At The Joe one night in July, the ballgame was over, the hot dogs and nachos were scarfed down, and the beers were gulped.
But people stuck around for something more — even more food.
In their defense, it was locally manufactured Italian food.
Mastroianni Brothers of Rotterdam was hosting Italian night at the Troy ballpark, and had invited other Schenectady area Italian food manufacturers, like Casa Visco and Pede Brothers, to join in the fun.
Mastroianni Brothers employees gave out loaves of sliced bread, and workers from Casa Visco, also of Rotterdam, were spreading tomato sauce on the bread.
“Nobody would leave the stadium,” said Warren Zeiser, CEO of the Rotterdam bakery. “People stood around the front of Joe Bruno Stadium, and the best word to use was community. Where all you want to do is get the hell out of the stadium, and get to your car and beat the traffic, people stood around eating slices of Mastroianni bread with the Casa Visco sauce.”
And they shared memories of their grandparents eating the bread and sauce, he said.
Zeiser had just come on as CEO of the company in early July when he decided to turn Italian night into local Italian night. What transpired inspired him to try to bring the area’s Italian food manufacturers together in an effort to remind the community of their local options.
“We want to try and build a sense of community among Schenectady manufacturing,” he said.
Strength in numbers
He admitted that the effort is just getting started — “I made a few phone calls, I had lunch with some people the other day,” he said — but he’s hopeful it could eventually help small local companies like Mastroianni Brothers, founded nearly a century ago, with a lot of history compete with national brands on grocery store shelves.
“We’re the little guy in the corner screaming and waving our arms,” he said. “We want people to know who we are, and I think, through a little collaboration, we can do that a little better than we could on our own.”
Romolo Pede Jr. said his family’s pasta company in Rotterdam, Pede Brothers, uses local products, and “nothing cheap.”
“We use the best products that they have,” he said.
He and his brother, David, are trying to keep the company his father, Romolo Pede Sr., started over 40 years ago going, he said. The company employs 25 people.
He agreed that some collaboration with companies like Mastroianni Brothers would help.
“That’d be great,” he said. “That’s great for this area, for all of us to work together.”
Changes at Mastroianni
Founded in 1923 by eight Mastroianni brothers, the bakery has long been known for its large loaf of sliced Italian bread, Zeiser said. “It’s been the number one selling bread in the Capital District.”
But since joining the company the first week of July, Zeiser led a survey of the community and found that the big loaf is too much for a growing number of households. “We found that the older customers that have been eating our bread for 60 years, they can’t buy it anymore,” he said. “That was a big chunk of our revenue.”
When the kids leave home, the parents don’t need it. And many customers in their 20s don’t have enough mouths to feed, either. So Mastroianni Brothers has started offering a smaller version.
“We put that item out and that item alone has skyrocketed,” he said, adding that the big loaf is still an option. “We call it an express loaf.”
Zeiser, 48, has been in the food business since he was 19. At 22, he bought into Horizon Gourmet, where he worked in sales until 2008. He then became a regional sales director for Maines Paper and Food Service, where he worked for five years before being recruited to take over Mastroianni Brothers. He’s from Long Island and now lives in Niskayuna.
“Mastroianni had decided that they were looking to revitalize the company, and wanted a CEO to kind of take them through that journey, and they contacted me,” he said.
The shorter loaf is one of many changes he’s making to have the company appeal to a wider audience, especially younger generations, he said. “We want the millennials, just as everyone else does.”
“It’s no secret that Matroianni Bakery sales have been down for a lot of years in spite of the fact that it’s the most well-known bread brand in the area,” he said.
To appeal to more health-conscious customers, the company, known for its minimally processed bread, is using even fewer preservatives. And new, healthier variations include an all natural honey oat bread, as well as multigrain.
The whole company is being rebranded, he said.
From his office on the second floor of the 25,000-square-foot bakery Wednesday, he pulled a loaf — though not a fresh one — down from a shelf.
“Don’t mind the mold on it, we’re doing a test,” he said. “This was kind of our old, and I mean old, logo, and we have about seven or eight different logos, so it kind of defeats the purpose of a logo. And people don’t know who we are or what it is, so we had an online contest.”
Ninety logos were submitted, and the new logo won a 30-day online contest with nearly 70 percent of the votes. The logo, meant to reflect the bakery’s history while moving the brand forward, is just starting to hit store shelves.
The company ships bread to grocery stores across the region and state, and to various places around the Northeast. Zeiser hopes to expand that.
“We’re not national — yet,” he said. “We will be.”
Before any changes could be made, Zeiser said, the bakery and its 30 warehouse employees, and about 15 truck drivers, needed a culture shift.
Zeiser said he has upped the communication with daily meetings, where employees are encouraged to offer suggestions, and by walking the floor multiple times a day and asking questions like “Are we putting the extra love into the bread?”
When he first joined the bakery, he met with all of the employees and told them not to look at their work as a job.
They’re not making a loaf of bread, he told them, they’re making a product that a family sits around the table to have a meal with.
“And if we do it wrong, we ruin that experience,” he said. “If we do it right, we add to the experience.”
Consistency is crucial
Down a floor in the baking area, rolls fresh from one of 20 brick ovens filled a conveyor belt. Jeivan Castro was placing them on a cooling rack.
“No matter how bad it gets, a big smile on his face,” Zeiser said in his direction.
Castro, a shift supervisor who has worked at Matroianni for seven years, said “it’s absolutely hard work,” and that’s why he keeps smiling.
“I always try to keep a positive attitude to make my environment better,” said Castro, who is 27 and lives in Schenectady.
Other than the quality ingredients, he said, the trick to making the bread taste good is consistency.
“We try to keep the best guys doing the same thing that they’re good at, and it always gets done the same way,” he said.
And he said he’s noticed an improvement since Zeiser came on and boosted communication floorwide.
“It’s actually working better,” he said. “It’s actually helping us with our consistency. It’s taking us somewhere.”
As Mastroianni Brothers goes places, Zeiser wants other small, Schenectady area Italian food manufacturers to take part. That could mean more events like the one at The Joe among other joint promotional efforts, he said.
“I’d like to have others join us on our journey and their journey,” he said. “We do it together.”