Gilded Tomato Company: A Unique Small Business Model is Anchoring Rural New England

Gilded Tomato Company Staff

Tucked away in historic Rehoboth, Massachusetts is the Gilded Tomato Company

What started out as a mobile craft pizza truck – has developed into a community social enterprise, a farm-to-table catering experience and expanding strategically into a year-round business.

The idea came about after Gilded Tomato Company CEO Julia Sweet began attending various baking conferences and learned about wood-fired artisan bread-baking with her husband.

From her home and farm in Rehoboth, Sweet grows and harvests seasonal produce, herbs, berries, fruit, and honey for Gilded Tomato pizza creations that are served at special events all across New England.

A Unique Business Model
When Gilded Tomato launched at the height of the food truck craze, it began as a novel idea – Sweet began selling artisan pizzas at local farmer’s markets, festivals, and other catered events.  

Sweet took a chance on creating a healthier approach to cooking arguably America’s favorite food.  The idea was that by subtracting the negative effects of high-fat, processed food ingredients which contribute to obesity and disease – you can spread healthy consumption of a product with mass appeal.  That’s why you won’t find much cheese on Gilded Tomato pies and many of the doughs contain 40% whole wheat.  Most of the food used for toppings are freshly grown in Sweet’s home garden and prepped on site – a truly streamlined farm-to-table experience.

Early on while building the Gilded Tomato concept, Sweet listened to ideas and feedback from her local community who believed in her and helped shape the unique business model that exists today.   

A key milestone followed when Sweet was approached by the president of the Johnson and Wales University Club for Culinary Excellence – who asked if students could volunteer by managing a sustainable garden at her farm.  Sweet welcomed the idea and it continued as a partnership that led to J&W culinary students using her farm as a learning lab and part-time employment with the catering business.

“I was fortunate to have support from local economic development stakeholders and access to key resources from both the Massachusetts and Rhode Island business communities helping me along the way,” said Gilded Tomato CEO Julia Sweet.  Early on while perfecting my product, people like Chef Ciril Hitz, Chef Richard Miscovich and Chef Val Molinelli of Johnson and Wales all helped in product formulation and wood-fired cooking.  “I’m also grateful to organizations like Hope and Main Incubator Program for getting me through the early stages; and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse for giving my business a soul and guiding me to becoming a social impact venture.”

Over the past five years, net worth has grown even though many challenges were presented while starting out as a seasonal business.  Issues with profitability were overcome by adapting the business plan and refusing to cut corners.  Gilded Tomato net profits continued to grow and profits were reinvested for growth. Sweet continued trying to find ways to generate more revenue by developing new products that can be sold year-round because of the lull in catering business during the New England winter months.    

berries and honey

Year-Round Business Aspirations
Today, Gilded Tomato is in the process of launching several new products including a pizza dough product line that will help propel her company from a seasonal to a year-round business. 

Using spent grain, a beer after product rich in fiber, protein and nutrients – Gilded Tomato plans to offer four distinctively different flavored pizza doughs and wood-fired “beer pretzels” that can be sold to restaurants, sports bars, breweries , and hotels. 

"Our business evolution often seems surreal to me,” said Gilded Tomato CEO Julia Sweet. “As a social enterprise, we feel wealthy beyond words helping others as part of our model.  The uplifting daily connection of working in the gardens, ‘performing’ primeval live-fire cooking in these great clay ovens alongside innovative, talented chefs from Johnson and Wales Culinary, and feeling joy offering a wholesome, healthy meal to our customers. “

Sweet credits much of Gilded Tomato’s development to a variety of SBA resource partners that guided her while building the business, including: University of Rhode Island Small Business Development Center, the Rhode Island Center for Women & Enterprise and the Ocean State Business Development Authority.  Although Gilded Tomato is located in Massachusetts, their proximity to Rhode Island led her to utilize resources across state boundaries.

 

Rural Small Business Resources
In addition to the SBA resource partner network, Sweet has also utilized free services from other federal resources such as the United States Department of Agriculture, which delivers programs designed specifically for rural small businesses under several agencies such as: the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service

  • Farm Service Agency implements agricultural policy, administers credit and loan programs, and manages conservation, commodity, disaster and farm marketing programs through a national network of offices.  For more information, find your local service center online at www.farmers.gov or call the Massachusetts State Office at: (413) 253-4500
     
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service provides leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, maintain and improve our natural resources and environment.  For more information, visit: www.nrcs.usda.gov
     

In regards to Gilded Tomato’s farm – Sweet received an initial consultation by Alex Welch, Conservation Planner from the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Districts, working out of the West Wareham Field Office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

As part of a site visit to her farm, Mr. Welch provided a free assessment by first identifying resource concerns based around soil, water, air, plants, animals and humans.  NRCS conservationists first work with you one-on-one to develop a conservation plan that meets your goals and vision for the land. This becomes a roadmap for understanding and identifying which conservation practices best meet your needs. 

Mr. Welch next introduced Sweet to a variety of conservation assistance resources – providing solutions for her to consider that could help improve agricultural operations of her farm and business. 

Specifically, one of the resources that Sweet utilized is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that laid the ground work for funding a high-tunnel system that would help extend her farming season year-round.  This program allows for a greenhouse expansion that would address the concern of plant productivity in the winter months – allowing Sweet to produce more locally sourced food to support her farm-to-table business. 

 

Summary
Although Sweet has taken advantage of resources that helped develop her business and farm; ultimately it was her self-determination and energy that is driving the success of Gilded Tomato. 

In 2018, the Gilded Tomato Company was recognized by the SBA as the Home-based Business of the Year for Massachusetts.   Sweet was nominated by former Rhode Island Center for Women & Enterprise Director Mary Gervais, who worked with Sweet for 3 years as her company developed through the initial stages.  “I cannot say enough about Julia’s energy, innovativeness and her collaborative efforts with Johnson and Wales Culinary program to train students and develop new products,” said Gervais. 

Today, Gilded Tomato is poised for future growth as a result of Sweet’s leadership, the support of her local community and resources from the SBA and USDA.  By taking advantage of specialized resources designed to assist rural entrepreneurs – Sweet is leveraging a nationwide effort to increase awareness of the tools available for increasing prosperity for all Americans.

On April 4th, 2018 – USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and SBA Administrator Linda McMahon signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote stronger businesses and agricultural economies throughout rural America.  Under the strategic alliance, the USDA and SBA hope to enhance collaboration to improve investment opportunities in rural areas. 

As small business optimism continues to rise, it is important that we work to create a better economic environment for rural American to thrive,” said SBA Administrator Linda McMahon.

As part of SBA’s Rural Lending Initiative, an agency-wide effort is hoping to ignite a boom in rural small business lending and utilization of counseling and mentoring resources to help more underserved communities in the remote areas all across America.

Dog in farm

staff kitchen

Julia Sweet