Q&A with Food Entrepreneur Josephine Caminos Oria

Josephine Caminos Oria

Born in La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Josephine Caminos Oría moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her family as an infant, and shortly thereafter began cooking alongside her grandmother, Dorita, who instilled in Josephine a love of all things Argentine, including the cuisine, and especially her dulce de leche. Today, some thirty years later, Josephine is the founder of La Dorita, an all-natural line of dulce de leche products; her husband and fellow native Argentine, Gastón Oría, oversees all aspects of the Pittsburgh-based business, including production and operations.

Josephine also founded La Dorita Cooks, Pittsburgh’s first resource-based kitchen incubator for start-up and early-stage food makers (see  www.ladorita.net for more information). In addition, Josephine is the author of the recently published cookbook as food-memoir, “Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories, and Sweet Traditions” (Burgess Lea Press, February 2017). Josephine lives with her husband and their four boys, Lucas, Mateo, Nicolás (Nico) and Ignacio (Nacho), and their little girl, Poupée, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Can you tell our readers about your background?

I left my fifteen-year, C-level career in healthcare to make dulce de leche. In fact, the inherently Argentine ingredient changed the course of my life in my mid-thirties. 

I had a successful career as the CFO of a medical diagnostic testing company in Pittsburgh, PA, a loving husband, and four beautiful boys under the age of 5, yet I had a nagging feeling that kept me up most nights. Until one day, I awoke with an innate determination that I needed to make dulce de leche; the real dulce de leche that my Grandma Dorita made me over and over when I was growing up.  

In February 2009, after months of stirring late into the night perfecting my Grandma’s recipe, I founded La Dorita, an all-natural, small-batch product line of specialty dulce de leche spreads and a liqueur that are representative of my Argentine heritage. 

Since then, my culinary journey has continued to organically evolve as a result of the roadblocks that have surfaced along the journey.

In 2012, my husband, Gastón, and I founded La Dorita Cooks, Pittsburgh’s first shared commercial kitchen incubator for local start-up and early-stage food makers.  We established the incubator in order to address a problem we personally faced when starting our own specialty food business. Like many food startups at the time, we were unable to find accessible commercial kitchen space that would allow us to manufacture our product in a licensed commercial kitchen. Today, we aim to help other startups avoid the very mistakes we made.

I am also the author of the recently published, Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories & Sweet Traditions, (Burgess Lea Press, February 2017). I wrote this cookbook as a result of talking to dozens of persons at food shows or during demos and realizing that dulce de leche was still very misunderstood in the United States. This created an opportunity to acculturate dulce de leche in this country and create an entirely new specialty food category.

Most recently, it was during the arduous process of making medialunas (Argentina’s signature crescent roll) that I decided to leave my fifteen-year career in healthcare in order to fully dedicate myself to my dream of working with food. I had to trust my gut, and know that once I finally took a leap of faith, the rest would take care of itself. Where it takes me, I don’t yet know, but I’m looking forward to continuing on this journey.

What inspired you to start your business?

The short of it is that I hated Sunday’s—and the person I became on Sunday evenings. For years I dreaded waking up Monday mornings only to face yet another work week. This was in no way a reflection of my previous workplace or colleagues, but a reflection of my own emotional state and an indication that my life was off course.

I knew I had to make a change if I was going to be the best mom and provider to my young five children that I could be, but as the main breadwinner of my family, I didn’t think I had the right to risk their livelihood or standard of living to follow my own dreams.

After struggling with this these thoughts for two or three years, I came to realize that the incessant, nagging thought of never trying to follow my dreams brought me more despair than the thought of failing itself.

When I finally realized that my desire to make my Grandma Dorita’s dulce de leche was more than a fleeting craving, I began to recognize dulce de leche’s immense potential in the US specialty foods market. I often think of dulce de leche as a global, taste-bud doppelganger for Nutella, the chocolate hazelnut spread; it can be virtually spread on anything and used as a complementary ingredient in recipes throughout the day. Once considered an Italian, specialty food item often relegated to the international grocery aisle, Nutella is now a mainstream ingredient. It’s hard to find an American pantry that doesn’t have the chocolate hazelnut spread. 

I thought to myself if Ferrero USA could turn the inherently Italian Nutella into a mainstream ingredient in our market, why couldn’t I do the same for dulce de leche? It was then that I decided to make dulce de leche out of the specialty shop and assure its spot on every family’s weekly shopping list.

Where is your business based?

La Dorita Cooks is based in Sharpsburg, PA, a river town in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?

I started my business in 2009. After perfecting my Grandma Dorita’s dulce de leche recipe, I began to seek out dairy farms where I could locally source raw milk. As with any product, the quality of your ingredients makes all the difference. I reached out to PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, to find the closest creameries that were licensed and certified to sell raw milk directly to consumers. During the process, I developed a relationship with the folks at PASA, who invited me to be a guest vendor at some of the local farmer’s market the organization sponsored throughout Pittsburgh. It was at one of these market’s that I met a buyer at our local Whole Foods store, who, after sampling our dulce de leche, invited me to present it to his team as a new potential product. Eight months later—after jumping over many hurdles—we delivered our first case of dulce de leche to Whole Foods.

What many don’t know is that saying “yes” to Whole Foods, meant saying “good-bye” to our dining room. In order to fulfill our first order, we were required to produce our product in a licensed commercial kitchen. With no other options at hand, we decided to build our own commercial kitchen in the dining room of our home, which required us taking out a $30,000 line of credit on our home—and set us back six months in the process. It was this very issue that would lead us to establish Pittsburgh’s first incubator kitchen three years later. The incubator resulted from a personal roadblock that threatened to deter our own personal success, and we were determined to fill this void.

We launched La Dorita Cook's Kitchen Share program in 2012, after successfully crowdfunding $50,000 on Kickstarter.com, of which $32,500 was dedicated to equipping our Kitchen Share Commercial Kitchen. We envisioned a multi-purpose shared space where certain entrepreneurs would go on to open their own storefronts between one to two years, while others might be content to use the kitchen for years to come.

Finally, I should mention that while I started La Dorita in 2009, it wasn’t until July 2017 that I was able to leave my full-time career and dedicate myself 100% to my own company. 

What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?

When it comes to our incubator kitchen, word of mouth has been the most effective way of raising awareness for La Dorita Cooks. Entrepreneurs talk among themselves, and many will recommend our shared commercial kitchen space to other food makers looking to establish their business. I also make an effort to prioritize invitations to speak at entrepreneurial and farm-to-table events, as they provide me a platform to introduce my business to the audience.

Providing four, free annual workshops for food startups has also proved to be a great marketing tool to get our name out there and bring potential customers through our doors. With an average attendance of 40 entrepreneurs per class, we typically find that at least five of these attendees join our incubator.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Demystifying dulce de leche has, and still is, one of our greatest challenges. We launched an inherently Argentine product that isn’t acculturated in our market. While US consumers are intrigued with dulce de leche, they still don’t quite understand what it is, how to use it, or how to say it. Many mistake it for caramel. The same goes for buyers at grocery chains who are unsure as to its proper aisle placement. There is enormous potential to establish dulce de leche’s rightfulness as a pantry staple in America, but the groundwork has to be laid. It also has enormous potential to create a new value-added product for US dairy farmers.

In response, I wrote my cookbook as-food-memoir, “Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories and Sweet Traditions” to introduce the “real” dulce de leche to American consumers by shedding light on the Argentine traditions behind the spread and offering recipes that will help root dulce de leche in the reader’s sense of familiarity.

How do you stay focused?

I originally created La Dorita to honor my Grandma Dorita, and leave an enduring legacy in her name. Our business philosophy is simple…stay true to the food, stay true to family, and lend a helping hand where needed, just as our company’s namesake, Grandma Dorita, would have done. Today, I merely need to think of my Grandma and draw from the incredible memories I have of baking alongside her in the kitchen as a child, to stay on track.

In order to stay focused, you have to be honest with yourself and know what you want—in my case, after 15-years of building a career in the corporate world, I realized I wanted to create my own business that would provide me with a renewed purpose in life and afford me the flexibility to set my own schedule—which is something I feel helps me to be a better mom to my children. Essentially, I wanted to be my own boss—which often requires one to work twice as hard, but is that much more rewarding.

How do you differentiate your business from the competition?

I like to say that our dulce de leche is conceived in Argentina, but made in the USA. We make real, simple, food—just the way our grandmas did. We pride ourselves on our “clean” ingredients panel. Our small batch dulce de leche does not have any preservatives, glucose syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), thickeners, flavorings, etc., in its making, unlike the foreign competitors' brands that are found in specialty stores. 

We also like to share how and where we source our ingredients with our customers. Our desire to find the freshest milk available in Western Pennsylvania has led us to have a long-term relationship with Le-Ara Holsteins Farm, whom we now consider partners as they have become the sole provider of raw milk that is hormone-growth free. We have a deep respect for our family farmers that take such pride in producing the milk we turn into dulce de leche.

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?

Building on Pittsburgh’s growing local food movement, we developed and published a 200-page, online resource guide for food entrepreneurs, “How to Start a Business in Allegheny County,” that includes the ins- and outs- of a food start-up—branding, nutritional analysis, laboratory testing, sourcing of ingredients, pricing, food safety licensure, insurance, etc... The guide, available to download for free on our website, functions as a passive marketing tool, allowing us to capture the information of interested startups. To date, we have had more than 150 downloads from aspiring foodpreneurs—proving a great return on our investment.

What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?

I’d advise any entrepreneur to look into joining an industry-specific shared-workspace that allows them to mitigate start-up risk so they can grow their venture in a community of like-minded business owners who previously forged, or are in the process of creating their own startup paths. Many times they will share their own stories and experiences that will help you avoid the very mistakes they made—saving you time and money along the way.

Incubators and shared-work spaces can act as a proxy to capital in early years when growth is risky. They provide entrepreneurs a chance to prove their concept before breaking ground and allow them to reserve operating capital for high-priority expenses such as research and development, trademarking, personnel acquisition, marketing, and branding. According to research conducted by the National Business Incubation Association, it is estimated that 87% of businesses that graduate from established incubator programs are still in business within five years, versus 50% of those that have not had this support. 

I’d also like to add to not get discouraged by roadblocks or “no’s” that threaten to deter your business. In my case, it’s the solutions to these very “no’s” that have paved the way for new financial business models and helped my company to evolve.

What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?

My favorite book is Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, because it reminds you to listen to the whispers of your heart. I think most of us would agree that if you’ve ever heard these “whispers,” you can’t ignore them; they don’t go away and only keep getting louder and louder until you take a leap of faith and act on them. In my own case, my old-faithful, nightly glass or two of Malbec ceased to drown them out after a while. Coelho’s words made me realize that for years, I had been ignoring the whispers that would wake me up most nights. His words gave me the validation I was seeking to follow my own intuition and start making dulce de leche—something that at the time made absolutely no sense to me, or my husband, Gastón. Eight months later I sold my first case of dulce de leche to our local Whole Foods Market.

As for my favorite app, I’d have to say it’s Instagram. I love the creativity it affords me to connect with others. When I first sold my manuscript for “Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories and Sweet Traditions” (Burgess Lea Press, February 2017), I was unsure of the publisher’s decision to hand illustrate the book. I had my heart set on creating a cookbook with full-page color photos. In fact, I had already invested thousands of dollars, and three months’ time, working with a food photographer, to only have the photos be turned away by my publisher. Afterall, when I buy a cookbook, I always enjoy a picture to reference when reading over a recipe. But all was not lost. I now use Instagram as an alternative platform and make-shift blog to share my photos of recipes, as well as the stories behind them. Now I just have to work on growing my number of followers. I’ve found that the creative use of hashtags and editing my images through the Snapseed app prior to publishing are slowly helping me gain exposure.

What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?

I recently purchased and downloaded Susan Harrow’s, “How to Get into O, the Oprah Magazine” which provided me with fresh and new marketing concepts, along with quick start solutions and ideas to get La Dorita’s name in the media, that have helped me jumpstart 2018. I highly recommend the book, along with some of Susan’s online courses that she offers on her website. I’m currently halfway through her “Your Signature Sound Bites” course that helps you convey the right messages in the right words.

Who is your business role model? Why?

Among the many female entrepreneurs and makers who share our commercial kitchen space at La Dorita Cooks, my mom is one my greatest inspirations in business. While she never held any C-Level titles, she was the driving force behind my father’s medical practice, which over time evolved into a tri-state medical diagnostic testing laboratory and imaging facility. My mom juggled working as the business administrator, overseeing the 50+ staff, operations, payroll, and accounts payable, while acting as both mom and dad to six children at home (anyone who grew up with a parent in the medical field will likely understand this). It was in my thirties when I came to understand that without her tireless support, my father would not have been able to achieve his entrepreneurial ambitions. Together, the both of them exceeded their own expectations. Today, I aim to do the same.

What do you have planned for the next six months?

In respect to our dulce de leche, we are looking to scale up our manufacturing capability by partnering with a co-packer or co-manufacturer. Yet, since—as mentioned above—the spread is still not acculturated in mainstream culture, we are challenged to find co-manufacturers and packers who have the equipment, know-how, and capability to produce authentic dulce de leche.

As for our incubator kitchen, it is operating close to capacity with a growing wait-list. As a result, we are close to raising the necessary funds required to build four additional fully-equipped licensed kitchens at our Sharpsburg location, for a total of an additional 3800 sq. ft. in licensed commercial kitchen space that would allow us to more than triple our membership base. In addition, we plan to build an eKitchen Multimedia Learning Center that would provide much needed cooking-culture educational programming and job training for local youth to work in the food industry. 

How can our readers connect with you?

I’d love to continue our conversation! I can be reached by email at joria@ladorita.net. You can also follow me:

On Facebook: Facebook.com/ladoritadulcedeleche

On Twitter: @ddlladorita

On Instagram: Instagram.com/josephinecaminosoria

On LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/ in/josephine-oria-50229253