More than a chance of meatballs

by Steve Krut
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Thanks to a sound business plan, valuable partnerships with his equipment suppliers, a small business incubator program at Rutgers Univ. and some family inspiration, Natale Grande is moving from being an accomplished local kitchen chef to a national culinary success story.

The effervescent restaurateur from Whippany in Northern New Jersey is set to launch The Flying Meatballs onto the national stage. And if his track record is any indication, his chances of succeeding are astronomical.

As president and CEO of the ambitious company he started in Whippany three years ago, Grande says he is looking in two directions at once: back to his roots that make him who he is and to the future he sees for himself and his growing family.

“I keep looking back to the work ethic I learned from my grandfather, Vito Giuliano, who immigrated to the US from the Salerno region of Italy in 1973,” he reminisces. “He worked two jobs…one as a laborer for the Department of Public Works and the other as a self-employed landscaper. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and provide the best he could for his family.”

He remembers the Italian dishes his grandmother, Giuseppina, always prepared and from a very early age began what would be his career cooking alongside his father (Chef Antonio Grande) in the family’s fine-dining restaurant, Il Capriccio, in Whippany. Initially, Natale was studying engineering at the Univ. of Florida when his father suffered an incapacitating shoulder injury. Without being asked, he returned to run the operation and parlayed his on-the-job kitchen experience and some additional culinary studies to help propel the 180-seat restaurant into one of the top 100 Italian restaurants in the nation.

Through the years, Grande’s cooking and exuberant personality won him the hearts of many of his customers. Some were executives in such fine retailers as King’s Food Market, whose corporate offices are not far from the restaurant. After 25 years of dining at Il Capriccio, they knew Grande’s passion was real and this would give him the opportunity of a lifetime: to pitch his outstanding product and get them a place in their markets for the world to taste and enjoy. With this exposure, the demand for his food soared.

Quiet start

The Flying Meatballs started small as a specialty item in the refrigerated section of the family’s gourmet shop, La Famiglia Gourmet, in Mendham, NJ. But keeping those meatballs in stock would become a whole other challenge, as they flew off the shelves. “We were going from making 50 lbs. of meatballs a week, to 150 and then 300,” he recalls. “Other stores were asking for the product.”

Recognizing that the demand and exposure for his product was rising, he approached Rutgers Univ.’s Food Innovation Center, which helps small businesses grow.

“With my background in engineering and food, I could visualize the plant I needed and knew what I wanted to do,” Grande explains. “But there were so many things that presented challenges. The team at Rutgers helped write my HACCP plans, gave me assistance in labeling, quality control, monitoring systems, formulations and so much more. Without their help, the paperwork alone would have been overwhelming and we needed to be under USDA inspection.

“Then I discovered that so much more guidance was available from equipment companies like Risco USA, Multivac, Sealed Air/Cryovac, and RockTenn, to name a few,” he adds. They provided equipment and design, research and development help and helped Grande customize his production space to fit in the 30,000-sq.-ft. plant in Bridgeton, NJ.

“The facility I wanted was a new concept. We did not just want a production plant…we wanted one that was only semi-automated. In other words, I needed to have the chefs involved to retain the artisanal and traditional character of the product,” he says.

Grande says custom-designed equipment from Risco was a major factor in allowing the firm to offer his meatballs in various sizes and variations. The plant is capable of producing the product in 3 and 3.5 oz., as well as cocktail and mini sizes, too.

Run by eight employees, the Bridgeton operation has been so successful that the product line is now able to be offered in the family’s marketplaces, as well as in other local gourmet shops and have recently joined the Fairway family in their New York, New Jersey and Connecticut store locations. Grande also landed his meatballs into Kings Food Market.

With a winning product and now a production facility to deliver it, Grande is still moving to fulfill a further stage of his vision:

“My family’s gourmet store is being rebranded as The Flying Meatballs Italian Marketplace and in February we will be opening a second one in East Hanover,” he says. “And I am actively working on moving into the New York Metro market area, as well.”

‘Web store’ developed

“Additionally, we designed our website [theflyingmeatballs.com] internally,” he adds. “We call it a web-store since we actually have chefs handling calls about custom product and catering needs and we can ship our products coast-to-coast.”

The website provides gourmet recipes and solicits customer comments in all areas. Indeed, many viewers inquire about custom-made products to their own specifications. If their product is chosen for trial production, the company will name it after the presenter and add it to their product line for a three-month run. In addition, they will provide a portion of the first year’s product profit to a charity of the customer’s choice.

The firm offers delivery within a 50-mile area with a $200 minimum order. But at its gourmet stores, the main attraction is fine dining to take home, with 80 percent of the volume represented by takeouts.

An array of imported cheeses sold in half-lb. slices, 13 imported pastas (plus their own versions including a gluten-free corn spaghetti), olive oils and traditional Italian sandwiches are also available at the gourmet stores. They currently operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Grande hints they are looking at expanding its hours.

But a clear direction for The Flying Meatballs is their growing line of Italian comfort foods. This roster features macaroni and cheese, Flying Meatball subs, eggplant and zucchini dishes, sauces (classic tomato, roasted garlic, broccoli rabe purée, mascarpone fondue and basil-pesto), parmigianas, wraps, salads, panini, desserts and even biscotti.

Grande’s heady vision of bringing those home recipes to the nation is powering up to full steam, thanks to his wife, Ellice, who serves as COO; Justin Benson, the director of operations and engineering; and Nicolas Polito, director of research and development.

There is something very profound in the reigning philosophy of The Flying Meatballs that seems to have been responsible for building something out of nothing. Now, the accomplishment of a dream to provide the highest quality products is being realized.
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