Orange County SBDC Helps Italia’s Pizza Kitchen Find A Home in Gelson’s Markets.

Don’t be fooled by entrepreneur Mike O’Brien’s quintessentially Irish name. As the driving force behind Italia’s Pizza Kitchen, O’Brien has struck culinary gold with one of the world’s most beloved and popular Italian indulgences — pizza.

Italia’s Pizza Kitchen prepackaged pizza kits are O’Brien’s much-elevated variation on the “take, make and bake” homemade pie, a fresh and vibrant collection of chef-quality ingredients, including hand-crafted dough, marinara sauce prepared from California pear tomatoes, and truly authentic Italian mozzarella cheese.

Thanks to Orange County SBDC, O’Brien’s creation has found its way into the aisles of Gelson’s chain of specialty supermarkets.

While Orange County SBDC provided the final pieces of the puzzle that helped O’Brien achieve his goal, his plans had begun piecemeal years ago. “I’ve been in the restaurant management business for most of my adult life,” said O’Brien, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Culinary Hospitality & Culinary Management, as well as a Culinary Arts degree.

His resume includes having worked in various capacities and leadership roles in the foodservice industry, including restaurants, hospitals, and the nutrition planning office for a school district.

“I’ve always had an interest in cooking, which is probably why I gravitated toward the food industry. I wanted to start a restaurant at some point,” O’Brien admits, “so I was drawn to culinary school, did some cooking externships in Europe and at the Montage nearby in Laguna Beach.”

O’Brien got serious about pizza making while in charge of a hospital kitchen, where he experimented with dough recipes and sauces, then implemented the items into the menus.

“I eventually fine-tuned the dough and sauce,” O’Brien said, “and kept telling myself ‘hey, I’m going to do this one day.’”

While O’Brien had dreamed of owning and running a restaurant, it was when he worked for the school district that it dawned on him that food development and production was his real calling. So, he set his sights on producing a superior pizza product that people could assemble and bake at home.

“Although I had a number of connections in the food industry to get me out of the starting gate, there were still some roadblocks to be cleared; plus, I was in need of solid professional business advice to get me across the finish line.”

A friend of O’Brien’s who owned a chocolate shop in downtown Huntington Beach told him about the OC MADE program, which was created to shepherd new businesses into the Orange County Market Place and assist in helping products or services be recognized.

The four-week OC MADE program shows aspiring business owners, like Mike O’Brien, the basics of planning, marketing and financing their endeavors. Program graduates are given the chance to test out their concept at the OC Market Place.

“OC MADE guides you in the right direction, said O’Brien. “It helps fill in the blanks on things you may not have been aware of — business licenses, health department inspections, all that stuff. It was the best thing I ever did.”

After participating in the OC MADE program, O’Brien continued his path to success by working closely with SBDC consultant, Greg Bell.

“Greg was a huge help,” said O’Brien. “He really took a lot of the stress and burden off my shoulders.”

Mike O’Brien and Greg Bell were able to bounce ideas off each other, and Bell provided O’Brien with everything from the names of packaging companies for pizza boxes to running financials. It set the stage for O’Brien to participate in Gelson’s Find Local Discoveries Pitch, where he joined a select group of 60 entrepreneurs and vendors from the greater Southern California area who presented their wares for inclusion in Gelson’s stores.

“The fact that this challenge was specifically limited to ‘local’ entrants is a big deal,” said O’Brien. “‘Locally’ sourced products of exceptional quality have really caught the attention and imaginations of chains like Ralph’s, Pavilions and Gelson’s. They’ve seen a trend where consumers are looking to support businesses in their own community.” 

Within a week of his pitch to Gelson’s, O’Brien received the news that his pizza kits were a hit. His experience, perseverance, passion, and connections, such as the team at SBDC, proved to be the recipe for his product’s success.

“I just can’t say enough about the Orange County SBDC, Said O’Brien. The timeline of my business plan didn’t have my product in Gelson’s for at least a couple of years. I just wouldn’t have gotten where I am this quickly without the SBDC.”

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