Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need to Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Tosi, President and Co-Owner of Pastene, the country’s oldest importer of authentic Italian foods and ingredients. He is a Boston entrepreneur who, along with his brother Chris Tosi, represents the sixth generation of Pastene descendants who have helmed the iconic Canton, Massachusetts-headquartered brand for over 146 years. The Pastene story began in 1848 with a produce-laden pushcart in Boston’s North End, and today the company’s products are sold nationally in neighborhood markets, select supermarket chains, by national e-tailers like Amazon and Walmart, and online at www.pastene.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Igrew up in a small town outside of Boston, MA and was the second of three boys. My memories of childhood were having lots of family and friends at the house. My Dad loved to cook so our house was pretty popular. I started working in the Pastene warehouse when I was 16 years old. My brother Chris, and I did every job, from inventory and stocking shelves to working on deliveries for restaurants and grocery stores. I also had the chance to travel to Italy and study wine and food because my father believed it was important for his sons to see all sides of the business start to finish.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Well, that was well before my time, however, Pietro Pastene came to the U.S. in 1848. He and his son loaded a pushcart with produce and the country’s first-ever imported olive oil and peddled their popular wares around the North End. I’m proudly the sixth generation of Pastene descendants who have led the brand, still headquartered in the Boston-area.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started working, a lot of the accounts I was focused on were primarily Italian speaking, and I was nowhere near fluent at the time. Once I had the chance to study in Italy, I could look back and see all the silly and obvious mistakes I had made. What I learned from that was that I needed to study Italian if I was going to work in the Italian Foods industry.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The marketplace is extremely crowded, introducing a new item is expensive in today’s market. For such an established company and for being so well known in New England, we still fight today for shelf space. A common error I have seen people make is not having enough experience. I recommend getting a job in the industry to understand the different levels of the marketplace and the intricacies of it as it is so competitive and can be complicated. The Company has over 146 years of experience, it is the five generations ahead of me that used their experience to get to where we are today.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Learn the market and learn the industry. Know it inside and out from top to bottom and have experience in it all. Either that or find a partner who does. Start small and niche, know where you want to be and focus on that.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
If you have the right product and the right team marketing it, you can do anything. At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the product you provide and utilizing the strength of others on your team to continue getting your idea off the ground.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
The first step is to know your market, even before considering hiring a consultant. Pastene has found our own ways to stand out and be unique. We have focused on having our own sections as opposed to fitting into crowded shelf space throughout the store. We focus on non-perishables and items that are shelf stable, thus allowing us to provide quality ingredients that last.
Consultants can be expensive, especially when you are starting out, so my advice would be to learn as much as you can from your own experience and listen to your customers.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
In my opinion, most successful brands start by bootstrapping. Investors look for numbers, so it is a lot harder to get VC funding if you have no proof of your product. It always starts with you and hard work.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
We actually don’t have any patents, unless you are scientifically designing a new method for producing your food, it doesn’t do much good in this industry. The key is good raw ingredients; find where the best ingredients are produced and go there. We believe in going directly to the source and focusing on partners local to the ingredients.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need to Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Build your supply chain wisely — We have consistently driven significant growth — even amidst recent pandemic-related supply chain breakdowns — because Pastene has cultivated strong relationships with long time affiliates and retail partners, which enables us to keep products flowing when other brands have struggled.
Respond to changing tastes — We are constantly changing products to fit the times. As people get old and trends fade away, certain items don’t sell the way they used to, so we are always expanding or reducing targeted offerings to meet demands.
Be authentic, trustworthy and consistent — With 145+ years of hindsight, we continue to be loyal to our established customer base. With more families cooking at home these days, Pastene has also seen an influx of new customers by offering quality, affordable, shelf-stable products that people tend to seek in times of economic challenge. Always think of how you can better communicate your brand values and improve your customers’ online and in-store shopping experience.
Make your product entertaining — Offer items that home cooks use and enjoy. During the pandemic, people started getting more enjoyment from cooking together. Millennials in particular are gravitating to team cooking, live or even recently, on Zoom. It’s important to think of products as providing entertainment to consumers and share recipes to inspire them.
Maintain quality — Most importantly, stand for quality. Pastene is a brand that people know and expect to be high quality. In expanding from one Italian Olive Oil in 1848 to over 150 products that we offer today, we always put quality first. Virtually all of our competitors don’t even try to be in our quality category because it’s not cost-effective for them. We do it right, no matter how much more it costs.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Most of our products are base ingredients, used to create. We stand by our products because they are simple, fresh, and high quality. These ingredients bring people together and are the basis of recipes prepared in homes, restaurants, and more.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
With the difficulty of this past year, people have been forced to rediscover their kitchens and pantries and to cook affordable, healthy and delicious meals for their families. Our goal is to bring families together and provide products that do just that. In a time of discomfort, we hope to be comforting, consistent, and joyfully delicious.
We also try our best to use what we have to give back. We have been able to repurpose the majority of our bulk restaurant products to donate to food banks and local community centers in New England. Boston is the city that raised us so it only made sense to give back as much as we could.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I am passionate about healthier eating and making that accessible to everyone. We do our best to provide affordable foods that are high quality, we believe the two are not mutually exclusive. At a time when money is tight for a lot of families, a pound of pasta goes a lot farther than a pound of steak.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I have two people that I would have loved and would love to meet in person. The first is not necessarily someone you can tag, but I would love to have been able to meet Pietro and really learn from his start back in 1874. Six generations later, I am still amazed by the foundation he built and at how far we have come. The second person I would love to meet is Jeff Bezos. I am in awe of the scale of Amazon and how he was able to grow it from the ground up and would love to pick his brain.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.