The aroma of simmering olive oil, fresh onion and garlic sauteing with whole peeled Italian tomatoes is the authentic preparation of Rao’s Italian sauce. What started as a small restaurant in Harlem, New York with only 11 tables has expanded to an industry worth a half-billion dollars.
Risa Cretella, senior vice president and group manager of Rao’s, spoke to professor Linda Zani Thomas’ crisis communications course in Morehead Hall, on Nov. 19. Cretella works from her corporate office, located in downtown Montclair, alongside 14 other colleagues.
Cretella’s career started in 2001 when she attended Notre Dame University to pursue a degree in marketing. She began working in the J.M. Smucker Company factory immediately after college. Cretella worked her way up to high-level sales and marketing positions over her 11 years at J.M. Smuckers.
“I think the most pivotal part of my career was my marketing major in college,” Cretella said. “About 5 or 6 years into my career, I took a position in sales which was really outside of my comfort zone; I’ll call it a lateral move, but that diversity in my background really contributed to acceleration of growth and a broader understanding of all aspects of business.”
Cretella navigated the job market to find her job at Rao’s Homemade, where she has been employed for 18 months. Cretella shared with the class what she deemed to be the most important aspects of having a successful career.
“First is just really being good at your craft; so a commitment to developing skills, getting experience and working hard at it,” Cretella said.
Cretella continued to share lessons she has learned throughout her career that have been the key to her success.
“Number two would be going outside your comfort zone and the willingness to try new things. Number three would be having advocates and champions, people to support you and help guide you if you go astray,” Cretella said. “Number four, in every career to be successful sometimes you need luck and good timing, it’s okay to embrace that.”
Cretella also credited Rao’s success to the authenticity of the product and the standards the company holds for itself. Rao’s Homemade sauces are made entirely in the south of Italy with fresh ingredients, whole Italian tomatoes and no added preservatives. The sauce is restaurant quality, honoring the heritage of the original Rao’s restaurant and allowing the company to command a high price premium.
Juliette Dettita, a senior communication and media arts major, was able to taste Rao’s products and testify toward its quality.
“When our professor gave us some to bring home, I made it for my dad,” Dettita said. “He works pretty late. When he gets home he wants something good, quick, easy and healthy and he loves Rao’s.”
Cretella and her team were enthusiastic about having their office located in such close proximity to Montclair State University.
“When Sovos made the choice to put our Rao’s office in downtown Montclair, it was because we wanted to be a part of a community and something greater,” Cretella said. “We’re so fortunate to have in our backyard this institution which certainly has specialties in media and communication and a great school of business.”
Cretella mentioned the idea of an internship program but admitted that bringing it to life would take some time.
“We know Montclair State already has a structured program, so we just have to figure out what that looks like for us to offer internships in various functions and disciplines for summer 2020 and the school year,” Cretella said.
Professor Thomas was grateful to have the Rao’s representative share her knowledge of the industry with the class.
“The reason why I wanted to have her [Cretella] here is because she had a front row seat to one of the most massive food safety disasters in the peanut butter industry that spilled over into every other food industry,” Thomas said. “I think she gave us very valuable information and you can only get that through people that have been through it.”
Cretella was just as pleased to join the class.
“It’s been such a positive experience,” Cretella said. “I love the energy, I love how welcoming everybody is.”
Victoria Colon, a senior majoring in communication and media arts, was able to learn a lot of valuable information from Cretella that will benefit her future career.
“She [Cretella] articulated the importance of setting boundaries and being in a comfortable work environment,” Colon said. “This was the highlight of the presentation because it applies to every student, no matter what field they intend on entering. It is especially important in communications professions to be vocal about your physical and emotional needs, so you can excel in your position.”