Giacomo Santomauro was alarmed by the slow start his chosen career as a fireman was making. But he reached back into the mother lode of meat-processing knowhow his father had taught him and set about blazing a new profession as a gourmet Old -World style meat entrepreneur.

Today, the 42-year-old owner of Giacomo’s Italian Market and San Giuseppe Salami Company in Greensboro, NC, is reflectively thankful he had such a rough start.

“I was a volunteer fireman in Huntington [Long Island], NY, and wanted to get hired as a professional,” he says, “but I got no job offers. I had applied everywhere, even as a smokejumper in Montana, but got no takers. Then I finally landed a job in High Point; I didn’t even know where that was.”

All this came about just a week before he married his wife, Laura.

Career change

Providence somehow intervened and after moving to North Carolina in 1995 and spending four years as a paid fireman, his beaming personality and culinary skills propelled him to the role of firehouse cook.

Santomauro decided to test the waters of running a business and opened a small deli in High Point. It was small by any standard, boasting two shelves and only one deli case. But it went over so well that he opened a second one. And then the roof caved in on his meat-career aspirations.

“The folks from USDA said I was transporting product between stores and could be facing fines of $100,000 and maybe imprisonment,” he recalls. “I was scared to death but wanted to do the right thing. The USDA people did help steer me to the concept of opening a location under inspection, so I could supply the retail stores. I was making cold calls until I found something. I call that ‘the push’, which was what I needed.”

He was able to lease 4,000 sq. ft. of space at a facility that was built for inspection in nearby Elon, moved his equipment to that location and set up production as a way to supply his retail store.

He had already closed the store in High Point.

But it was always the New York-style, ethnic, meat-shop atmosphere that powered the enterprise. His location in the heavily traveled commercial and business section of Greensboro complemented the ambiance his retail store and deli restaurant offers. About a dozen tables are available, inside and out, and the place is constantly packed.

The aromas seem to grip the soul right at the front door. Fresh-baked breads, homemade deli salads and a cavalcade of specialty and imported aged cheeses seem to whet the appetite for the real main course, the delicately crafted meats.

A gigantic chalkboard heralds such imports as pancetta, prosciutto parma and mortadella, yet they are not outdone by Santomauro’s own dry-aged capicola, salami Milano, hot and sweet soppressata, pepper jack smoked bologna, capicola and homemade ham, corned beef, pepperoni, pastrami and more.

It’s obvious that the deli crowd is there for the delightfully balanced sub and hot hero sandwiches, which Santomauro oversees like an orchestra maestro. He’ll personally refuse to sell anyone a sandwich with ingredients that “don’t go together” and will instead offer a personal recommendation that’s sure to please.

So exuberant is he that many of the menu items represent both his heritage and some posted on the wall are absolutely off the wall. This would include such concoctions as a “Paullie Walnuts” and others dubbed the Italian Stallion, the Burscino, the Federici and the Paesano.

There are decorative platters and homemade desserts for parties and special occasions. From tiramisu to cannolis, from prosciutto stuffed peppers, seafood salads, specialty sauces and soups, or even homemade meatballs, pasta and bracioli, it’s a shop that has what you want in Italian foods crammed into a limited space. The hanging pepperonis, sausages and ham products let the customers know they can take the ingredients home and how they respond is overwhelming.

Gift baskets, antipasto trays and an amazing array of pasta, chicken, eggplant and sausage entrees highlight the catering menu.

Word of mouth

It is absolutely clear that Santomauro would never have to advertise to keep things churning in his inspected plant. Word of mouth advertising is one thing…taste in your mouth is a more powerful driver that works wonders.

Santomauro explains that his San Giuseppe Salami Company is named after his mother’s home town in Naples and his labels have changed from a pork caricature to now portray the family hometown crest.

He considers himself a “regular guy” who represents the label.

“Sure, I’d like to make money,” he confides, “but there is nothing greater than someone who spots you in a mall and shouts across the aisles, ‘Hey Giacomo, I love your meatballs!’”

His philosophy…which he readily admits was instilled in him by his father…is that you must go all in or get out of what you are doing.

So overwhelming has his reputation become that his factory workforce of three full-timers and one part-timer may soon be supplying much more than his small Italian market. Five of his salami varieties now appear in 13 Harris-Teeter supermarkets and he recently landed a sizeable account with a quality, regional powerhouse food distributor Southern Foods, based in Greensboro. He has also been providing meats to higher-end restaurants in the Greensboro area for several years.

The energetic processor is also private-labeling products for about a half-dozen farmers who have their animals processed and take the meat to his inspected facility. He also established a website that is named after his other endeavor

Santomauro says that his website has been in operation for about five years, but seemed to “go to sleep” with only a couple of orders a week for nearly 18 months. He kept complaining to the webmaster until adjustments were made and the sales have since started an upward climb.

He is particularly happy with the gift baskets ordered from the website, pointing out that the meats are packaged and then sent to the store where fresh cuts of cheeses or his other food specialties are assembled into the final order.

All in the family

The former fireman represents the second generation of his family in the meat and food business, and his wife Laura’s family has plied that trade for four generations. He is uncannily adept at seeing the new role he now plays:

“It is so hard to compete with big companies in the meat business. But I’m local. Now to me, local means to be helpful in pleasing your customers by doing what’s right. Like I said, it’s me on the label and I have to be my own judge of what I’m doing is the right way. I’ve been taught to stay with what you start. You can go cheap and you will always stay cheap in the way you do things. Start with quality and you will every day measure yourself by that standard.”

He realizes that he must spend most of his time within the cinderblocks of the inspected plant and laments that he can’t be in front of his customers being a people person and going all out to see their reaction and get their recognition.

“I have stuck to my father’s original recipes, but try to create some of my own products along the way,” he admits. “I’ve added aged imported provolone to a salami to make a new flavor, or put in some olives or sun dried tomatoes to try something different. That’s the fun part of what I do.”

Santomauro observes that his could be a shop that “you pass three times and never know it’s there” or one that people seek out. It’s very obvious that his customers have found their Caesar of homemade sausage and will eagerly stand in line to savor more of what this erstwhile fireman now puts out.

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.