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Local entrepreneurs pitch business ideas
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From more than 65 hopeful entrepreneurs, just eight remain in the semifinals of an American Idol style business plan competition which will award $20,000 in cash and professional services to two winners.

Among those final eight: two groups of Denair-based entrepreneurs, hoping to set the world on fire with a line of natural, Mexican sauces and save lakes from invasive aquatic species with specially trained, mussel-sniffing dogs.

Winning the San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge, presented by the San Joaquin Angels investment group and partner organizations, could mean a world of difference to these nascent businesses, each said.

“We're really excited about it,” said Stephanie Jourdan with Denair’s Amalia’s Cocina, a family-owned Mexican sauce company among the semifinalists. “We feel with this money we would be able to expand our business and get our name out there.”

Amalia’s Cocina was founded in 2005 by three generations of Mexican-American women: matriarch Amalia Portillo, her daughters Jourdan, Brenda Noel, and Ida Norwood, and Ida Norwood’s daughter Jamie Norwood. The five decided to start a business canning chile Colorado, enchilada, and tamale sauces, using recipes passed down from Portillo’s grandmother.

The simple, natural, authentic products are aimed at busy professionals who long for home-cooked Mexican cuisine, but don’t have the time. It can be a hard sell, Jourdan said, but even the choosiest customers are surprised by how good the sauces taste in easy-to-prepare dishes.

”We know we have a great product because we do all of our own demos,” Jourdan said. “We know firsthand that when the community tries it, they buy it.”

Business has grown in the last five years because of that great taste, starting in local stores like Keller’s in Modesto, and gradually expanding to the Hilmar Cheese Company and Turlock’s own Village Fresh Market. Last summer, Amalia’s Cocina got a big break when the sauces were accepted into all 128 Raley’s stores, extending the brand’s reach into Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. In June, Amalia’s Cocina hopes to branch out to Southern California.

But to make that next step – and to help fund development of new green sauces – winning the business plan competition would be huge, Jourdan said.

“Marketing bucks always help,” Jourdan said. “We really want to get our name out there.”

Denair’s other finalist, Debi DeShon’s Mussel Dogs, looks to train dogs like the famed drug-sniffers. But instead of nosing out drugs, the dogs smell invasive quagga and zebra mussels attached to boats, preventing the destruction of aquatic habitats.

 “More than anything I'm trying to let people know we exist and this service is available,” DeShon said.

It’s an uphill effort, as DeShon is the first in the country to offer Mussel-sniffing dogs.

Demand is growing rapidly, though, as counties adopt boat inspection programs to prevent mussel invasions. Lake Tahoe and Clearlake already examine each boat for mussels, while pending legislation would make every boat in Nevada subject to mussel checks before launching.

Human inspections are lengthy, taking up to 20 minutes per boat. By renting Mussel Dogs and handlers, those boats could be inspected in minutes, DeShon said.

Training the mussel dogs, like DeShon’s Labrador Popeye, is akin to training drug dogs – nothing new to DeShon, who has trained drug sniffing dogs since 1996. It’s like playing hide and seek for the dogs, DeShon said, and the dogs are taught their toys smell like mussels, rather than marijuana or gunpowder.

There’s still a long road to victory lane for Amalia’s Cocina and Mussel Dogs, who made the round of eight on March 2, when the twenty best ideas culled from more than 65 entrants competed in a two-minute drill to describe their businesses. An audience of 150 and a panel of expert judges picked their eight favorites, who will compete in the final two rounds of competition on March 23.

That day will start with a five-minute, detailed presentation of each business, after which the audience and judges will select four finalists. The finalists will participate in a simulated challenging business situation, followed by a final round of voting to select two victors.

A total of $10,000 in cash and a further $10,000 in legal, accounting, and marketing assistance is up for grabs for those two winning entrepreneurs. But a number of worthy competitors from around the region will be vying against Denair’s finest for that cash and prizes, including Phillip Coscia of Modesto.

Coscia has developed a chemical process which rinses graffiti from walls, eliminating the need for paint overs. Even more impressive, the chemicals are completely environmentally safe, meeting all air, water, and health requirements, while being more economically feasible than any other method, Coscia said.

“We’re real happy with it,” Coscia said. “It’s come to fruition.”

Against tough competition, with solar energy collectors, an innovative irrigation system, and even a children’s educational bath toy among the semifinalists, winning will be no easy task for Denair’s competitors. But even if DeShon doesn’t finish in the top two, the competition has already proved its worth, she said.

“The competition is a great idea,” DeShon said. “It's really helped to make me become more focused on what it is I need to do to take this to the next level.”

The March 23 semi-final competition will be held from 4 to 7:30 p.m. at the Stockton Golf and Country Club, located at 3800 W. Country Club Blvd. in Stockton. Members of the public may attend for $12 prepaid, or $15 at the door. To register, visit

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.