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Don and Debbie Welch have their hands full in the latest twist in their professional careers.

From vice president of the Hotel Père Marquette to president of Vonachen Services to general manager of the Peoria Civic Center, Don Welch has seemingly done it all. His wife, Debbie, has a diverse resume as well, working for the FBI in the 1960s, then getting into banking, and, later, real estate.

The couple now has their hands full with something quite different: dough. Pasta dough, to be exact. Down at the production plant on dusty Chanute Road, the Welches stay busy with the pasta—producing it, marketing it, selling it, and best of all, tasting it. Debbie says that on a good day, they can produce up to 3,000 pounds of their assortment of raviolis and cut pastas.

Entering the Pasta World
It all began in October of 2006, when they signed the papers to become first-time business owners of Prima Pasta Shop, established in 1994. After navigating such a wide range of positions across a variety of industries throughout their professional careers, Don and Debbie believed they had the preparation and experience necessary to be successful.

When presented with the chance to buy the shop from the retiring founder, they decided to go for it. “We thought there was opportunity to grow the business and take it to the next level,” said Don, “so we took the plunge.”

Although getting into the pasta business wasn’t always the plan, owning their own business was something the couple had wanted to do for a while. “We’ve always worked for someone else,” said Debbie. “We were looking for an opportunity to do our own thing.”

They were just waiting for the right time to make a move. “We’d looked at a number of different business opportunities over the years,” said Don. Twenty years ago, he was on the verge of buying a business just across the street from Prima Pasta Shop. But the night before the agreement was to be signed, the owner decided not to go through with it. No one knows for sure where they’d be today if that deal hadn’t fallen through, but the Welches said they’re pretty happy with how things turned out.

One aspect Debbie looked forward to in owning the business was being her own boss, and not having to answer to anyone else. But as Don pointed out, that “boss” figure never really goes away when one becomes an independent business owner; it simply takes another form. “The boss is always the customer,” he said. “You’re always answering to the customer, whether you’re getting a paycheck from someone else or paying the bills yourselves.”

One significant difference he’s noticed between working for someone else and owning his own business is the lack of support when it comes to making the tough decisions. “There’s no one else to go to for that advice and backing and guidance,” he said. “So we talk to other business owners and network with [them] to trade ideas and bounce things off of.”

Don mentioned another realization of owning his own business, one people often don’t consider. “Everyone else gets paid first—the employees, the suppliers, the utility companies, the bank…If there’s anything left over, then the owners get that.”

Debbie joked that those are the times they live off their pasta. But the couple is working hard to ensure there will be something left over for themselves when it comes time to write the checks.

Not a Second to Waste
Soon after purchasing the company, Debbie and Don got started making changes to help it grow. “We had to update the recipes and listen to a lot of the chefs and people when we first took it over,” explained Debbie. She set out to discover what their customers liked and didn’t like, why they did or didn’t buy their products.

“It came down to tweaking the recipes and a better development of the relationship with our distributors and customers,” she said. She emphasized the importance of maintaining good relationships with area chefs, sometimes even altering recipes based on their advice. Today, Prima Pasta’s array of products includes a variety of ravioli and cut pastas, from fettuccine, fusilli and pappardelle to spaghettini, capellini and rigatoni.

With their dedication to developing these critical relationships, the Welches have won over the stomachs of many consistent and loyal customers. One of these customers is Biaggi’s, the casual Italian restaurant chain. Prima Pasta Shop supplies three types of pasta for 15 of its 21 stores throughout the Midwest. Later this month, the popular franchise will hit even closer to home when its 22nd location opens in Peoria.

Don said that while the work is hard, it will soon all be worth it. “We’re still in that development stage,” he said. “In order for a business to succeed, you’ve always got to be in that development stage. You either grow or you die.”

To that end, Prima Pasta Shop recently established a working relationship with Sysco, the country’s largest food service distributor. Debbie developed four new recipes with the company’s corporate chef, Jared Koch, and Sysco has begun distributing Prima’s products within its central Illinois division, which stretches from I-80 down to St. Louis, from Iowa to Indiana. In addition, the Welch’s pasta can be found at Peoria’s Hy-Vee and Kroger stores, Dixon’s Seafood, Pottstown Meat & Deli, Alwan & Sons, and Lindy’s in Washington. 

The increased focus on relationships is one of the biggest changes the Welches have made since buying the shop. “Business doesn’t walk in the door,” explained Don. “Business doesn’t call your telephone. You’ve got to be out there doing it. That’s where we’ve seen the growth—a combination of taking the improved recipes and products out to potential customers and showing them.”

And it looks as though their hard work has paid off. “We’ve seen growth every year that we’ve owned it,” he added.

Their “Secret” Ingredient
It doesn’t hurt that the husband-and-wife team works well together. “We stay out of each other’s hair,” claimed Don. During the work day, they’re usually focused on different areas of the business, and their varying skills balance each other quite nicely.

He travels regularly, while she is usually at the plant, overseeing production and handling management issues. “Debbie actually runs the business,” explained Don. She runs the raw material acquisitions and supply chain and deals with employee matters—hiring, firing and everything in between. “My responsibilities tend to be more sales and marketing and the financial part. I write the check to the bank every month, I do the payroll, and then I go out and work with customers to get more business.” 

The couple agreed that owning the business together has been good for both of them. “We have more things in common,” said Don. “When we are sitting at the dining room table at night, there is that connection to what happened that day or what’s going on in the business that cycle.”

“When I was working in past positions and fully consumed in those businesses, she didn’t have any connection to that, and I didn’t have any connection to what she was experiencing,” he added. “So this has brought us closer.”

And this close relationship is one of Prima Pasta’s most obvious strengths. While Don and Debbie make it work, others have a very different outlook on working with one’s spouse. Don joked about something a former co-worker once told him: “The day my wife walks in the front door, I walk out the back.”

But they stay put, working long hours together to make Prima Pasta Shop the best it can be. While the shop has seen consistent growth since they’ve owned it, they continue to strive for more. “It’s not quite where we were hoping to be yet,” said Debbie, “but we’re getting there.” iBi

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