By Kathryn Skelton
Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine.
Shelly Afthim pitched her gourmet chicken meatballs to QVC in a middle-of-the-night email more than a year ago, before she even had a meatball company.
To her surprise, a QVC buyer asked for a taste.
Last month, in a vote by the home shopping channel’s online fans, Afthim’s fancy frozen Buffalo chicken Gorgonzola, chicken Parmesan and chicken cordon bleu meatballs beat out a versatile handbag and a ticking tooth clock for a spot on QVC.com.
They’re sale-priced at $89.60 for 72 meatballs. Shipping included.
“It’s definitely not starting at the bottom; I went right to the top, I think,” said Afthim, 43, a Poland native and Edward Little High School graduate.
She officially formed Gourmet Passionista in 2013 but started making the meatballs years before in search of a healthy appetizer for family and friends.
Afthim was a seemingly healthy, busy mother when she found herself sidelined in 2006 with congestive heart failure and Lyme disease.
She knew she couldn’t go back to her career as an account executive and started looking to balance getting well with creating new opportunities, she said.
Fatigue and insomnia are side effects of Lyme disease, she said. “I sometimes am up in the middle of the night and (back in 2011) I just happened to be watching QVC; it was one of their gourmet food shows.”
On a lark, she hopped online and sent an email about her meatballs.
“I didn’t even have a company and they were willing to test my product for me,” Afthim said. “It kind of gave me the drive to move forward with it, especially when they said, ‘Go start your company and when you’re ready, we’ll be ready for you.'”
She eventually connected with QVC’s new Sprouts program designed to encourage entrepreneurs. This was the first food product in that competition. Her vote ran from Feb. 1 to Feb. 14.
If sales are strong enough, it could also mean a spot for Afthim and her meatballs on TV.
The meatballs are made by a commercial kitchen in Bangor and shipped to Maryland where QVC fills orders. Half of the QVC price tag has to do with shipping costs, Afthim said. The meatballs are packed in an insulated cooler with dry ice.
She also sells them from her home for those willing to make the drive for $15 a bag. (One bag has 24 meatballs, about 45 calories each.)
She didn’t know how long she’d be on QVC.com. “I’m hoping it’s a long-term relationship.” Afthim’s eventual goal is tying into food distributors.
She’s at work now on her next chicken meatball flavor, southern barbecue cheddar and bacon.
“We usually test on our friends and family first,” she said. “It’s actually pretty funny. I tend to think that I’ve used too much bacon and the feedback is always, ‘You can never have too much bacon.’ So we’re still fine-tuning that recipe.”
It’s still a balance, she said, to grow her company and watch her health. Her husband, Phil, has been a huge supporter and their sons, ages 11 and 13, an inspiration.
“My whole goal in doing this is rally to teach my kids a lesson on not giving up on themselves, no matter what,” she said. “I’m just trying to teach my kids, if you start something, just finish it and see where it goes. That’s how I look at the whole QVC partnership. I started it and I finished it and the fact that we won is the icing on the cake.”