Lisa O’Connell, founder of Sauce Anna Lisa, grew up in her grandmother’s restaurant kitchen, in Ray, Minn., not far from International Falls. Her grandmother, Anna Nolin, originally from Naples, Italy, created authentic Italian specialties for the Woodland Inn, drawing diners from miles away.
“As a kid, I’d stand on a step stool at the counter, helping her chop onions or roll out dough,” O’Connell said. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was until I went to college. I just assumed everyone ate good, fresh food. But none of the sauces or soups I bought in the grocery store ever came close to my grandmother’s. So I just started cooking for myself and my friends. I love being in the kitchen.”
As a young professional working 60 hours a week for an executive recruiting firm in Minneapolis, O’Connell never considered changing careers. But friends who enjoyed her food told her to bottle her recipe for sale (which was her grandmother’s original). She took her first step when she created jars of pasta sauce as gifts for her wedding guests.
“It was so life-giving. I had a blast,” she said.
About a decade ago, on her first day as a vendor at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, she sold out of the 150 jars she’d brought with her by midmorning.
“I thought I’d sell a few and have some left over for the next month of markets,” O’Connell said.
Since then, she has outgrown two commercial kitchens. O’Connell and her husband, Buddy, who lends an occasional hand, are considering building a facility to accommodate the rising demand. She oversees every batch of sauce, made from fresh ingredients without added preservatives or sugar.
“The sweet Vidalia onions, fresh garlic and tomatoes take on a depth and rich flavor through the slow cooking,” O’Connell said. “Each batch simmers on low heat for at least six hours.”
Grandmother Anna passed away a few months ago, but not without having a chance to see her tradition carried on in her granddaughter’s capable hands.
“She was blown away when she realized what I was doing; it made her so very happy. She told me, ‘Lisa, this is now your sauce.’ It was her final blessing.”
The four Sauce Anna Lisa varieties — traditional, olive, spicy and truffle — are available in more than 125 local grocery stores and online; $7.50 for the 16-ounce jars and $8.50 for 24-ounce. sauceannalisa.com.