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Originally published February 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 27, 2009 at 12:33 PM

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Retail Report

In depressed economy, consumers go for comfort of mac'n'cheese

The owner of Cucina Fresca, a pasta and sauce company south of Georgetown, pays his 30-some employees more than minimum wage, plus paid vacations and holidays, and he is keenly aware of how unusual it is to be growing and hiring in this economy.

Seattle Times business reporters

A couple years ago, Brad Glaberson had trouble hiring a delivery-truck driver for less than $15 an hour.

Now, he said, "I literally have people coming and saying, 'I'll work for you for minimum wage.' "

The owner of Cucina Fresca, a pasta and sauce company south of Georgetown, pays his 30-some employees more than minimum wage, plus paid vacations and holidays, and he is keenly aware of how unusual it is to be growing and hiring in this economy.

Cucina Fresca has nearly tripled its work force since Glaberson bought it in 2006, and annual sales are up 35 percent over the past two years to more than $3 million.

Despite an economy rife with layoffs and demolished retirement accounts, Cucina Fresca hasn't seen a decline in the number of consumers willing to pay $9 to $10 for 20 ounces of frozen macaroni and cheese.

The mac-and-cheese line, introduced last year, is more than a nicely packaged children's meal.

For one thing, Cucina Fresca's "macaroni" is actually penne pasta, and it comes in three fancy cheese flavors: Gorgonzola, creamy fontina and smoked Gruyère. A sharp white cheddar version is in the works.

The smoked Gruyère is already one of the company's best sellers, rivaling its fresh tomato vodka sauce.

"We use super high-end, expensive ingredients," Glaberson said. Still, even he is amazed that some online customers "pay $55 for overnight shipping of $30 worth of mac and cheese."

The mac-and-cheese is Cucina Fresca's only frozen product, but Glaberson is working hard on a line of frozen lasagnas.

"Every day I think of something I want to do and start working on it and bringing it to market. There's no red tape," he said.

Since buying the company from Jay Beattie three years ago, Glaberson has expanded from five products to 30.

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He also expanded its customer base from restaurants and a handful of grocery stores in Seattle to more than 150 stores in seven states. Locally, Cucina Fresca pastas and sauces are sold at Metropolitan Market, Whole Foods, Thriftway, Town & Country Markets and QFC.

Trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Glaberson has been a chef at the Canyon Ranch resort in Tucson and a private chef.

He came to work for Cucina Fresca about six years ago, and when Beattie decided to sell it, Glaberson "mortgaged every single thing I had and bought the company."

He's ahead of schedule in paying off the debt and does not want investors.

"I don't want to ever get a phone call from someone who's telling me how to run my company," Glaberson said. "I can't sit in stupid meetings with stupid people saying stupid things."

— Melissa Allison

Tidbits

TBC, a clothing boutique near Pacific Place in downtown Seattle, has closed its doors. Short for "To Be Continued," TBC sold discounted merchandise from Sway & Cake, another downtown boutique owned by Tamara Donaghy. — AM

Mud Bay, an Olympia-based pet-supply retailer, plans to move its Greenwood neighborhood store to the new Piper Village mixed-use development under construction near Greenwood Avenue North and Northwest 85th Street in Seattle. The move, which is set for mid-July, will give Mud Bay about 40 percent more space than its current location, at 8221 Greenwood Avenue North. — AM

In other pet-food news, a new pet-supply store called Immortal Dog has opened at 1712 S. Jackson St. Owner Nicole Bembry carries cat and dog products including biodegradable, grain-free, organic and frozen raw items. Free delivery is available to a limited area. — MA

Outdoor Research will soon complete a lighting retrofit in its seven-story headquarters building on First Avenue South in Seattle, reducing its annual energy consumption by 25 percent, or 250,000 kilowatts. The city of Seattle covered two-thirds of the project's $75,000 cost, said Outdoor Research spokesman Christian Folk. — AM

Jones Soda is unveiling a new drink called Jones GABA at Metropolitan Market on Lower Queen Anne today from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The company describes it as the only U.S. beverage with natural PharmaGABA, which Jones says improve "mental focus, balance and clarity, while reducing stress." In Japan, sales of food and drinks with GABA (short for gamma-aminobutyric acid) were about $122 million in 2006, Jones said. Available this spring, Jones GABA will come in fuji apple, lemon honey, nectarine and grapefruit flavors. It will retail for $2.99 for a 12-ounce can. — MA

Columbia Winery begins a remodel this week that will create an open floor plan with a new fireplace, wireless capability and a redesigned tasting bar. The tasting room and banquet facilities will remain open during the remodel. — MA

Kennelly Keys Music has moved to bigger space previously occupied by Biagio Luggage at Bellevue Square, allowing it to display a third more merchandise. The new store is on the second floor near Nordstrom, directly above the old store. — AM

Organic To Go plans to deregister its stock with the Securities and Exchange Commission this month, so shares will no longer be listed on the over-the-counter bulletin board. It expects shares to continue trading over the counter on the "pink sheets" and intends to report quarterly financial results. — MA

Retail Report appears Fridays. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com.

Information in this article, originally published February 27, 2009, was corrected February 27, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the customer base expanded from restaurants and a handful of grocery stores in Seattle to more than 1,000 stores in seven states. It expanded to more than 150 stores in seven states.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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Retail Report is a look at the trends, issues and people who makeup the dynamic and versatile retail sector throughout the Puget Sound region. Every Friday with Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez. Send tips or comments to mallison@seattletimes.com or amartinez@seattletimes.com.

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