What is the food-industry equivalent of bringing coals to Newcastle? Selling potatoes to Idaho or oranges to Florida? Or, how about selling fresh mozzarella to the deli counters at supermarkets? If you are going to do that, you had better have a premium product.
“I would go to the store, introduce myself and my company and tell them I would like to sell some fresh mozzarella,” reflects Anthony Mongiello on his humble start. “They would say I’m a nice man but they already buy from another gentleman.”
Mongiello wondered what would motivate supermarkets to buy products from him? He got his answer by asking his dad, Angelo Mongiello Sr., an innovator in the industry who invented an automated mozzarella machine in the early 1960s, a design that is still used today.
“It was a very difficult sale and came down to a price war. I asked my pop, who is my mentor, and he said I needed to make products that no one else sells.”
To come up with ideas, Anthony focused on how the cheese was prepared both in the store and at home by consumers. Since fresh mozzarella has little flavor, vendors and cooks always add oil and seasonings. When that’s done in-store, it consumes time and labor and results in a very short shelf-life salad preparation.
“That product wouldn’t last more than seven days and that trickles down to consumers. If they buy it for Sunday dinner and it isn’t fresh, they may not buy it again. That hurts the industry as a whole.”
So Mongiello created a way to get a shelf life of 55 days from date of manufacture on his marinated mozzarella, sold in five-pound, food service pails. (The trick is to get the water and oxygen out and vacuum pack it.) The product has been a success not just for its practicality but for its incredible flavor profile. It’s made to order and a big hit with club and retail stores, gourmet shops, supermarkets and mom and pops that are Formaggio Cheese’s customers.
“My selling point is: I am going to help you sell fresher mozzarella and reduce your shrink behind the case, as well as staff labor since the deli department used to prepare it.”
That was just the beginning. When Anthony Mongiello founded Formaggio Cheese three factories ago in 1991, the fresh mozzarella category was only five items strong. The company now has more than 65 different ways to sell, use or consume fresh mozzarella products.
“In doing that we are going to sell fresher mozzarella because some people like it marinated, some with sun-dried tomatoes or roasted peppers and basil,” he says. “We can appeal to all aspects of the flavors people prefer.”
CHEESES FOR ALL SEASONS
Remember the old days when people bought fresh mozzarella mostly around the holidays? Formaggio Cheese plays a significant role in year-round consumer acceptance of the product.
“Sales died in the summer when it was used mostly for cooking. People don’t want to turn on their ovens to bake ziti, lasagna, or chicken Parmigiana. So how do you bring the product to a barbecue or picnic? You put in a little red sun-dried tomato, white mozzarella and green basil and you have a home run.”
The company markets its Creative Appetizer line in a convenient cup in the appetizing case of the deli department ready to pick up and go. Currently the line is sold in 16-ounce containers, but true to form, Mongiello is looking to respond to today’s market challenges.
“If we want to talk about trends in the future, we are going to downsize to a 12-oz. container to make it more appealing to the consumer from a price point since money is tight. We are lowering the price so they don’t have to sacrifice. The buyers at supermarkets think it’s a great idea.”
The company always finds new ways to keep things fresh. Another key to success for Formaggio Cheese is introducing new products every year at the major food trade shows. “When we leave the shows, we have positive sales to justify the money we spend attending the events. But it also helps keep the category alive with new items on a steady basis,” he says.
Introducing new product into distribution is not very costly, he notes. “I think of the products as my children. If I come to your house and have 10 kids but I show up with 11, you won’t mind. So if I tell you about 10 items but later sell you 11 or 12, what is one or two more? There’s no difference on the truck, buyers want more, and it will give us more shelf space and territory.” In fact, buyers often thank him for his originality, and for not showing them “me-too” products.
The company has now expanded beyond mozzarella, applying its ideas about ease of preparation and fresh test to other cheeses. The Betta line includes Betta-Brie, Betta-Bleu and, you guessed it, Betta-Feta. The unique products are marinated with produce, herbs, seasonings and oils that take the guesswork out of serving. For instance, Betta-Brie is packaged with a gourmet cranberry and sliced almond sweet topper in two separate eight-ounce containers that the home cook can readily combine.
“The innovative part of creating products in today’s market has to do with consumer friendliness, making life easier. Let’s face it, men and women are working. There is not much time at home to cook, yet we don’t want to compromise,” Mongiello says.
Betta-Bleu is a versatile blend of herbs, spices, garlic, red pepper and oil. Like many of the company’s offerings, the cheese is marinated and infused in with the oil. It is ready to sear on to a steak, or mix with mashed potatoes, stuff in mushrooms or use in many other easy recipes.
Betta-Feta is a pre-made Greek salad mixture of red pepper flakes, fresh and dried oregano, kalamata olives, canola and olive oil in one container. Mix it into a salad, boil with bowtie pasta and dress hot or cold, or make a warm potato salad or other creative dish. Betta Feta won a silver metal for best flavored feta cheese in an international competition. “The concept, the flavor profile, everything is there,” Mongiello says.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS
The recipe for success is clear at Formaggio Cheese.
“There are three basic rules that Formaggio lives by. The first is food safety. The second is quality. The third is salability,” Mongiello says. This focus has allowed the company to grow from 10 to 18 percent each year since it was founded.
The company’s state-of-the-art facility in Liberty, N.Y. was designed from the ground up for food safety with a specialized drainage system that prevents water backup from entering preparation surfaces and even from entering the floor area.
“You could quite literally eat off our floors,” Mongiello says of the unique design of the facility.
While food safety has always come first, the quality of the products is informed by a family tradition stretching from Naples to New York. Mongiello’s grandfather Lorenzo, a metalsmith, established a specialty canning corporation for ricotta cheese in 1925. He used innovative machinery to separate the whey. Anthony’s Dad Angelo Sr. continued with his father’s industrial creativity with his mozzarella maker, designed to prevent workers from burning their hands, a common professional hazard at the time. Angelo also created the string cheese snack concept in an effort to get kids to eat better.
Today, Anthony has taken up the mantle, designing a food-safe factory and inventive and popular products by the dozen.
As for the third leg of the stool, salability, that is taking care of itself.
“When I started in 1991, the economy was in a recession and it was very difficult to enter a business as competitive as fresh mozzarella manufacturing,” he says. “Today I tell customers I am not taking business from your current supplier, I am going to show you products that the current supplier does not manufacture. I come up with the products first because in this industry if you are not first, you are last.”