BURNSVILLE (AP) -- Years ago, he took pride in closing down the spitfire offense of the New York Cosmos.
These days, pleasure comes in closing a deal.
Tino Lettieri, former goalie for the Minnesota Kicks and Minnesota Strikers professional soccer teams, is the founder of Lettieri's Inc., a Burnsville food company on the cusp of dramatic growth. The company has $14 million in annual revenue, and it just scored a contract with Kraft Foods Inc. that will nearly double sales next year.
"This could put us on the map," said Ed Kohler, a board member and investor in the eight-year-old, privately held Lettieri's.
The deal with Kraft to market Oscar Mayer hot dogs wrapped in dough could quickly grow to a $20 million piece of business, said Kohler, former CEO at Piper Capital. "Kraft typically doesn't mess around with something small," he said.
Lettieri's, which is on track to be profitable this year, also is looking for a chief executive to take it to the next level, said Lettieri, president and chief operating officer.
"My strength is in development (of new products) and working with customers, not running a food plant," he said. The company has narrowed the field to several candidates and plans to make an offer to one this month.
"With these products and this company, we could be a $100 million company if we don't trip over ourselves," Kohler said. "The biggest problem facing companies like this is a failure to fulfill," so it's important to make sure both the management and the plant are ready to roll, he said. A second production shift soon may be added to the Lettieri operation.
Lettieri's 108 employees at the 35,000-square-foot plant in Burnsville make and sell four products: calzones, stuffed baguettes, breakfast sandwiches and the new hot dog wrap. The products are sold at about 15,000 convenience stores around the country -- including SuperAmerica, Quik Trip and Holiday -- and through grocery store delis.
The company has succeeded in getting one product, a meatball sandwich, at Wal-Mart, and provides all the pizza sold through Target's Food Avenue foodservice operation.
Running a food company and playing soccer may seem worlds apart, but they've been familiar arenas for Lettieri.
Born in southern Italy, Lettieri's family moved to Montreal when he was a child. His father, a master baker in Italy, continued his trade in Canada. "I helped make bread from an early age," Lettieri said. "I've always been passionate about food, the creative side."
While playing for the Kicks, Strikers, Vancouver and the Canadian national team in the 1986 World Cup, Lettieri also dabbled in food projects on the side. For a time, he was a partner in Tino and Nicolino's restaurant in St. Paul and operated a cafe in Vancouver. "Soccer is great, but I knew I couldn't do it forever," he said.
In 1987, a year before the Strikers folded, Lettieri began selling panzerotti, a deep-fried calzone, at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee. That led to other festivals.
"I did the State Fair. People would see me driving the van and unloading boxes. They'd ask me why I was doing that when I had been a professional athlete," Lettieri said, "but I was looking to the future."
Armed with financing secured through the help of his father-in-law, former North Stars General Manager Lou Nanne, Lettieri launched the company. Professional athletes today may have deep pockets to start their own businesses, but Lettieri's sport (soccer) and timing (the 1980s) limited how much he could do on his own. In his last year with the Strikers, his salary was $100,000.
By 1992, the young firm attracted the attention of Schwan's Sales Enterprises Inc., the Marshall-based food giant, which gobbled it up for an undisclosed amount. "I knew they would either buy it or create a competitor, so it made sense to sell," he said.
After two years with Schwan's, Lettieri left to ponder doing it all over again.
"I went back to my father-in-law. He's been my savior," said Lettieri, referring to the network of investors.
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