The Foodies: Battistoni Italian Specialty Meats
It’s the typical backstory of a successful business, complete with the dream of a better life in the United States and the exercise of an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. When fifteen-year-old Umberto Battistoni arrived in Buffalo from Fano, Italy (Pesaro and Urbino) at the turn of the last century, he was bursting with energy, enthusiasm, and a desire to succeed. He quickly became a member the bricklayers union Local 45 and rose to the position of union president. When work became scarce in his trade, and after an apparently rather ill-fated raisin venture, he started selling small batches of cold cuts from the trunk of his car.
By 1931, Umberto was joined by his sons, Dominic and Alvino, in the formation of the Bison Products Company, Inc., the name (bi-son) a nod to the founder’s two sons. Before the end of the Great Depression, Umberto returned to Italy and recruited sausage makers Erminio and John Surbone from Piedmont to join Bison as it grew to become the largest manufacturer and wholesaler of Italian dry sausage products in New York State. Key to the company’s success were the still-secret recipes for blending spices for each of their main products, which include Genoa salami, capicola, pepperoni, and hard salami. By 1964, the company had begun operations in a 47,000-square-foot plant at 81 Dingens Street in Buffalo, where the plant and corporate offices remain today.
As time passed and market conditions changed, a decision was made to change the labeling and product identification to reflect the company’s Italian ethnicity. Thus, by 2005, when the company was purchased by Buffalo’s Rich Products Corporation, the company had fully adopted the Battistoni brand name.
Meanwhile, East Aurora native Eric Naber and wife Becky were biding their time in Arkansas where Eric was a corporate executive of the giant Tyson Foods Corporation. When the couple’s dual goals—investing in a food business that Eric could operate and returning to Western New York—coincided with Rich’s decision to sell-off the Battistoni business, the stars, as it were, aligned.
In February 2010, Providential Foods Corporation, owned by the Nabers, purchased Battistoni from Rich Products, retaining the Dingens Street offices and plant as well as the dedicated work force. The acquisition, while representing a new beginning for the Nabers, also amounted to somewhat of a culmination of the preparations the couple had been making for decades. Becky, holding a bachelor of arts degree from Allegheny College, had spent the better part of twenty years in various marketing posts at Computer Task Group, Silicon Graphics, and the predecessor to the Synergy Group. Eric had followed up his degree in industrial engineering from Alfred University with a master’s in business administration from Canisius College, and then learned the food business, especially the meat industry side, from top to bottom. The initial details—selling a house in Arkansas, finding one in East Aurora, and getting their two teenage children enrolled in school— took some time, but the pieces finally fell into place.
A Battistoni plant tour quickly negates the often-cited quip attributed to nineteenth-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” After donning a sanitary hair net and butcher-like outer garment, a visitor is first shown the mixing room. Here, one is immediately struck by the emphasis on cleanliness. Each mixing machine is taken apart, sanitized, and reassembled every day. In fact, if the scheduling of product mixing calls for more than one product being prepared in a single day, the machinery is cleansed after each different sausage batch is run. Moreover, pursuant to long-standing regulations, meat inspectors from the United States Department of Agriculture are a regular presence on site, visiting at least once daily and often more frequently.
Constant monitoring of the mixing process takes place to ensure the proper measurement of ingredients, and the proportions of fat, moisture, and seasoning. After being stuffed into precisely sized casing, the sausages are transferred to one of seven “cookhouses,” where they are fermented and heat-treated for nineteen or more hours. They are then moved to drying rooms where they are hung like stalactites, and, depending on the type of sausage, cured for up to three weeks. Constant air circulation results in a slow and consistent drying process that causes the meat to lose up to thirty percent of its water weight.
A facility tour also includes a visit to the “spice room,” where the secret mixtures that have long set Battistoni products apart are closely guarded and dispensed on a strict “need to know” basis.
In the short time that the Nabers have owned Battistoni, annual production has nearly doubled and significant continued growth is expected in both the branded and private label lines. Becky Naber, in her role as the company’s executive vice president of marketing, is managing a marketing push that includes leveraging social media, revamping the website, organizing tastings, and generally building brand and product awareness. One focus of her efforts is making consumers and store buyers aware that Battistoni offers a wide variety of gluten-free, high-quality specialty meats, made from original Italian recipes dating back to the 1930s.
Company president Eric Naber has a clear vision for the years ahead. His first priority is to maintain the highest standards of production and quality control. Second, he will apply equal focus on continued business expansion with recognition of the company’s vast untapped potential. He sees the customer base expanding into (at least) Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the entire Midwest, with a nationwide sales and distribution network within the realm of possibility.
Margaret M. Toohey is CEO and owner of the Lewiston Insurance Agency.