04/04/2012 08:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stephanie Sanoja: Building An Empire On Bloody Marys

One of the reasons I started my website,, was to have a place where women could come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hold on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them--that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a woman who found success by reviving the passion and the spicy recipe of her beloved great aunt who had inspired her since childhood. --MT

By Lori Weiss

From the time Stephanie Sanoja was four years old, she loved a good party. While she was too young to understand what her older relatives were laughing about -- as they sat around her Great Aunt Gladys' living room drinking Bloody Marys -- what she did know was that every trip to that big old house in New Orleans would be filled with excitement.

"I'd run through the rooms searching for buzzers hidden in the wooden floors," Stephanie recalled. "They had been installed back in the 1800's, so the lady of the house could beckon the staff. But to me they were just part of the adventure! I'd jump on every one over and over, and Great Aunt Gladys would just laugh as she mixed another pitcher of Bloody Marys and pulled out tray after tray of hors d'oeuvres."

Great Aunt Gladys, explained Stephanie, was well into her 60s and considered a "Grand Dame of the New Orleans Garden District." She was always ready for "friends come visiting" with a pitcher of libations served in the finest crystal.

"Gladys was a firecracker -- so full of sparkle and sass," Stephanie said with a grin. "She never needed an excuse for a party. Every moment in life was worthy of one. That's the New Orleans way!"

That New Orleans spirit became so ingrained in Stephanie's soul, that no matter where life took her, she seemed to carry its magic. So when she began her career in Dallas in the colorful field of advertising -- a profession that, not incidentally, is also well known for the love of a good party -- it all seemed like the perfect fit.

What Stephanie didn't know is that the experience she was about to gain in marketing would set the stage for her to bring Great Aunt Gladys' spicy world to a much bigger audience.

"Somehow my mother had managed to wheedle Gladys' Bloody Mary recipe out of her," Stephanie laughed, "and she, of course, passed it down to me. Wherever I went, the Bloody Marys came with me! I'd serve them at parties and bring pitchers to friends' homes. You can take a girl out of New Orleans, but you can’t take New Orleans out of the girl!

"Sometimes I'd joke with my friends about creating a Bloody Mary company," she continued. "I'd say, 'I'll hire all of you, and take you back to New Orleans with me.' But then reality would set in, Monday would come along and we'd all go back to our advertising jobs."

A decade into her career, Stephanie had made her mark in the interactive advertising world. But the speed of the internet called for constant change and she was beginning to grow weary of watching projects she'd poured herself into suddenly being taken off the table.

"I was in the middle of a meeting," she said, "presenting the tenth version of the same website. I could just tell my boss was going to make me start over again. And I knew at that moment that I couldn't keep creating projects that weren't going to come to life. My boss thought I was just having a bad day, but I knew that was the end.

"I went home and sat on the porch with a pitcher of Bloody Marys," Stephanie remembered, "and I realized I had no idea what to do next. It was the middle of the recession -- not a great time to quit -- but I was on the verge of turning 40 and I needed to do something for myself."

And at that moment, Stephanie looked over at the beautiful crystal pitcher at her side and decided Bloody Mary's time had come.

With a nest egg she'd stored away in the hope of buying a Mini-Cooper, she ditched the car idea and hired a beverage chemist to help her turn the 21 ingredients in Gladys' secret recipe into a product that could be sold to the masses.

Unfortunately, what she was initially told would take 30 minutes to develop took nine months to perfect.

"All the mixes he came up with tasted great until you added the Vodka," she said. "In my mind, I thought Vodka made everything better. But not Bloody Marys. If even one ingredient in the mix is off, when you pour in the Vodka, it tastes bitter.

"The company thought I was being too picky. But my feeling was, if I can't drink it, I can't sell it. And I certainly wasn't going to move forward with something Great Aunt Gladys wouldn't have served! Finally, we got it right. After that, I think they put the chemist into some sort of witness protection program," she added with a laugh, "because I was never allowed to talk to him again!"

In the midst of what Stephanie refers to as her "bloody mess," she sublet a place in New Orleans' French Quarter, not far from the regal old home she remembered from her childhood. While her aunt had passed away years earlier, Stephanie wanted to drink in the local culture as she prepared her product for market -- and feel what it must have been like for Gladys, when she was in her 40s.

"I toured all the old houses," Stephanie said. "I went to the grocery store where Aunt Gladys shopped every day; I sampled all the special foods I remembered; and I watched my three-year-old son, Davis, dancing in the streets, exactly the way I once did."

As Stephanie immersed herself in the New Orleans spirit, she pictured her Great Aunt’s signature beverage lining the shelves of that neighborhood store, packaged in beautiful, pitcher-like bottles, and sold as gifts for holidays or simply as a little something to bring over when stopping by a friend's home.

But Stephanie's step back in time would be rudely interrupted by real life when she learned that the manufacturer she hoped to work with would only accept her product if she used a standard-sized bottle. Specifically, they were looking for something that would fit in with the production lines they were already running.

"I had already gotten a pre-order of two thousand cases from Costco," Stephanie says. "Costco! And there I was without anyone to bottle it. I had the perfect recipe and nothing to put it in."

Unwilling to compromise on the container she knew Gladys would have loved, Stephanie kept searching for a manufacturer who was willing to pour her Bloody Marys into the perfect bottle. And finally she found one -- a beverage manufacturer who felt sorry for her when he heard she'd already purchased 1,500 pounds of a very expensive ingredient.

But it was too late. Unable to deliver, she lost the Costco order. "As big a blow as that was, I kept moving forward. I decided that I didn't care if I had to work until I was 80 to pay off this investment. Too many other people had pulled the plug on my visions and I was going to see this through."

Her persistence paid off. Soon her beautiful bottles began to roll off the line, labeled with a caricature of Great Aunt Gladys, in the way Stephanie liked to imagine her -- at her sassy best.

Today, Garden District Bloody Marys are being sold in more than 40 stores throughout Texas and Louisiana, and a restaurant version is in the works. Even Costco is interested again, provided Stephanie can mix up a vegetarian style.

"I can't help but think that Gladys is somewhere up above," Stephanie said wistfully, "lifting a glass, proud that I stood my ground and that I'm living my life the way she did -- with passion.

"And if she were still here," Stephanie added, "I think she'd be throwing one really great party."

For more information about Garden District Bloody Marys, you can visit

It Ain't Over: Stephanie Sanoja

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