A trip to a hole in-a-wall restaurant in Italy with a family friend inspired a young entrepeneur to take his love for food and turn it into a business opportunity.

"We were turned around, lost in Venice and we couldn't find any good restaurant to go in," Warren Stanko recalled. "This one had newspapers on the windows -- the most uninviting place you could go to."

His group decided to give it a shot, though. "We were amazed by the food, how cheap it was and the quality," he said.

On his return, Mr. Stanko wrote a paper about how food could taste good without being expensive for then adjunct English professor at UTC, Jessica Chevalier. In 2002, she and her husband, Chris, opened Alchemy Spice Co., which creates freshly ground, all-natural spice blends in addition to organic brownie mixes.

Seeing his interest in food, the spice company owners offered him a job.

"I told them jokingly, if you ever want to sell it let me know," Mr. Stanko said.

In March 2009, after working for the company for a little more than two years, that joke became a reality and at age 23, Mr. Stanko bought the company.

However, it wasn't all smooth sailing.

"I pretty much got turned away from every bank I went to," he said of the process of trying to secure a loan. "Being taken seriously by banks and just the business world in general in Chattanooga was kind of hard, you kind of had to prove yourself," he said.

His sister, Beth Stanko, said his "fresh eye" has helped him adjust to the learning curve in a tough market.

"He really had to fly on his own, not having any business background," she said. "He's learning bit by bit through all the headaches. It just makes him that much better."

A year has passed since Mr. Stanko bought the company. Business is picking from wholesale and private label orders. He plans to introduce new lines before the year is out.

Currently, Alchemy products are sold at World Next Door, Umbra Essence, Greenlife Grocery, Mia Cucina, Niedlov's Breadworks, The Plum Nelly and Tellico Grains in Chattanooga. Its blends are also sold in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

Mr. Stanko has one employee and next month anticipates moving from Cherokee Boulevard to a storefront off Williams and Main streets.

With regional sales under way, he said he hopes to become a competitive seller in the tri-state area over the next five years.

"Pretty much everyday, I can't believe I'm my own boss," he said. "It's great. It's really hard to get distracted when you have no one else to answer to except yourself -- and the bank."

Warren Stanko on lessons learned in becoming an entrepreneur:

* Adjusting from student stresses such as "class" to business stress/pressure such as payroll

* Controlling yourself and not allowing stress levels to get too high

* Learning that no matter how much you "micro manage" things, everything won't be perfect