By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Todd Courtney had been mixing spices in his Severna Park kitchen for more than a decade before he discovered his inner Dirt Man. A Navy brat born in Bethesda, he grew up cooking and always enjoyed it, but he never thought of it as a career. Real work meant putting on a tie and going to an office.
About 17 years ago, Todd, 43, started experimenting with herbs and spices to try to capture the flavor of a beloved seasoning mix created by an old family friend who kept his recipe secret and then stopped making it altogether. As a supervisor at UPS and a transportation manager at Staples, Todd packed versions of his spice mix in Mason jars, called it Dirt and gave it out as gifts to friends, relatives and co-workers. He did the same at later jobs as a finance manager at car dealerships in Laurel and Annapolis. Then about seven years ago, he concocted a version of the mix that struck culinary gold.
"People just started going crazy," Todd says. "All of a sudden they're like, 'Hey, I need a new bottle!' It was getting where every month I'm making a bigger batch."
In September 2007, after watching an episode of Donny Deutsch's "The Big Idea," a CNBC program that features "million-dollar ideas" from entrepreneurs, Todd decided to market the spice blend as Todd's Dirt, giving himself until the end of the year to see whether it would sell. He mixed kosher salt, dried oregano, parsley, cilantro and other spices in his kitchen and spent hours looking for the right jars and tops. An acquaintance designed the labels, and Todd created the Dirt Man, his super-confident, outrageously silly alter ego, who buttonholes store owners and clowns his way through food expos with corny lines like, "It's always a good time to get Dirty!" He persuaded four Maryland stores to stock Dirt, which contains no MSG or gluten and doubles as a grill rub and a seasoning for dip, soup, vegetables and eggs. Last summer, when Todd's employer asked him to give up his sideline or quit, he chose the Dirt Man shtick over his office job.
After $2,000 in start-up costs, Todd's Dirt grossed $80,000 in sales last year, with a 20 percent profit margin after paying Todd $1,000 a month in salary, he says. He's sold about 10,000 bottles so far this year and expects to double his gross. His biggest expenses, besides ingredients and packaging, are booth fees for the monthly food and wine festivals he attends to market the mix. Along with the original Todd's Dirt, his products include Crabby Dirt, an Old Bay-style seasoning with nutmeg and paprika, and a cookbook including some recipes created by his wife, Holly, who works for the Defense Department. A new spice mix, Bayou Dirt, is due out this summer. Dirt is sold in 35 stores in Maryland, Virginia and other states and on the Todd's Dirt Web site for $5 a bottle.
After wine, Todd's Dirt has been the top-selling item at Victoria's Fancy Foods, a gourmet shop in Severna Park, since it opened last spring, says owner Victoria Stagmer.
"Last year I sold 65 cases of Dirt," she says. "At my house we use it on everything. It's wonderful on chicken; we love it on omelets. We put it on steak, fish, mix it with oil to do a dipping oil."
Running his own business has helped Todd reconnect with his three daughters, ages 14, 12 and 10. He helps coach his youngest daughter's soccer team and tailors his work schedule around family events. He wants to market Todd's Dirt nationwide, until one in 10 households has a bottle on the shelf.
"It's a hefty goal," Todd says, "but I think this is going to be the biggest thing out there."
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