March 12, 2013

A jarring success: Mezzetta foods no longer just a California favorite

Mezzetta has been a household name in Northern California for decades, with its jars of olives and peppers crowding refrigerator shelves from Sacramento to Crescent City.

AMERICAN CANYON – Frank Massimillo had to yell to be understood over the echoing racket of machinery in motion – rumbling motors, whooshing air compressors, clattering conveyor belts crowded with chattering glass jars.

The din inside the production plant was punctuated by the warning beeps of turn-on-a-dime forklifts hefting pallets weighted with thousands of jars of golden peperoncini imported from Greece. It's the company's No. 1 seller, and was being processed and packed this recent winter day. Tomorrow it might be olives or tomatoes.

"It's nice when you hear a lot of noise," Massimillo shouted. "When it's quiet, you know something broke down."

Massimillo is the plant manager for G.L. Mezzetta Inc., the specialty-foods company known for its premium-quality pickled vegetables – stuffed, chopped, sliced, diced and sold whole – and other condiments, plus pasta and pizza sauces, marinades, sandwich spreads and more. Total: 100-plus individual retail items under the flags of five brands.

Mezzetta has been a household name in Northern California for decades, with its jars of olives and peppers crowding refrigerator shelves from Sacramento to Crescent City. In many ways it's a quintessential success story involving Italian immigrants and generations of family succession.

Though it has traditionally operated under the radar, fourth-generation President Jeff Mezzetta has taken the company in bold new directions during his 10-year tenure, with Mezzetta finally gaining national stature, even penetrating the Eastern market, long dominated by regional companies that produce similar products.

During his time at the helm, Mezzetta hasn't hesitated to take chances. One example is the introduction a few years ago of Castelvetrano olives to its product lineup. Many consumers had never before seen the round, bright-green Sicilian olives on supermarket shelves, and at first were reluctant to try them. Once they did – and tasted the sweet, buttery, less-salty olive – they came back for more.

Mezzetta also has become known for its annual "Make That Sandwich" national recipe contest, in which approximately 3,000 home cooks compete for the $25,000 grand prize.

Hold on a minute – 25 grand for an original sandwich using Mezzetta products as ingredients?

"We like to go big," said marketing director Heather Innocenti. "Besides, the contest is a source for a lot of recipe ideas from consumers."

The 2012 winner was the Croque Mezzetta, with ham and Gruyère cheese, from Michelle Weiderhold of Phoenix, Ariz. Home cooks can enter the fifth annual contest beginning Memorial Day, May 27; it closes on Labor Day, Sept. 2. (For details, go to www.makethatsandwich. com and www.mezzetta. com).

While Mezzetta isn't a farm-to-fork food operator – sourcing produce from Mediterranean countries including Italy, Spain, Greece, Morocco and Turkey – it does get its bell and jalapeño peppers and a percentage of its tomatoes from California. About 300 people work at the plant, but the number swells during the "fresh pack" season, July into November, when truckloads of California-grown produce are delivered for processing.

Out back of the production plant is a staging area, a landscape crowded with hundreds of barrels stuffed with peppers, Kalamata olives, onions and capers shipped from abroad to the Port of Oakland and trucked here.

Workers empty the barrels – each holding 264 pounds of produce – into bins to be filled with water in the first phase of a desalination and hand-sorting process. Later, the vegetables will be packed in Mezzetta's proprietary brine, so popular that customers regularly ask to buy it to add to their chilled martinis.

Back inside the plant, tons of peperoncini were being sorted, washed, dried and packed into jars, which were topped off by hand on the assembly line. Next, brine was added, then the jars were capped, blow-dried, labeled, date-stamped, stretch-wrapped in film and stacked inside the airplane-hangar-size warehouse for distribution.

That's the scenario 16 hours a day, every day, at the family-owned company's home base. Mezzetta occupies a 200,000-square-foot production facility-warehouse in the industrial area of American Canyon, a part of Napa County rarely seen by wine-tasting tourists, and then only if they take a wrong turn off Highway 29.

Massimillo has been with Mezzetta for 40 years and has worked for three of the four generations of Mezzetta fathers and sons who have run it.

"They have always treated me like family," he said.

Which seems right, as Mezzetta has always been about family. The company was founded in San Francisco's North Beach in 1935 by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Luigi Mezzetta, great-grandfather of Jeff Mezzetta.

Giuseppe and his son, Daniel Mezzetta, imported Mediterranean produce for distribution to restaurants and delis in the city.

Daniel's son, Ron Mezzetta, became general manager in 1973, expanding the operation and moving it from North Beach to Sonoma, and coming up with the slogan that's on every glass jar that leaves the factory: "Don't forgetta Mezzetta."

The company moved to American Canyon in 1997.

Jeff Mezzetta grew up in the family business. When he became president in 2004, one of his first innovations was the higher-end Napa Valley Bistro brand, which features gourmet-style pasta sauces, and stuffed olives marinated in herbs and Napa Valley wine. Under his guidance, the company now ships nationwide and into Canada.

"We're pretty much in every major supermarket chain (in the United States), but our goal is to be a household name throughout the country," he said. "I would say I've provided some inspiration for that."

They're cookin'

Perhaps the heart of Mezzetta is its professionally equipped test kitchen, a culinary playground ruled by executive chef Natalie Knight and research-and-development chef-consultant Peter Kirkpatrick. It's here that new-product recipes are tested, tasted, tweaked and moved to the marketplace.

Mezzetta's recipe-development template is as grass-roots as it gets. Ideas come from customers, employees, the company's national sales force, retail partners and anyone else who wants to contribute.

"Folks are constantly sharing recipe ideas with the (research and development) group," said chief marketing officer Brian Ricci. "Jeff Mezzetta himself is always on the lookout for interesting recipes and ingredients."

Shea Rosen is the product-development manager, whose job is to "take our ideas and make them tangible. Whatever we're thinking of producing, I have to figure out a way to formulate it. It's a little bit science and a little bit art."

Two comparatively new products concocted in the test kitchen are a six-flavor line of sandwich spreads – including peperoncini-feta cheese, and roasted red bell and chipotle peppers – and a wine-spiked pizza sauce.

"For the pizza sauce, we brought in all types of tomatoes and herbs, made four or five versions, compared them with competitors' sauces and asked employees to taste and rate them," Knight explained. "It's almost like doing taste tests in your home."

Fun-and-healthy work

Outside Jeff Mezzetta's office is a little box stuffed with dog toys for the days when Basil the black Labrador retriever comes to work with the boss. Which is most days, but not this day.

Mezzetta, 44, is intense and understated, newly married and living in Marin County. He majored in business finance and economics at California State University, Chico.

We sat at a table inside his office and chatted. What are his favorite Mezzetta products? Well, over the weekend he had cooked omelets with his company's sliced peperoncini, roasted bell peppers and capers.

"And I like our tamed (mild) jalapeños on a turkey sandwich," he said.

Because the company is privately held and protective of its trade secrets, certain questions would not be answered.

For instance, how many tons of produce enter the plant each year, and how many tons of finished product leave? What's in the brine? Dollar-wise, how big is the company?

"We don't disclose that information," Mezzetta said.

However, he did say the company continues to push for a bigger market share on the East Coast.

"Every neighborhood (there) has a brand, and there are a lot of Italian families in the East (who make) products very similar to ours," he said. "But we have the advantage of packing fresh here in California."

Mezzetta is a true believer in the Mediterranean diet – one rich in olive oil, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and fish, and moderate in cheese and meat.

Essentially, it's part of what the company sells, so Mezzetta was understandably happy with a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine. It concluded that the Mediterranean diet is "the definitive diet" for reducing strokes and heart attacks among at-risk people.

"The Mediterranean diet has been around for a long time and will be here in the future," he said. "It provides healthy eating, with a little bit of comfort food in there. We're trying to convey the message that food can be fun and healthy at the same time."

What's on the horizon?

"We're working on reinventing some of our product lines and focusing on improving some of our existing items," he said. "(For instance) there's a lot of opportunity in specialty pasta sauces."

Of the four generations who have run the company, arguably Jeff Mezzetta has moved it forward the fastest and most effectively. Is there any achievement in particular he's especially proud of?

"I haven't done it yet, so I can't relax," he said.

"There's still a lot to come."

Recipe: Croque Mezzetta
Recipe: Meatballs with porcini pasta sauce
Recipe: Artichoke Dip with Jalapeno and Roasted Red Pepper
Slideshow: Mezzetta packs pickled peppers and much more

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.

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