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Brower: On the passing of a true Grand County entrepreneur

Paul DiBello, the founder of competition program at the National Sports Center for the Disabled and a Grand County entrepreneur, died at age 69 in Aurora.
Courtesy of John Weiland

Paul DiBello was a true Grand County entrepreneur. He was one of the first clients I worked with in my job as an Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative.

So I was saddened to learn of his death due to COVID-19, the closest such death to me and my circle of friends and acquaintances. He died in Aurora.

Amy Golden wrote a great article about Paul and his fascinating and influential life as a disabled skier, coach and sailor here in Grand County in last week’s Sky-Hi News. But let me expand here about the ways in which Paul was a classic and successful Grand County entrepreneur.

I first became acquainted with his Captain Spongefoot Trading Company sauces back when the Sky-Hi News, which I ran at the time, was temporarily located in the old East Grand Middle School building after the Killdozer rampage. Paul was also located there in the school kitchen, fabricating and perfecting many of his sauces in the large kitchen.

I remember many times wandering by the kitchen and being struck by the exotic and tantalizing odors streaming from the room where Paul slaved away while stirring some bubbling sauce in a large, cauldron-like mixer. It was there that he first enlisted me to taste and sample his sauces. He did so with an enthusiasm and joy of life I’ll never forget.

Six years later I was helping with business planning, public relations and press releases. I even went with Paul to a tasting event at the Governor’s Mansion in Denver where his sauces were one of the featured displays. Even the governor liked his sauces.

Paul was a classic Grand County entrepreneur because he took his passion, which was making great sauces, and converted it into a thriving Colorado business. And he started small and local, right here in Granby and Grand County, where many of us locals were the first to sample his distinctively named and flavored sauces.

He followed the first rule. He loved what he was doing with sauces and he was passionate about that work. This passion showed in his sauces, which were excellent (my favorite was the Cranberry Chipotle Table Sauce). He perfected that over several years in Grand County.

Then he wanted to sell his sauces regionally and then across the state. So he perfected his product and his service and then he embarked on an excellent sales and marketing effort. This entailed making personal calls to restaurants and stores across the region and then the state in order to get his sauces exposure. He even got placement in Sam’s Club at one time.

Paul was a good, if not brusque, salesman. And he didn’t like his sauces to be called hot sauces, either, which was part of his pitch. What he wanted was for his sauces, no matter how hot some of them might be, to be known for their distinctive taste, not for the heat just for the sake of heat. He spent weeks and months perfecting his sauces to that goal.

He hired me at first, then I worked through the Initiative with him, to expand his marketing and public relations footprint. With a great name like Captain Spongefoot, and the story that went with it, this wasn’t so hard. He did a great job of branding his business, which is not always an easy task.

Then the practical realities of having a regional and statewide enterprise began to sink in. He was making his sauces in Granby (where the headquarters were located) until it became financially unbearable. What put him over the edge was the cost of shipping a barrel of some exotic spice from Thailand to Granby versus the cost of shipping it to Denver. It was two-thirds cheaper going to Denver.

So he wisely moved his production facility to a location in Aurora near the old Stapleton Airport, right off Interstate 70. And there he slaved away with his production and office management team. Not only were production and shipping costs cheaper there, but he was much closer to his main markets for both his sales and distribution efforts. Smart move. He also wisely ventured into outside labeling for his sauces, opening up a whole new market for restaurants or ventures who wanted to put their names on his products.

But his sauces always listed Granby, Colorado as their headquarters.

In his own way, Paul was a success at turning his passion into a business that thrived. But alas, his lingering health issues (throat cancer, continuing treatments) prompted him to let the business of Captain Spongefoot Sauces dwindle to inactivity two years ago.

So there you have it. Paul DiBello, Grand County entrepreneur and a man with a personality bigger than life itself, with sauces to match. He will be missed.

Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He provides free and confidential business management coaching for anyone who wants to start or expand a business in Grand County. He can be reached at 970-531-0632 or at patrickbrower@kapoks.org.


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