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Toops and Friends: Andy Riabokin Wants to Start a Food Company

July 28, 2009
From recruiter to secret sauce connoisseur, Andy Riabokin sits down with Food Processing's Diane Toops to talk about how he found his own perfect formula.

Which is more frightening and yet envigorating? Starting a company from scratch or bringing a food product concept to market? Andy Riabokin is doing both, founding Santa Monica, Calif.-based Sintra Enterprises (www.sintrasauce.com) on the basis of a unique sauce for steak and fries. Some of our readers will recall their first time; all will enjoy Andy’s fascinating journey from restaurant patron to food entrepreneur.

FP: Tell us a bit about your background?

ANDY RIABOKIN: I’m a partner in a retained executive search firm specializing in hiring senior executives for early stage, high-growth, venture capital-backed companies in Southern California, and also lead a practice area in Integrated Supply Chain for diversified manufacturing companies nationwide. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Economics and Statistics from the University of Minnesota. Before I became a recruiter I was a business process re-engineering consultant and systems engineer.


FP: Could you elaborate on what happened that caused you to think about getting into the food industry?

ANDY RIABOKIN: Our board advisor, Jim Rice, vice president of Asia Operations at Tyson Foods, and I would search out the best steak restaurants in Los Angeles every time he cut through on his way to Arkansas or Shanghai. I told him about this magic steak sauce. He said if it’s that good, I should reformulate it for the HORECA [HOtel, REstaurant and Catering] market, as they are always looking for new food concepts. We basically sketched out the business plan on a napkin, and I wrote an executable business plan over the weekend. It seemed like a viable business opportunity, so I funded it and went after it. You can't consult all the time; once in a while, you have to take an operating role just so you can really test what you think you know.

FP: Could you describe Sintra Sauce and why you think it is a winning idea?

ANDY RIABOKIN: During my research I found two separate franchises operating a “no-choice” menu in Europe. Salad, steak, secret sauce and fries were the only options. Night in, night out, these restaurants were packed. From an operator’s point of view, you have a highly profitable, operationally effortless meal to prepare, and the customer is getting a satisfying, flavorful meal they can only get at your restaurant. It carries about 1/30th the inventory most restaurants carry and about 1/10 the operational resources needed to run a typical casual dining franchise menu. It's a smart idea.

FP: What were the biggest development challenges?

ANDY RIABOKIN:  Identifying the special umami that gives Sintra Sauce its one-of-a-kind flavor was not easy. We hired the best in the industry to make sure we got the flavor right. After that, it was all about optimizing the formula with our co-packers. We had to maintain the correct viscosity, flavor and visual appeal. It's based on a classic Béarnaise sauce, and we had to get the formulation right so operators can just heat and serve.

FP: Wellness and comfort foods are the biggest trends in both retail and foodservice products. How does Sintra Sauce fit into those categories?

ANDY RIABOKIN: We actually go after both markets with one thing in common -- flavor. Sintra Sauce has that craveable flavor that makes you want more. We were able to reach the perfect combination of saltiness, acidity and sweetness that is absolutely delicious. Our sauce is very rich in high chlorophyll herbs. We use a “wellness” version with a little lower fat and salt content that still maintains the proper ratio of saltiness, acidity and sweetness.

FP: Why did you name the product Sintra Sauce?

ANDY RIABOKIN: Sintra is a beautiful city in Portugal where I proposed to my future wife Kayla. It’s a real life Harry Potter-like setting with whimsical forests, gardens, castles and palaces with distant views of the Atlantic Ocean. It's one of the most beautiful places in Portugal. We discovered a little restaurant there that only served steak, secret sauce and fries. Maybe it was a combination of several connected things for me, but the sauce was really euphoric. Kayla let me eat there seven out of the 10 nights we stayed. It was great.

FP: You worked with Chef Charlie Baggs. What was that like?

ANDY RIABOKIN: Chef Charlie and I started working together while I was still living in Portugal last winter. It started with just a handshake over Skype [video conferencing over the Internet]. We worked virtually for the first three months, and then I finally met him in-person at his 10th year company anniversary party during our National Restaurant Assn. [show] launch. I conducted a national search for an executive chef, reviewed about 70 companies/consultants, sent inquires to about 50, received about 20 proposals, got it down to two and then retained Chef Charlie. He nailed the gold standard recipe in a couple of months and then it took another couple of months to get the formulations down with our co-packers. Chef Charlie’s expertise in reformulating Sintra Sauce has been invaluable. He is a consummate culinary professional and an expert in developing craveable, visually appealing, butter cream-based sauces. Chef Charlie is absolutely brilliant.

FP: Now that the product is ready for market, what are your plans?

ANDY RIABOKIN: Our near-term goal is to lock down exclusive licensing and distribution agreements with hotels, restaurants and caterers. Currently we are also developing a frozen packaged product that should be ready for market next year. Seasonally, this is a great product for french fry concessions at state and county fairs. We really think we are a great alternative condiment for fries.

FP: What do you ultimately want to do with the sauce?

ANDY RIABOKIN: I think we have a pretty good road map planned for the next eight to 12 months. Ultimately, I would like to duplicate the franchises I researched in Europe. I think it could really catch on here.

FP: Do you anticipate more products in this line in the future?

ANDY RIABOKIN: Today, we are really a one-sauce company. We've discussed a derivative of Sintra Sauce specifically for the fish protein market. Fish is one of those proteins that really needs a sauce and it would be a smart market for us to go after next.

FP: In retrospect, what is the best part of this project for you?

ANDY RIABOKIN: I guess when I had a 20-year expert French saucier taste the sauce and say he had never tried anything like Sintra Sauce before, there was a personal gratification of knowing I had a winner. I love food. My mother won cooking contests when I was growing up in Minnesota. Being able to share this experience with my family and friends has been extraordinarily rewarding.

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