Baton Rouge businessmen vow to bring fledgling pasta sauce startup to fruition following unexpected death of founder
Vincent “Cuz” Joseph Sotile wanted one thing in life for the last 50 years: to jar his mother’s red sauce and sell it in supermarkets.
The 84-year-old Livonia resident and son of Sicilian immigrants moved a major step closer to that goal this week when Associated Grocers picked up Our Cousin Vinny’s Pasta Sauce for distribution at all of its Baton Rouge stores. But family and friends must carry on Sotile’s dream after he died unexpectedly Thursday morning.
“I’m still in shock to be honest,” Sotile’s friend and marketer Jack Warner says.
Warner, owner of The Roux House and Schlittz & Giggles, took Sotile under his wing about six months ago to teach him about marketing and how to sell his sweet red tomato sauce. Sotile was the uncle of Warner’s business partners, Anthony “Tad” Pizzolato and Cliff Pizzolato Sr. Everyone in the family called him “Cuz.” The four of them created Our Cousin Vinny’s LLC only a few months ago to sell the sauce.
“He told me about his dream and that’s when I fell in love with him,” Warner tells Daily Report this morning through tears.
He describes Sotile as Chef Boyardee’s funnier, wittier, “more badass” cousin.
“I told him as long as he committed himself to being the best, I would commit myself to him and putting his sauce in the jar,” Warner says.
They developed an image for the brand with Sotile at the center of it, sporting his Italian hat and four-pocket short-sleeve buttoned-down shirt while wearing his ever-present smile and waving a finger while telling everyone his sauce was “da best.”
“The first time I met him, I just thought he was such a character,” Warner says. “He was already a character and that’s what I saw.”
Soprano’s in Livonia was the first store to purchase the sauce. Warner says Sotile talked them into buying 10 cases. That was the start. They eventually got the sauce in other local stores, including Alexander’s Market and Leblanc’s Frais Marche. Warner accompanied Sotile to each location.
“I felt like I was a stage mom to an 84-year-old Italian red sauce, red gravy man,” Warner says.
Sotile’s journey to get his sauce into stores began in 1968 when he opened a small diner in the Cloverdale Shopping Center, where he sold the red gravy and meatballs his mother, Rosa, made every day from scratch for $1. He made a small fortune from that diner and set off to other markets, where he opened other diners and successful restaurants. One of the eateries he opened on Highland Road is now home to Ruffino’s, Warner says.
But Sotile began experiencing setbacks, including one establishment in Pierre Part that burned down and other restaurants forced to close down. It culminated when he spent eight months in federal prison in the ‘80s for what he always claimed were trumped up charges.
After he was released, he developed a network of friends and customers from Morgan City to Lake Charles who would buy his sauce, bisque and other authentic Italian delicacies. Each month he would load up his truck and hit the Louisiana back roads to deliver his food. Even with the early success of his sauce in stores, Sotile still routinely called each customer personally to see how many sauces, lasagnas and bisques they wanted.
Warner had promised Sotile that if they sold more than one million jars, he and other family members would send Sotile to Sicily for his birthday next March to visit his parents’ hometown. He had never been there.
Recently, Warner asked his friend if he was tired and wanted to slow down with marketing and meetings.
“Tired? I’m having too much fun, bruh,” Sotile responded, Warner says.
Warner says he and his business partners will continue producing the sauce Sotile had created from scratch for years, putting it in jars and selling it, because that’s what Sotile would want.
“He would be upset, I think, if we didn’t continue. That was his legacy, I think he would want it continued,” Warner says.