As a teacher and high school principal for 18 years, Mike De Massimo, Wittenberg University class of 1999, would make his family’s homemade lasagna for his students and staff around the holidays.
“I was born and raised in Cleveland and come from a large Italian American family,” De Massimo says. His mother used to run an Italian restaurant in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and his sister is also in the industry. “Food is our love language.”
De Massimo’s annual tradition of celebrating his students and fellow educators with a homemade Italian dish has since become a successful entrepreneurial venture, De Massimo’s Authentic Sauces and Imports, located in Columbus, Ohio.
“What started out as a tribute to my family, and most notably, my grandmothers, slowly became a small business,” he says.
After his last living grandmother passed away, De Massimo wanted “to do something to honor her and [the] family who came before” him. Making pasta sauce from traditional family recipes passed down through the generations seemed a natural fit.
As a high school principal, he had partnered with adult occupational placements to help employ students with disabilities once they left the high school setting. When it came time to produce larger batches of sauce, he used a local commercial kitchen that works with adults with developmental disabilities and began selling the sauce at local farmers markets.
“The following year, I asked students in our business and entrepreneur classes if they wanted to run their own farmers markets,” De Massimo says. “Needless to say, a small business was created.”
The business has since grown and expanded, with De Massimo’s Authentic Sauces now being produced in a larger facility and sold at Meijer, Kroger, Giant Eagle, Fresh Thyme, Food City, Heinen’s, and many independent grocery stores in Ohio, the Midwest, and the South. Seven years ago, De Massimo left his job in education and now dedicates his time to building the family business. He credits wife, Bethany Schlater ’04, with providing the support needed to make the leap to full-time entrepreneurship.
As the business grew, the village of San Giovanni in Galdo, Molise, Italy – the hometown of his maternal grandmother – noticed their likeness on the company’s packaging and invited the De Massimos to visit.
“We were welcomed with open arms, given the key to the village in a ceremony, they awarded me with honorary citizen status, had a festival in our honor, and basically rolled out the red carpet,” De Massimo says. “We got to see where my grandparents were born and raised, and live with our family in our ancestral roots.”
They have continued to visit the village, bringing more family members along, and now are importing olive oil produced in the Molise region.
At the same time, the De Massimo family in Abruzzo, Italy, home of the paternal side of the family, also invited them to visit.
“It was during one of our visits that we were presented with our family tree that was able to be traced back to 1683,” De Massimo said. “Our sauces that we sell to consumers are based on the sauces my family has created for centuries. We utilize the word ‘authentic’ in our brand identity. We take this word seriously because not only are our sauces authentically influenced by our roots, our creation story is authentic and can be attached to our past. We are proud of that.”
In addition to supporting the small producers in Molise, De Massimo’s strives to support the local Columbus community as well, donating products to the Hilliard Food Pantry and time to St. Aloysius Community Outreach to feed the hungry.
De Massimo recognizes that his path to business owner is a bit unusual. An English major with a minor in secondary education, he didn’t take a single business class at Wittenberg.
“I can without a doubt say the education I received was top notch in many ways,” he explains. “I got to experience some of the most intelligent, student-centered, and challenging professors around. Some of them even became dear friends and mentors. The Wittenberg community is contagiously positive and supportive as well.”
A four-year member of the Tiger baseball team, he worked as an assistant coach for the team from 2000-2003 before starting his career in education. He believes that “being a part of a team with individuals who worked hard for a common goal, stretched their abilities, and challenged each other” all contributed to his confidence to later make the jump from school administrator to entrepreneur.
“My business path has not been the most traditional, but what I learned and gained at Wittenberg definitely made an impact,” De Massimo said. “Students should not be afraid to chase and capture their dreams.”