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!
2723B Murray Street
Port Moody, BC, V3H 1X1
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