SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)
EMILY: Daddy, how long will it take for you to invent this pasta that you've been talking about?
DAN PASHMAN: Does it feel like it's taking a long time?
EMILY: Yeah, because a long, long time ago, you were talking about it. And I would still hear when you're trying to invent it.
JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:
Dan Pashman, that is you and your daughter Emily. And she is talking with you about this quest you have been on to invent a new pasta shape.
PASHMAN: That's right, Jacob. Yeah, I have actually spent the last three years and many thousands of dollars and many sleepless nights trying to invent a new pasta shape.
GOLDSTEIN: And you've been talking about this recently on the podcast that you host, a food podcast called "The Sporkful." And obviously, I love a podcast stunt as much as the next person. But I do want to ask you, why this stunt? Why are you trying to invent a new kind of pasta?
PASHMAN: Well, first off, I mean, I've been hosting a food podcast for 11 years. The show is largely driven by my opinions about food. And yet I'm not a trained chef. And I started to come to realize that I've never actually made anything. You know, like, I mess around in my kitchen. But do I actually know what I'm talking about?
GOLDSTEIN: Like, are you for real?
PASHMAN: Right. Like, do I know anything? Or am I just another guy with a microphone? And, like, why pasta? Well, as much as I love pasta, Jacob, I think there's a lot of mediocre shapes out there. You know, I want a pasta shape that will pick up a lot of sauce, that I can really sink my teeth into, that will stay on the fork without too much trouble and one that will be interesting and varied to eat over the course of the entire bowl, not a pasta that's just a one-note song that may be good at the first bite and boring by the fourth bite.
And while there's a lot of good shapes out there, I think it's very hard to find one that checks all those boxes. And so I wanted to see, like, can I make one that would? And not just like - I'm not just talking in a theoretical way, Jacob. I want to actually get this pasta shape made, like, produce thousands of boxes and actually sell it. And that has proven to be a lot harder than I thought it would be.
GOLDSTEIN: And yet...
PASHMAN: And yet, this week, it's finally happening.
GOLDSTEIN: Dan Pashman, let me be the first to say, hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein.
PASHMAN: I'm Dan Pashman from "The Sporkful" podcast.
GOLDSTEIN: And today on the show, Dan, you are going to take us deep into the world of pasta, into your journey trying to invent a new kind of pasta that has never existed on planet Earth before - and not just to invent it, but to make thousands of pounds of it and sell it, ideally for a profit, or at least for not too much of a loss.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PASHMAN: So, Jacob, the first thing you need if you want to make a new shape of pasta or really any shape of pasta, you need a piece of equipment called a die. And the die is basically the mold for the shape. Like you remember, Jacob, the Play-Doh factory? Push the Play-Doh through a hole shaped like a star.
GOLDSTEIN: I actually had the Play-Doh barbershop. It was, like, the plastic person who had a bunch of little holes in their head. And you pushed the Play-Doh up through their head, and it comes out as hair, and then you cut it.
PASHMAN: Wow. That's how pasta is made. You put a blob of dough in, and a pasta shape comes out.
GOLDSTEIN: I love it.
PASHMAN: But designing and manufacturing pasta dies is a very specialized skill. Even most big pasta companies don't do it themselves. A lot of them hire this one company called D. Maldari & Sons. D. Maldari & Sons has designed the dies for noodles for all the big players. Like, if you've eaten any kind of dried pasta in America, you've eaten something that came from one of Maldari's dies. I mean, Campbell's chicken noodle soup, Kraft mac and cheese - those dried pastas are extruded through Maldari dies.
Back in 2019, just as I was getting going with this project, I went to the company's office out on Staten Island to talk to Chris Maldari, who runs the company now. He is the guy who can tell me what I need to do to make my pasta real.
How'd you get into this?
CHRIS MALDARI: I was born into it.
PASHMAN: D. Maldari & Sons has been in Chris' family since 1901. He and his brother took over the company after their dad passed away. When I went to see him, he showed me a bunch of different shapes that they've made over the years.
MALDARI: So like, you know, something like this is - we've done. You can see it in the store. It's SpongeBob. I mean, really, you should know that.
PASHMAN: Yeah, no, no. I could tell it was SpongeBob.
MALDARI: And you know who that is, right?
PASHMAN: Is that Lucy from "Peanuts"?
MALDARI: He's unbelievable. Now, what about that?
PASHMAN: I know what that is.
MALDARI: You sure?
PASHMAN: Yeah. That's, like, not safe for work, as we would say.
MALDARI: OK. So you know what's funny about that is we had a company that wanted to make it. We couldn't find a manufacturer because they were afraid one of these slips in with the kids, you know, SpongeBob mac and cheese. It's a problem.
Anyhoo, Chris knows better than anyone in America if it will be physically possible to make the pasta shape that I dream up.
So here's what I'm doing, Chris. I am setting out to invent a new pasta shape and to actually get it made and to actually sell it.
MALDARI: Right. OK. That's what we do.
PASHMAN: What would I need to give you for you to be able to make that prototype? I mean, like, do I need to - do I need blueprints? Do I need, like, 3D renderings?
MALDARI: No, no.
PASHMAN: Can I describe it to you?
GOLDSTEIN: Money - I love that answer, Pashman. I love it.
PASHMAN: (Laughter) Chris is nothing if not direct.
GOLDSTEIN: So - OK, so money. So what does he tell you? How does he lay it out for you?
PASHMAN: Well, he says, look; the very least any company is going to want to make is 5,000 boxes of pasta. You know, it's one pound per box.
MALDARI: I'd probably say if you were looking - if your end goal was to get 5,000 boxes of dried pasta in your dream shape - right? - between all the experimentation and then getting it done, you're probably looking at 25 grand.
PASHMAN: Now, that's a nonstarter for me. So as I tell Chris, my plan is I'm not going to pay for the whole thing out of my pocket. I'll got a pasta company to partner with me. They'll share in the costs and in the profits if there ever are any. And remember, Chris is the guy who makes the die, the Play-Doh mold thingy. He doesn't actually make pasta. So I got to find a company that makes pasta that will work with me.
Problem is, Chris says the big companies are too big. They're not going to want to waste any time with a pipsqueak like me. And then there are a lot of small artisanal shops, but they only make fresh pasta. They don't dry it, let alone box it and ship it.
GOLDSTEIN: OK, so that leaves nothing for you.
PASHMAN: That's right. I need someone in between. I need one that's not too big and not too small. I need my Goldilocks pasta company.
GOLDSTEIN: So what do you do?
PASHMAN: So my producers and I set out to try to find Goldilocks. Our producer Ngofeen Mputubwele - he speaks Italian. So he calls up a pasta company based in Italy called Garofalo.
NGOFEEN MPUTUBWELE: If we want to, like, work with you guys to get a pasta made, like, what would the process even look like?
FLAVIA: Let me say everything can be done, but there are - like, changing a die on a production line is a very big deal. It's not like when you're blending your shake in the morning and you change from chopping to...
MPUTUBWELE: Yeah, puree.
FLAVIA: ...Just - exactly. It's, like, a very long process that requires time and stopping the line, all meaning that it has a cost involved in this.
PASHMAN: The equipment in a factory like Garofalo's runs 24/7. One production line cranks out nearly 10,000 pounds of pasta an hour. So if they're going to make my pasta, they got to stop a production line, spend a couple of days changing the die out and then get it back and running. So, you know, every minute they're not making pasta costs them money.
GOLDSTEIN: Right. So to change the die is so costly for them that they have to make a lot of pasta in order to make up for that cost. Classic economy of scale, right? If you go to the trouble to retool your factory, you've got to make a lot of the thing that you're making.
PASHMAN: That's right. And I don't want a lot. I want 5,000 pounds of pasta.
MPUTUBWELE: And is there a minimum run, like the number of, like, pounds or units that...
FLAVIA: Yeah, there is. Usually around 1,200 cases for a long cut.
MPUTUBWELE: Oh, OK. Because we'll be selling it to our audience, that actually is a reasonable thing, which is kind of cool.
FLAVIA: I'm talking, Ngofeen, cases. In each case, there's 20 packs. Cases, not packs. Yeah, cases.
MPUTUBWELE: (Laughter) Just kidding.
FLAVIA: You're talking 24,000, yeah.
MPUTUBWELE: (Laughter) Right.
PASHMAN: So 24,000 pounds gives me an image of my driveway piled high with boxes of pasta and my wife and kids and I frantically addressing packages by hand.
PASHMAN: That's not going to work. So after months and months of calling around, we finally find a company that we think might be our Goldilocks.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
STEVE GONZALEZ: Sfoglini Pasta.
PASHMAN: Hi. Is this Steve?
GONZALEZ: This is.
PASHMAN: This is Steve Gonzalez from Sfoglini Pasta. He's a chef who co-founded Sfoglini in 2012.
GONZALEZ: I mean, I've always enjoyed making pasta, so it just kind of seemed like a good direction. We really didn't do any market research or put too much thought into it. We just kind of blindly went into it.
PASHMAN: I like that, Steve. I haven't done any market research either.
PASHMAN: Sfoglini is based in rural upstate New York, near Albany, but they sell all over the country. They're in Whole Foods, bunch of specialty stores.
GONZALEZ: Our machine does about a thousand pounds an hour.
PASHMAN: And is it running 24 hours a day?
GONZALEZ: I wish.
GONZALEZ: No, it runs about eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week. Technically, by scale, we're actually small.
GOLDSTEIN: But, Dan, are they small enough for you?
PASHMAN: Right, exactly. So then we start talking about minimums. And I'm just like, please let it be 5,000.
GONZALEZ: Technically, if we turn our machine on and put the labor in, we tried, we have a 6,000-pound minimum.
GOLDSTEIN: Pashman, can you do 6,000?
PASHMAN: I hereby declare that to be close enough, Jacob.
PASHMAN: We have found our Goldilocks. But I try to play it cool with Steve.
So, Steve, here's the big question. I mean, this sounds great. It sounds like you are well-equipped to help me in this journey and to possibly partner together. Why should we use you?
GONZALEZ: This is - I'm not a good salesman. If you want to work with somebody else, go work with them. That's totally fine.
GONZALEZ: You should come down to the factory and, like, actually start to see the equipment. I think it will give you a better feel, and I think you might be able to, like, start to wrap your head around what the process is going to be.
PASHMAN: All right. I'm going to keep working on the designs. And then once I have a better idea what the shape is going to look like, I'm going to come visit you.
GONZALEZ: OK. Sounds good. Our door's open.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREA PERRY SONG, "RISE STRONG")
GOLDSTEIN: After the break, a shape of pasta that literally has never been seen before by anyone ever in history.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREA PERRY SONG, "RISE STRONG")
GOLDSTEIN: We are now in 2020, well into your journey.
PASHMAN: I think it's going to be a great year, Jacob. What could possibly go wrong?
GOLDSTEIN: Definitely no global pandemics are going to happen, and you're just going to get on a train and go up to Sfoglini's pasta factory in upstate New York for the first time.
PASHMAN: That's right. I'm going to go meet them in person and try to seal the deal.
You must be Steve.
PASHMAN: Steve's the guy I talked to on the phone. He's a chef, and he oversees the actual pasta making. He's wearing a baseball cap all caked in flour. His hair is sticking out in all directions at once.
Oh, you're giving me a hairnet. Thank you. It smells like pasta in here.
This pasta plant is big enough to fit a medium-sized airplane. They actually used to make parts for Boeing here. And then the machine that makes the pasta is sort of over on one side, kind of reminds me of a kid's playground like you see in a park 'cause it's got stairs to go up to a second level, and there's this lookout platform. And then the pasta comes down from there as if it's on a slide.
It's actually very simple.
GONZALEZ: It's very simple.
GONZALEZ: There's not - there's nothing too complicated about it.
PASHMAN: So now we have little rigatonis, little tubes with ridges on the outside, dropping out of this conveyor belt.
So I finish up the tour, take off my lab coat and hairnet, even though I quite like the hairnet, and I meet up with the other co-founder of Sfoglini to talk business.
SCOTT KETCHUM: Scott Ketchum, vice president.
PASHMAN: Scott handles the business side. Time for us to try to make a deal. Here's what I propose. So like I said, so I would maintain ownership of the shape, exclusive license to Sfoglini.
GOLDSTEIN: So, Dan, when I listen to that tape and I hear you say maintain ownership of the shape, what does it mean to own a shape?
PASHMAN: Well, I think, really, it means to own a patent on the shape.
GOLDSTEIN: So do you own a patent on a pasta shape?
PASHMAN: I did apply for a patent for this shape, yes - patent pending.
PASHMAN: Patent pending. I just said it. My attorney will be pleased.
GOLDSTEIN: OK, this is a thing one can do. So, OK, so what deal are you proposing to Sfoglini?
PASHMAN: So I propose to them, look; I'll pay for the die, all the testing, manufacturing of the die.
PASHMAN: And I say they'll pay for the actual making of the pasta, including all the testing, the labor and then the actual final manufacturing, the boxes.
GOLDSTEIN: Flour - I mean, the actual food in there, yeah.
PASHMAN: Exactly. And then when money starts coming in, we will each be paid back in proportion to our initial investments.
KETCHUM: Well, I think conceptually, it's a great fit for us. I mean, Steve picked out a lot of unique shapes when we started the company because we wanted to really be known for having different offerings than what everybody else had. So this is just an evolution of that. Be great for us to be a part of it.
GOLDSTEIN: He's in. OK, this is good.
PASHMAN: Yes, it is good. But there's one potential problem, which is that I spent months of my life dreaming about this pasta. I've never actually shown it to anyone who knows anything about pasta. So the next step is I got to find out if it's physically possible to make my idea. I decide to show it to the Sfoglini guys.
So this is still, you know, a rough draft, you know, very much open to discussion. I even got graph paper. It looks more official. Here it is. So it's a long shape. It bears some resemblance to mafalda or mafaldine.
GOLDSTEIN: Pashman, what is mafalda?
PASHMAN: OK, so picture fettuccine - like, a long, flat noodle.
PASHMAN: But down the edges, you have ruffles.
GOLDSTEIN: Got it. OK, so that's like the start for your pasta. What else?
PASHMAN: That's my base canvas. And then on top of the flat strip, running the length of the noodle, I want to add a narrow tube.
GOLDSTEIN: Like, running down the middle.
PASHMAN: That's right. That way you get all the benefits of tubes and ruffles and flat pieces. You get it all.
KETCHUM: It's a complex noodle that you've put together.
GOLDSTEIN: It is a complex noodle, and he sounds terrified.
PASHMAN: There was a lot of squinting going on in that meeting as they tried to analyze my sketch. But I decided to take that as a compliment. And, look; Scott and Steve, they think it's a good start. But the truth is they're not the ones, Jacob, who can tell me whether it's physically possible to produce a pasta in this shape.
GONZALEZ: I think the real person, the dream crusher or dream realizer is going to be the Maldari guys. They're going to be the ones that are going to tell you whether this is really possible or not.
GOLDSTEIN: Maldari like Chris Maldari, the guy in Staten Island who you went to see at the beginning of this whole thing.
PASHMAN: Yeah, that's right. He is the pasta die maker. So I send my sketch over to him. A week goes by, and that week is just interminable. It's like, you know, that feeling when you're waiting for something that's really important to you, like a pregnancy test or that coconut cake you ordered online.
GOLDSTEIN: When is it going to come?
PASHMAN: Finally, I get him on the phone.
MALDARI: I'd love to help you. I'd love to take your money to make you sample dies and do the whole test.
PASHMAN: But he says the laws of pasta physics will just not allow this shape.
PASHMAN: Basically, as dough passes through the die, the movement required to create the ruffles would crush the tube.
MALDARI: In all good conscience, I can't tell you that you're going to get anywhere with this idea.
PASHMAN: That was not what I wanted to hear, Jacob. And then from there, everything got worse. I mean, the next iteration of the shape also turned out to be impossible. When we finally had something we thought would work, we couldn't get any bronze to make the die because of COVID - all these shortages and delays in manufacturing. Then, we finally thought we had something that really did work, and then there was another problem with the die and the shape came out all wrong and I had a complete and total meltdown.
And this had an impact on my whole family.
JANIE: So I'm kind of over it.
PASHMAN: This is my wife, Janie, pouring herself breakfast cereal while being totally over my pasta project.
JANIE: With the amount of effort and work you put into it, like, you could've, like - I don't know - created three new podcasts or something.
(SOUNDBITE OF CEREAL BAG RUSTLING)
JANIE: It's not just the amount of work that it is, but it's like, you know, there's like no days off. You know, there's a pandemic. The kids are home half the time. And the emotional roller coaster of, like, you know, you being like, OK, I think this is going to be good, and then, you know, 24 hours later, like, this is a disaster; everything sucks. Like, I just - I don't know. I don't really have any more emotional - I don't have excess emotions to console you over the pasta project right now. Sorry, not sorry (laughter).
GOLDSTEIN: Well, I don't even know what happens next. Where do we go with that?
PASHMAN: Well, you know, Janie may have wanted off the roller coaster, but at that point, I was handcuffed to it. So, you know, we took the die back to the factory, made more refinements, made a bunch of changes to the shape. The closed tube became half a tube. The ruffles moved around. We came in from a long shape to a short shape. We tweaked, and we refined. And finally, the day came, Jacob - February 18, 2021, just a few weeks ago.
GOLDSTEIN: Almost just now, OK, yeah.
PASHMAN: That's right. I drove up to Sfoglini. Everything felt like it was coming together. When I get there, I talk with the Sfoglini guys about how much this project actually cost us in the end.
What's your total?
KETCHUM: Right now, I'm at $4,338. And the actual run today is another 8,000.
KETCHUM: So in total, that's about $12,300.
PASHMAN: And my cost for the die ended up being nearly $10,000 - more than I expected, but there was a lot of tweaking that had to happen. So total cost - my 10,000 plus their 12 and change - total cost - 22,000 and change.
GOLDSTEIN: OK. And so for that, you get 5,000 boxes of pasta. Is that right?
PASHMAN: Well, that's what we were hoping for. But it turns out because of COVID, there are major paper shortages, and so they weren't able to get 5,000 actual physical boxes.
GOLDSTEIN: Oh, man. So how many boxes of pasta do you get for your $22,000?
PASHMAN: Almost 4,000 boxes.
GOLDSTEIN: So - OK, so you've got $22,000 for 4,000 boxes. So the cost to you guys is a little over five bucks a box. How much are you selling the pasta for?
PASHMAN: Four ninety-nine a box.
GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) I got some bad news for you, Pashman.
PASHMAN: (Laughter) Have I not been paying attention during past episodes of PLANET MONEY well enough, Jacob (laughter)?
GOLDSTEIN: So if you sell out your first run, you will lose money.
PASHMAN: That's right. But a lot of that cost was to, you know, to get started. So if this first run sells out quickly enough, we'll make more. And soon after that, we will be back in the black.
GOLDSTEIN: OK. I hope it works out for you.
PASHMAN: Thanks, Jacob. This day when we talked about the money, this was also the day they were going to start making my pasta shape at the factory. I mean, this is the shape I've been dreaming about, I've been having nightmares about. It has tormented me for years. I'm finally going to get to see it be born.
I walk into the factory, and for the first time, I see my die. It's a bronze disc about the size of a very thick manhole cover.
Is this the die? This is my die. Oh, my God. I got to say I'm feeling the kinds of emotions that you feel, like, when you look at your kid, when your kid's been really, really irritating. And it's like, you still love them, but at that exact moment, you're like, do you know what you're putting me through?
Let me tell you, this die is very pampered. First, they have to give it a warm water bath to heat it up so the dough flows through it better. Then the die gets hooked on a crane and raised up into the machine.
Go little die. You can do it.
All right, the die is in place. The semolina flour is loaded in. There's just one thing left to do.
GONZALEZ: You want to start it?
PASHMAN: Can I press the button?
PASHMAN: Oh, my gosh. I'm feeling excited. I feel, like, a little giddy.
GONZALEZ: Well, let's start it.
PASHMAN: You don't want to just keep talking about it (laughter)?
GONZALEZ: I mean, we can. I'd rather make the pasta and see where we're...
PASHMAN: All right, pressing the button. Here we go. You ready? Here I go. Three, two, one.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)
PASHMAN: The flour and the water get mixed together and pushed through the die. And all of a sudden, coming out onto the conveyor belt is my pasta shape. It's a short shape about the length of your pinky finger. It's curled in a unique way, kind of like a comma or half a heart. It's got a bump along one side, and on the other side, two ruffles running alongside each other. If you hold it vertically, the ruffles look kind of like flowing water, makes the whole thing look kind of like a waterfall, which is, in fact, what we named it. We named it cascatelli, Italian for waterfalls.
GONZALEZ: Are you sad today?
PASHMAN: Suddenly - I didn't feel sad until just the moment when I pressed the button. It's like, you know, when you have something in your life that is, like, so all-consuming, it's, you know, it's like, when it's over, you don't know what to do with yourself.
GOLDSTEIN: So what do you do with yourself?
PASHMAN: Well, I wait to see if anyone buys this pasta or if I end up with a thousand pounds of it in my basement (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREA PERRY SONG, "YOU CAN HEAR THE BIRDS AGAIN")
PASHMAN: And I should say, Jacob, we only covered a tiny bit of this quest here today on PLANET MONEY. There's a lot more to this story in "The Sporkful's" podcast series "Mission: ImPASTAble."
GOLDSTEIN: That's how you want to go out, Pashman? You want to go out on "Mission: ImPASTAble"?
PASHMAN: Put it on my tombstone, Jacob (laughter).
GOLDSTEIN: Thanks for coming on the show, man. The pasta is delicious. Nice work.
PASHMAN: Thanks. I appreciate it.
GOLDSTEIN: We'll post pictures of Dan's pasta shape, cascatelli, on our various social media feeds. We're @planetmoney everywhere. Also, you can email us. We're email@example.com.
Today's show was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez, Darian Woods and Emma Morgenstern, with engineering help from Gilly Moon. Bryant Urstadt is our show's editor. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. I'm Jacob Goldstein. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.