All posts in “Foodtrepreneur”

Interview with Gino Masi, Columbus Meat Market – FOODTREPRENEUR

Interview with Gino Masi, co-owner of Columbus Meat Market. – interviewed on November 18th 2015

Have you ever really thought about what goes into making a food product? Sure, there’s usually the necessary ingredients, presentation, and distribution involved, but I don’t mean any of those things. I’m talking about the real experiences, stories, failures, and successes that go into taking a product from a founder’s mind, all the way to your plate. Here at Cotto Enoteca Pizzeria, we decided we would bring you the stories behind the ingredients and products we use every day to serve you locally fresh, authentically Italian food. For now, we’re calling this series Foodtrepreneur: Lessons & stories about creating a food business. The food industry is notoriously tough, and we thought you might appreciate not only the stories behind the products, but the story behind the business itself. Foodtrepreneur is about food, and it’s about winning – if you like both of those things, you should keep reading 😉

Before the holidays I had the chance to speak with Gino Masi, co-owner of Columbus Meat Market, located in Vancouver, BC. Columbus is a large meat supplier for Cotto Enoteca Pizzeria, and we thought it would be awesome to know more about the story behind the meat. Gino is a very charismatic and charming man, and we think you’ll like his story. So without further ado, here is our interview…

Give us a little background as to how your company started and what you do…

We started back home, we’re the third generation being in the butcher business. My grandfather started in Italy, and then my father took over. We had a massive earthquake in southern Italy in 1981 and we lost almost everything. My brothers were already here from the 70s, the rest of the family ended up in Canada in the 80s.

Columbus started in 1973, and my brothers and I took it over the business in 1991. It was a little butcher shop – which we still have next door – and from there we developed the shop to what we are today. We are six brothers in total; another brother joined us, Giancarlo, as well as Vince who is no longer with us. So we’re three brothers at the Shop, but even our other brothers come in from time to time to help out.

Now after 24 years that we’ve been in this block, on January 6th 2016 we’re moving to Charles Street to a new facility with a more efficient butcher shop that’s newer, more modern, and has more space.

So I was going to ask you why you started the business, but it seems as though it’s a family gene…

It really is a family gene. My grandfather had a butcher shop and a bar, and my dad was the only son among two sisters, so he took over the business. My mom was running the bar while my father was running the butcher shop. Our generation was supposed to take over back in Italy but we moved to a different country and continued over here instead!

Did you have any prior business experience before Columbus?

Well, my brother had a butcher shop when we came to Canada, so I had a chance to help him a little bit in his business. Columbus was the first time that I stepped into something new that I owned and it was a different experience. I have responsibility of bills, and responsibility of bringing money home, so yeah it was different.

So for many people, starting a business is a little bit scary. Did you have any doubts or fears while you were building the business?

Not really, because when you’re born into a business, it’s a normal thing. You know, you live with that experience night and day. First you see your father do it, and then your brother, so it doesn’t shock you. Of course, you have a little bit of fear, because you always want things to go right and not wrong. Then adjusting with customers that Columbus had already from the old owners, so you want to adjust into that system. So that was the only real doubt, to make sure that we were doing a good job and satisfying the existing customers even better than what it was.

 

Columbus 1

 

What has been your favourite part of creating the business?

I enjoy coming here and serving all of our customers, talk to them, and finding out what they want next. It’s always about satisfying your clients and making them happy, because when they’re happy you’re happy too. You go home at night and you say “I did another wonderful job and everybody is happy to come to Columbus and shop” that’s the goal at the end of the day. Making sure our customers are satisfied, that’s what I find most favorite part about this business.

 

In terms of strategy, what is your point of differentiation? Why shop at Columbus meats and not at one of your competitors?

Why Columbus? Three generations of butchering, we cut everything from scratch. We have so much experience behind us that know exactly what our customers are looking for, and 99% of the time we don’t fail. Another thing, if you want to find out anything about a particular animal, then you can come to Columbus and you’ll find anything you want – from head to toes.

We also have the best butchers in town, we don’t hide that. Besides myself and my brothers, we have two wonderful fellows, Andrea (who has been doing this since he was 15), and Massimiliano who just came from Italy two years ago and also started in the business when he was only 11. So why not shop at Columbus when you can get the best service and the best butchers!

What type of culture do you try and create to ensure you don’t drift away from your core value proposition?

We simply recognize our customers and understand what they want. We don’t change our strategy for cutting or serving, we just try to keep bringing new inventory for our customers. When we started, it was a different generation, and mothers used to come and make everything from scratch. They’d come here and buy the bones, the ground beef; they’d go home and make the meat sauce and their soup from scratch with our products. Now times have changed, and there’s less and less time in our community and everyday life, so we bring new products to our customers and cater to these needs. But we always stick to our base.

What is the best piece of business advice you ever got?

One thing I’ll never forget is what my dad used to tell me… “When you have a smile on your face, you make a hundred people happy.” When people walk through the door the first thing you want to do is smile, and the next thing is to provide exactly what the customer wants, and the third thing is quality. Quality is the number one piece of advice that I give to anyone. Be honest. Quality and always, always, try to satisfy your customer.

Are there any books or even movies that really inspired you?

No not any movies or books, to be honest with you. My Grandfather and Father inspired me. I take advice from older people who inspire me as well. I always admire listening to advice from older people and what they have to say. And in the end, what I learned after being here for over 24 years is that they are never wrong. You know when we’re young and someone says “I’ve been through that and you should do this”, we think that we’re young and we can do whatever we want. But when you get older and you look back at what they told you ten or fifteen years ago, today I understand that it was all right. There was no piece of advice that was wrong.

 

Thanks so much, Gino!

 

Columbus Meat Market

1655 Renfrew Street

Vancouver, BC

604.253.2242

colmeat@telus.net

Foodtrepreneur: Interview with Stefan Urbani, Urbani Foods

Interview with Stefan Urbani, co-owner of Urbani Foods Inc. – interviewed on October 7th 2015

Have you ever really thought about what goes into making a food product? Sure, there’s usually the necessary ingredients, presentation, and distribution involved, but I don’t mean any of those things. I’m talking about the real experiences, stories, failures, and successes that go into taking a product from a founder’s mind, all the way to your plate. Here at Cotto Enoteca Pizzeria, we decided we would bring you the stories behind the ingredients and products we use every day to serve you locally fresh, authentically Italian food. For now, we’re calling this series Foodtrepreneur: Lessons & stories about creating a food business. The food industry is notoriously tough, and we thought you might appreciate not only the stories behind the products, but the story behind the business itself. Foodtrepreneur is about food, and it’s about winning – if you like both of those things, you should keep reading 😉

I recently had the chance to interview Stefan Urbani, co-owner of Urbani Foods Inc. located in Port Moody, BC. Urbani Foods is a third generation, family owned food company. Their product line includes frozen arancini Risottoballs, Mac & Cheese Balls, and CraftDried salami. Cool fact, their spicy fennel salami is featured in our contest winning Pizza Pomo Verde (thanks, Urbani!)

I mentioned to Stefan that the first thing I see when opening up the Urbani Foods website is a big banner that says “Our Story”, and highlights “Family” as a key value proposition. We began the call with why this is, and the background story which led to such strong family values…

 

Give us a little background as to how your company started and what you do…

 “Our family and our business intertwine, definitely, very closely. We’ve been in business since 1968, my Grandfather had a retail store serving Italian meat cuts and Italian specialty foods. Then my Dad took it over, and me and brother came into the business and decided to take some of those products that we to make just for retail and take it to wholesale. So we sold the store, and opened this production plant about 5 years ago.

So yeah, it’s more recent. Before that we were just producing for the local market and then the retail store, that’s it. So we’d make the arancini and the salami in the store, just for our customers. It kind of took off and we got more demand for it so we decided to shut down the retail and focus on wholesale only.”

 

I guess to have both retail and wholesale, it would really require you to balance it…

“Yeah. We had both for about two years, and we decided to sell it and move strictly into wholesale.”

 

You mentioned that your Grandfather started this…I guess he’s from Italy, right? What’s his story on why he started it?

“He came in the 50s from Molise, Italy. He worked different jobs, typical immigrant story. Then he had an opportunity to buy this business and be self-employed – so he decided to do it. He had never been in the industry before, but he loved his food, so it was a natural progression for him. He learned the trade from the previous owner, and he continued to work until he was 83.

 

So you and your brother who are now running it – how did you both decide that this is what you were going to do? Because there’s a lot of situations where the kids kind of want to do their own thing…

“Yeah exactly. We had that, we did want to do our own things. Through university, we’d work on the weekends, and in the evenings. We had ideas and we said ‘let’s try it for a little while’ and eventually we kind of got stuck, and we’re here now! We kind of fell into it…it wasn’t a conscious decision. We decided to try it for a little while, and always a little while turns into a permanent thing…

 

I guess you were probably having some successes and maybe you thought, well why not?

“Exactly. You see it take off a little bit and you’re like ‘oh this is pretty good’. And you know, when you’re young, everything seems brand new and fantastic so you have no idea about the struggles ahead, so you just go ahead and do it. It’s been a big struggle to get the wholesale off the ground, and it’s something that we’ve learned. It’s not without the arguing or without doubts, but it’s worked out pretty good!”

 

Was there a point during the process – because you mentioned it was a struggle to transition into wholesale – where you were not sure if that was the right thing for you to do anymore? Was there a point where you thought ‘maybe we shouldn’t go ahead with this’?

“Oh, definitely. When we had the plant being built and we realized the amount of customers we already had wouldn’t support the volume that we could produce and that we’d need to produce to maintain the large facility – that’s when you start thinking maybe this is a bad idea, but there’s really no turning back at that point, so you go out and find new customers. When you throw yourself in and there’s no alternative, you either sink or swim.

What we’re realizing is that almost every business starts as a small business. Unless you’re a corporation spinning something off, most businesses started years and years ago as somebody with an idea that worked really hard. Sometimes people forget that, and that’s why it’s nice to seek out the small businesses, and seek out the local products because it’s always fresh and new and hasn’t been diluted by shareholders and things like that.”

 

Absolutely. What has been your favourite part so far? What do you enjoy the most about running Urbani Foods?

Personally, I enjoy that every day you can do something a little bit different. You can go look at machinery and make sure it’s working properly, work in production, work on our website, marketing, design, and accounting. You can do a little bit of everything, and for me I like that. I don’t like doing the same thing every day. You always have the opportunity to try something new or just change up your day, and not always have the exact same day.

 

In terms of your business strategy, what is your point of differentiation compared with your competitors? Why shop at Urbani Foods?

“We bring a lot of R&D and science to our products. For example, our salami, we’re one of the last ones in Canada producing a completely low temperature dry aged salami. So what that means is that most salami now is cooked at a higher temperature before they dry it. I have a biology degree, and when I was in school I was able to conduct research, so we took the salami to the lab, which allowed us to validate our process that we could continue making it this way. We’re one of the few that still does it with completely low temperature, so it stays at twelve degrees Celsius the entire time. We’re actually one of the few in the world who do it this way. The other way doesn’t produce as nice of a product.

 

If it’s a lower temperature I guess it takes more time then?

“Exactly. Ours takes eight weeks and it slowly develops flavour. You’re getting those prosciutto flavours as opposed to just a dry sausage flavour. And we’re also the only ones in Canada making automated Arancini (risotto balls).

We try to do things a little bit differently. Not something others can just join in on and say ‘hey I want to do that too’… So we really try and put time into the research and development.”

 

In terms of the culture of Urbani Foods, which is presumably related to your innovation and R&D efforts, what do you do to ensure that you don’t drift away from that core?

To ensure that we keep that going, we always make sure we have a team of good people. We always try to find people to work for us that will be willing to drop what they learned at their last job and start fresh and not look at it through the eyes of the last place they worked. We want people with not necessarily experience, but passion. We don’t want people to come in and do what they did at the last company they worked for. We just want to keep it fresh and keep everyone on our page.

 

What’s the best piece of business advice that you ever got?

I think some of the best advice that I got was really simple. It’s that when people look at our pricing, they understand that we are a higher end product. Somebody said to me once that if you’re creating a luxury product, don’t price it as a mid-range product. With our salami, that was a big one because we can only make so much of that product, and we are the highest price on the market. But we sell out everything we can produce. We used to sell it for a low price and try and compete with the other products on the market that were made much faster and not as good, so we decided that if we wanted a luxury product, we’d have to price it like that so people would understand what it was. And after that it took off like crazy, so that was a really good piece of advice.

 

Considering your father took over the business after your grandfather, I guess he was likely your main mentor bringing you through this business. Besides showing you how things worked, what did he do to help you succeed?

He never really told us what to do or say something had to be done a certain way. He gave us a lot of leeway to do anything we wanted, and to try and fail. He was good like that; he would just let us try different things and not always push us in a certain direction. He was a really good person to just go to for advice and not push us to do something in his way and the way he’s always done it. So it was nice, and that’s how we brought some new ideas to the business.

 

Have you read any books that really inspired you in your life and in business that you would recommend to others?

I think the one book that really inspired was not something that gave any actual business advice, but it’s called The Endurance. It’s about the explorer, Earnest Shackleton, and how he and his team surviving on the Antarctic ice for about two years. It’s a good book about teamwork.

 

Okay, final question…If you could give an entrepreneur who’s entering the food industry a piece of advice, what would it be?

Basically, going into food production, you need to work in the industry first, and understand what it is. A lot of people don’t understand what it involves, and think it’s like cooking something in your kitchen and then selling it. I think the main thing would be to learn all the aspects of food safety and regulations, because otherwise you’ll spend all your money on consultants and getting through all the red tape. This is one of the most highly regulated industries, it’s not just about learning the market and learning how to make the food, but learning how to get through all of those regulatory hurdles.

 

Thanks so much, Stefan!

 

Urbani Foods Inc.

2723B Murray Street

Port Moody, BC, V3H 1X1

778-355-9339

info@urbanifoods.com

Follow Urbani Foods: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter

 

 

 

Interested in being featured on Foodtrepreneur? Contact tamir@cotto.ca

 

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