Small Business Close-Up- A.C. LaRocco Pizza of Spokane draws national praise

Pizza without pounds Spokane company draws national praise for its dieter-friendly product

John Stucke Spokesman Review

After seven years of hard work, sales for the small Spokane Valley maker of gourmet frozen pizzas has surpassed a million dollars and gained some flattering national attention.

You see, A.C. LaRocco, founded by Clarence Scott, is easy on the waistline.

With a filling whole-wheat crust and nothing but vegetables, herbs and cheese on top, the pizzas have become a favorite among the Weight Watchers crowd, and families on the go looking for a quick, healthy dinner.

This month, the editors of Nutrition Action Health Letter ranked A.C. LaRocco tops among frozen pizzas.

Published by the tough Center for Science in the Public Interest, the kudo serves as an approval stamp.

CSPI is the same organization that awakened Americans to the fact that some beloved foods such as movie popcorn are loaded with fat and sodium. They also picked on favorites from many Mexican and Chinese restaurants.

Receiving the endorsement, said sales director Karen Leffler, has led to a flood of interest.

"You just wouldn’t believe the e-mail," she said. "It’s amazing."

It’s big news for a company coming off a good year of rapid growth and a widening base of loyal customers.

Last year, the company used 70,000 pounds of fresh tomatoes.

Making it all work, though, has not been easy.

The frozen pizza industry is dominated by Schwans and Kraft. The two corporate food titans divvy up all but the smallest slice of the $1.9 billion market with their brands such as Tombstone, Tony’s, Red Barron, Freschetta and Di Giorno.

Competing against such favorites is nearly impossible.

But starting in 1996, Scott had the idea of making a healthy pizza that could quietly build a customer base through natural food stores.

He had known Leffler, a top-notch Tupperware salesperson, for 30 years and hired her.

"This was the niche we picked and we’re still here," he said.

Scott has 50 local investors. The group provided seed money and financial discipline through an advisory board.

The business has had difficult years, but Scott said it was profitable by late 1999.

This year, he expects sales to reach between $2 million and $3 million. In five years, he thinks A.C. LaRocco can break the $30 million mark.

Success, says Leffler, is built on two factors: "Our pizzas have to taste good and they have to be good for you.

"They’re so good, I say, because they are made and tested by non-vegetarians."

There are six varieties. One is loaded with fresh and sundried tomatoes with feta cheese. Another is heaped with vegetables such as bell peppers and broccoli. Others have toppings such as garlic and pine nuts, and shiitake mushrooms.

Most importantly, the foundation of all A.C. LaRocco pizzas is a whole wheat and honey crust. After 25 minutes of baking, the crusts are brown and slightly crispy on the outside and the middle is soft.

The pizzas are about 68 percent organic. Finding a reliable supplier for organic mozzarella cheese at a reasonable prices has been elusive, but remains a goal.

Organic wheat from Montana is used, as are organic vegetables from California.

These considerations have won over customers. The whole wheat crust adds a dose of fiber to the pizzas. In Weight Watcher’s terms, a sixth of one pizza is worth four points.

Followers of the program are often allowed between 22 and 30 points per day, depending on their weight, goals and exercise.

If the cliche "try, try again" needs a mascot, Scott would be a good candidate.

Pizza hasn’t made him rich over the years. A.C. LaRocco is his third stab at success.

Duane Broyles, one of the 50 local investors who provided start-up capital, has known Scott for many years.

The two played music together in the Ray Scott Trio. Gigs included everything from proms to the officer’s club at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Later, Scott began teaching business classes at Central Valley High School and Broyles became an accountant.

"I actually felt some responsibility for getting Clarence into all this," Broyles said. "When Clarence was teaching business at school, I used to razz him: `You teach what you’ve never done.’ Then I got nervous when he really did leave teaching and got started in business. It’s not easy."

Scott has operated a take ‘n’ bake pizza operation.

And his earlier business, Cuci’s Pizza, made lunches for schools. The business failed, in part, Scott said, because the lunches are funded by government, which puts all contracts out for bid. Small companies like Cuci’s struggle to offer competitive bids against large companies.

Along the way, however, he has learned a few things about competition and niche products.

With A.C. LaRocco, Scott and Leffler have built a company. Today, they sell about 2,500 pizzas every day across the country.

They had to move production to Los Angeles. Shipping product from Spokane was too costly and most of the pizzas were being sold on the Interstate 5 corridor from Seattle to Los Angeles.

Although founded here, Spokane is among the weaker markets for A.C. LaRocco.

"This is a meat-and-potatoes place," Scott said, "and there’s nothing wrong with that."

Both say the biggest mistake they made was packaging. Instead of a brightly colored box, the company wrapped pizzas in plastic.

It didn’t work and the pizzas languished in freezers.

And the best decision they made?

"Packaging," said Leffler. "We took money and put it into design. Best thing we did. Well … that and making good-tasting pizza."

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