Oil-and-vinegar business expands

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer November 09, 2011 09:45 pm

Gianniís employee Eric Wentland pours some of the balsamic vinegar that is a key ingredient in the companyís products. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Gianniís employee Eric Wentland pours some of the balsamic vinegar that is a key ingredient in the companyís products. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

Gianni’s Fine Foods makes 22 different products at Bearco business park site

A home-based Wallowa County business has grown wings and flown, coming to roost in a full-fledged manufacturing facility at Bearco Loop in La Grande.

John Spenger and Jackie Parker are the proprietors of Gianni’s Fine Foods, a company specializing in barrel-aged balsamic vinegars, vinagerettes, dressings, bread dippers and more.

They’re employing four people to process their product at the new digs in Bearco, have a strong marketing network in place and see no where to go but up.

“We’ve got 10 distributors around the nation, from Oregon to California,” Spenger said in a recent interview. “In a week, we probably ship out 300 cases.”

Spenger was born and raised in Berkeley, Calif. His family owned and operated Spenger’s Fish Grotto, a  famous restaurant in the city’s Fourth Street Shopping District.

Jackie Parker and John Spenger are the owners of Gianniís Fine Foods in Bearco Loop in La Grande. The couple started their business in a kitchen in their home and grew it to where it needed a full-fledged production facility. They sell their products to small businesses, farmers markets and food shows.
Jackie Parker and John Spenger are the owners of Gianniís Fine Foods in Bearco Loop in La Grande. The couple started their business in a kitchen in their home and grew it to where it needed a full-fledged production facility. They sell their products to small businesses, farmers markets and food shows.

His interest in food began there, and never faded.

“I guess you can say it’s in my blood,” he said. “My great-grandfather always said, ‘Offer good food, use good ingredients, throw in a smile and you’ll have a customer for life.’ ”

When he struck out on his own, Spenger took a job in an Italian restaurant that served a bread dipper made with balsamic vinegar, garlic and olive oil. After he left the restaurant, he started making his own brand. For 11 years he ran a business called “Bistro Blends.”

After some time in Miami, Spenger moved to Wallowa County in 2008, settling in Enterprise. His parents were there by that time, managing Alpine Meadows Golf Course.

“I wanted to leave the fast-paced life in Miami behind,” Spenger said.

After he met Parker, they teamed in a business venture called Johnny T’s Bakery in Enterprise, specializing in pastries and cheesecake products.

Johnny T’s subsequently folded, but Spenger and Parker stayed in business, producing chocolate-infused syrups in their licensed kitchen at home.

 This year, they decided to get into the oil-and-vinegar business Spenger knows so well. They had a perfectly obvious reason for naming their new venture Gianni’s.

“We like to keep things simple. Gianni is the Italian version of John,” Spenger said.

Spenger and Parker have worked out a business model that doesn’t include selling to commercial stores or supermarkets. They sell instead to small business owners, and to vendors at farmers markets and food shows.

Not long into the venture, Spenger and Parker realized their kitchen at home was too small to keep up with demands. They needed a much larger space, and decided on a building at Bearco, the business park near Island Avenue in La Grande.

They applied for and got the necessary permits, then built a kitchen to suit their needs. They started whipping the new facility into shape in August, and completed it just recently.

“It was pretty cool walking into a raw space and transforming it into a commercial kitchen,” Spenger said.

Their employees take ingredients including balsamic vinegar made from Italian grapes and aged 18-25 years, and mix them into a variety of tangy, tasty, healthy treats. In all, there are 22 products.

”We train our employees in every aspect of production, as well as warehouse responsibilities,” Spenger said. “They take it from raw ingredients to finished product on the pallet, and everything is hand bottled.”

That’s all well enough for now, but Spenger and Parker, who live now in La Grande,  are already looking forward to a new phase of growth.

“Right now, we’re bottling one gallon at a time. We’d like to have the equipment to process orders a lot faster,” Spenger said.

Visit Gianni’s Fine Foods on the Web at www.giannisfinefoods.com, or call 541-263-1116.