabbiata, and Columbia with our Roasted Tomato Onion Salsa

MJ: Those sound so delicious! And how do you source the ingredients for these sauces?

CD: Finding ingredients that are a hundred-percent traceable and clean was the most important. We source from organic and regenerative suppliers, where they're available, and we don't add any preservatives or artificial flavors to our products. We use ingredients that you would ordinarily find in your pantry to make sure that our products are shelf stable, like organic apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar. And we use tamarind, which is actually an acidic ingredient that's cooked with a lot throughout Columbia, in our salsa to make sure that our products are as clean and true-to-the-source as possible.

MJ: That’s amazing. Where are some of your core ingredients sourced from?

CD: In our Roasted Tomato Onion Salsa, we use smoked chipotles from Fire Tongue Farm in California. We get those from Burlap & Barrel. In our Cherry Tomato Sauce, we're using these wonderful datterini tomatoes that we source from a 24-farm cooperative in Campania, Italy. We list all of the ingredients on each of our product pages on our website, as well as the country of origin, so that our customers know exactly where ingredients are coming from. We do this for transparency purposes, but also so that our customers can get a sense of how the ingredients we’re using really lend flavor and quality to the overall product.

MJ: Totally. Have you received positive feedback on the transparency of your ingredient list?

CD: Every time a customer orders online, we work to reach out to interview them, to understand how they found us and what they liked about the brand that made them purchase. And then once they've tried the products, what they liked about it. And time and time again, what we're hearing is that people love that we are super conscientious about using clean ingredients and being transparent about our process, and also that we're investing in environmentally-friendly ways to get the products to them. We buy carbon offsets for every order, and we're trying to be as mindful as possible about making sure that our products are always recyclable and delivered in a way that reduces packaging and leaves the smallest possible footprint.

MJ: That’s incredible. Where can customers find Our Pantry, in addition to the website?

CD: We are intentional about partnering exclusively with specialty food shops who carry the same values that we do. For now, I don't have any plans to expand into large-format groceries so that I can really continue to control the quality of the product and produce in a small-batch capacity. We're in about 30 specialty food shops across the country, with a larger footprint in New York and Los Angeles. We're at places like Mast Market and Big Night in New York and Wine + Eggs and Gjusta Grocer in L.A. 

MJ: All the best spots! Do you plan to keep the product line small, as well, or do you want to expand Our Pantry’s offerings?

CD: For now, we're trying to keep our product lineup as tight as possible. As I mentioned, that will allow us to control the quality of our sauces and our supply chain, to make sure that we're delivering on the standard that we've promised to our customers. And in the future, I could see us certainly expanding, but I think it'll take us a little bit of time just to make sure that we can grow slowly and with intention.

MJ: Definitely. Why did you decide to start with tomato-based sauces?

CD: I just felt like a tomato product was the most versatile and allowed us to work with a broad range of diverse chefs. It was super important to me to highlight various food cultures. We're not hitting on such a wide span, obviously, because our initial lineup has only three highly differentiated sauces. But I just felt that the tomato allowed us to highlight that diversity.

We partnered with chef Sylvia Barban on the Cherry Tomato Sauce and Cherry Tomato Arrabbiata recipe. Our Sweet Ginger BBQ, which uses organic California-grown tomatoes and organic red miso paste that we sourced from Japan, was made in partnership with chef Adrienne Cheatham. And then our Roasted Tomato Onion Salsa, which uses organic tomatoes and roasted onions and tamarind and chipotle chilies, is made in partnership with Maria Velasquez.

MJ: Amazing. And how do you recommend using all the sauces? Are they meant to be eaten straight from the jar?

CD: I really see the products as being flavor-boosting shortcuts, so they can be used as a cooking sauce in a number of different applications or even as a condiment. For example, with our Cherry Tomato Sauce, which I know Mast Market keeps in stock, I often will warm it up in a saucepan and toss fresh, al dente pasta into it and serve it with pecorino cheese and some fresh herbs for a super simple, delicious meal. Or I could even use that sauce, if I have an ounce or two leftover, to fry an egg into it. Or I can use it to top off a sandwich, if I want a little sweet heat. So the sauces are really intended to be used in a variety of ways, and we publish a number of recipes on our website and social media. 

MJ: Are the chefs who created the sauces also developing the recipes?

CD: So we work with our chef partners to create recipes, which we certainly feature, but we're also tapping a broad range of chefs and creators. And I'm also creating recipes using the products myself, just so that we get a wide range of different individuals participating in our marketing. And our chefs are really busy. They're running full-time jobs and gigs of their own. And so I try to be respectful and mindful of how much I ask from them.

MJ: That makes sense! What’s your favorite recipe you’ve made with Our Pantry yourself?

CD: That's a tough one. I think I have a favorite for each. So for our Sweet Ginger BBQ, I love chopping and roasting squash in a neutral cooking oil with salt and pepper. And then 10 minutes before it's done cooking, I toss it in our Sweet Ginger BBQ and pop it back in the oven. And it just creates this really nice, velvety, sweet, well-rounded flavor. For our Roasted Tomato Onion Salsa, I love warming it up in the pan and frying eggs into it. It makes a really wonderful, warming shaka, which I'll eat with toasted bread. 

My son, who's three years old, loves our cherry tomato sauce because it's so sweet. But my personal favorite is the Cherry Tomato Arrabbiata, which is a spicy version. I love warming it up and cooking fresh pasta like a ravioli or a tortellini for a couple minutes, and then finishing the cooking process in the sauce and topping it with cubed mozzarella cheese for a quick pasta sciue sciue, which means “pasta in a hurry.” That makes a perfect weeknight meal or even something delicious and celebratory for a weekend. 

MJ: Wow, yum! Is there anything that you think customers should know about the brand that maybe isn't so obvious when you're just picking up the bottle? 

CD: I think the fact that we buy carbon offsets is really important and not something we talk enough about. We want to make sure that we're offsetting the impact of our operation. And then another thing that we've been super intentional about since day one is making sure that our chef creators share in the success of our business. I think it is really important to ensure that our creators can benefit from the success that we see from our product sales. That's something we don't talk enough about either, but that is very important to me.

A lot of people also don't know that I launched our pantry in September, two months after I delivered my daughter. I was on a cross-country flight six weeks postpartum with my breast pump. And a lot of people looked at me as I was starting this business and were like, You have so much on your plate, you just lost your mom, and you are having a baby. And I was like, I know I have a lot on my plate, but I feel so strongly that the food system that we have grown to know today is just not investing in the right quality ingredients or transparent supply chain or giving back to creators.

I felt so strongly about Our Pantry's mission. And so despite those challenges that I was coming up against in my personal life, I felt like Our Pantry just needed to exist in the world. And so there's a lot of heart and a lot of my own personal journey that is tied up in my launching this business. And I think especially some young moms might appreciate knowing that that was my motivation.

MJ: That’s definitely important for customers to know. And what does your day-to-day look like?

CD: I try to organize every day around a different theme. So I have operations day, where I’m looking at our supply chain and fulfilling orders. I have a digital marketing day where I'm focused on creating email content and social content for communicating with our retailers and with our customers. And I’ll also have formulation days. I work with my manufacturers to fine-tune and finesse future production runs. I'm often on the phone with Italy at 8:00 a.m., talking to my farm cooperative about the next batch that we're planning for July, and working through some ingredient refinement constraints that may come up because this summer's tomato crop is a little sweeter than we expected. And figuring out how that impacts our recipe.

MJ: And do you have a team? Or are you working solo?

CD: I'm the one dedicated person and I have a team of four—our three chef partners and one other person—who I pull in as-needed for various projects. 

MJ: What is it like running the company primarily on your own?

CD: As a new mom, it's a tricky balance. I have an 11 month old and a three year old, and I'm juggling preschool drop offs and grocery shopping with the day-to-day responsibilities of managing and growing my business. Every day comes with new challenges, but I feel super fortunate that I have someone that I work with part-time who helps me across the business and she's been so wonderful. And then all of my chef partners, anytime I need anything, they're always available. Between them and a group of really wonderful advisors who I rely on daily, I do feel like I have a lot of support. So it's both challenging and rewarding.

MJ: It’s really nice that you have people to go to for advice, as an entrepreneur.

CD: Definitely. Especially if you don't have a co-founder that you can bounce ideas off of, having advisors or investors that you've either raised money from or that you've asked to be a part of your core advisory team is so critical. I have a creative director who I worked with at Ritual who I'm often in touch with about a number of different marketing initiatives that I'm thinking about. And then one of my advisors and family members, Giada De Laurentiis, is a respected chef in the industry and someone that I speak to constantly. So I just feel very fortunate to have a really wonderful community of people that I can call.

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