CA-based Papa Cantella’s is the brainchild of a passionate and indomitable entrepreneur who turned his personal taste for Italian-style stuffed meat into a regional rival.
A 24-year-old family-owned and operated sausage firm in southern California is an example of how small need not mean powerless — especially in the business realm where size is often the coefficient of capability.
This is the story of CA-based Papa Cantella’s, a business that amassed a product portfolio of 150 different fresh and fully cooked sausage recipes in slightly more than two decades, beginning with Sweet Italian Sausage — the firm’s initial product introduction. Moreover, the genesis of the company is as offbeat as its founder’s business approach. "Innovation has always been the key to our success," says Tom "Papa" Cantella. "It helped us design our first product and sell our first customer. It has truly gotten us to where we are today and it will definitely be the key to our future."
To be sure, sausage isn’t just sausage at Papa Cantella’s, thanks to innovative research and development techniques coupled with creativity and ingenuity. To say nothing of the company’s storehouse of ingredients hand-mixed by the firm’s in-house specialist. Cantella sausages, produced and delivered daily, are available for both branded and private label distribution, primarily targeting upscale regional markets including Safeway’s Vons and Pavilions stores. Others include independent supermarkets and Costco Wholesale outlets.
In the world of food production and distribution, appeasing consumers is the essential passport to success in today’s competitive marketplace.
The point is not lost on the team responsible for the modern line of Papa Cantella sausages, under the leadership of Cantella, who started the business as a one-man operator. His only processing equipment was a small meat grinder. Now, more than two decades later, the corporation operates with 100 employees who specialize in unusual sausage creations inspired by Cantella’s grandfather’s original recipe.
"Ours was the first Italian sausage in the nation allowed to carry an ’all-natural claim.’ We do not use MSG [monosodium glutamate] or unnecessary fillers and we use only natural casings," reports Tony Cantella, vice president of sales, company spokesman, and the founder’s only son. "The family recipe of fresh pork seasoned with a custom blend of natural spices dates back several generations. Our products range from traditional fresh Italian sausage to traditional smoked beef knockwurst to gourmet poultry sausages."
Imagine chicken and turkey sausage with sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, and feta cheese or else chicken apple sausage with "real" walnuts. Now, imagine a handmade street-vending cart crafted by an antique dealer, loaded with homemade sausage as an alternative to hot dogs. Imagination aside, the clue to solving this saga begs this question: What’s the connection between an antique dealer and sausages?
"My dad," answers Tony Cantella. "He is a [former] antique hustler who decided he could make Italian sausage better than anybody. We pride ourselves on our reputation for superior quality products and packaging."
Several Papa Cantella originals earned gold medal awards in The American Tasting Institute’s "Best of Show" category, beginning with honors for the company’s chicken and turkey sausage with sun-dried tomatoes in 1999. Its signature Italian sausage captured the prize the next three consecutive years. Judges in the national contest comprise a panel of professional chefs in San Francisco, who made their picks in blind taste tests. Although taste heads the list, appearance and freshness also count.
"Our sausages are made with only the highest quality meats perfectly chopped and carefully blended with our own special blends of spices and the most flavorful ingredients from around the globe," Tony Cantella says. "All meat is hand-trimmed for quality control and consistency and is fresh and never frozen."
The Art of Production à la Cantella
The sausage operation recently moved into a new 37,000-square-foot, two-story facility built last year in an industrial park near downtown Los Angeles with a price tag under $10 million.
"We built the largest plant city code allows so there is plenty of room to grow the business," explains Tony Cantella. "We stayed in the same city because of good utility rates and safety provided by the police force." The plant is operating at between 15 percent and 20 percent of capability. "We’re still not even scratching the surface," notes Cantella, who adds that the original plant was one-third the size of the new one. "The plant houses three digitally-controlled ovens, but could easily accommodate five more without any structural changes. Ovens are preprogrammed to constantly check temperatures so there is never the need to make manual changes."
Sausage processing takes place on the ground floor in rooms furnished with the latest high-tech equipment and systems supported by an in-house lab to detect environmental microbes. The upper floor houses administrative offices and two separate employee-welfare sections designed to keep workers assigned to raw and cooked production apart. The four-shift operation runs seven days a week to accommodate the firm’s custom-designed processing, packaging, and distribution systems involving chopping, stuffing, and cooking on a daily basis. Other jobs, including packaging, shipping, facility cleaning and sanitizing, are staggered. "Product is received on one side of the building and shipped out on the other side for an uninterrupted cold chain," Cantella says. "Back tracking is not allowed."
Skill and creativity are assets in creating gourmet and specialty sausages, but so are the right ingredients and plant-floor equipment. "Our products are cut in a bowl chopper as apposed to a standard grinder," Cantella says. "This gives the product better bite, clarity, and allows for better particle definition on specialty ingredients and produce." Sausages are manufactured daily from 15 to 20 small batches no larger than 300 pounds each. Fresh produce is delivered daily from local vegetable processors.
Besides food-safety issues, the new facility is designed to address bio-security, worker safety, and discourage criminal activity. An automated key card must be used to enter through the front door, the only outside access point. Images captured with forty-eight video cameras, positioned inside and outside the facility, are archived for up to six months.
In the Beginning
Tom Cantella had no practical experience in the business of commercial meat processing and distribution in 1980, when he rented 2,700 square feet of space as his first processing plant.
"He didn’t have one customer," notes the younger Cantella.
Tom Cantella was undaunted, however. As a thinking man’s entrepreneur, the elder Cantella put more faith in the power of passionate pursuits than bowing to conventional wisdom about business failure — which explains why he saw an opportunity just waiting to be tapped. For one thing, he was in the right place, for there are few places in this country with the bellwether reputation of California as a trend-setting state.
It’s not surprising that Tom Cantella captured shelf space for his product in several stores in the Von’s chain given his creative sales technique. Since the meat buyers for Von’s didn’t come to him, Tom Cantella took his product to them. He parked his catering truck, cooked some sausage, and personally delivered it to his prospects, impressing them with his "unique presentation."
From that endeavor, Cantella received the nod to test his sausages in 50 stores initially, but soon won approval to supply the entire chain of Von’s stores.
"We stand out within our category of gourmet sausage as the only [processor] in southern California offering a full line of fresh and fully cooked sausages," boasts the younger Cantella.
Although his dad’s entry into the realm of meat processing actually grew out of disappointment over the quality of available Italian sausage — it was not exactly triumphant at the outset.
"Dad couldn’t even barbecue, but he had a passion for sausage, ’real’ Italian sausage made in his kitchen when he was growing up," Tony Cantella reports. "He bought a small grinder, some seasoning, and began experimenting using his grandfather’s recipe."
A company name came next. Mama Cantella? Don’t even think about it. After all, a papa fathered this business and he continues to nurture its growth.
"We will continue to innovate in the sausage category with our products, processing, and packaging," Tom Cantella concludes. "We also look forward to taking our approach and experience and applying them to a whole new line of valued-added meat products as we grow our company."
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Check out the February 2021 edition of Independent Processor, featuring the creative side of sausage making with Smokey Denmark Smoked Meats Co., 2021 outlook, worker safety in a COVID world, biochemical factors affecting goat meat palatability and more!