By Dyan Machan
Daniel Mancini, 51, spent 25 years working in the apparel industry, before turning back to a childhood passion: meatballs.
He started his career with department-store jobs in New York City that eventually turned into management roles. A six-month executive training program after college led him to now-defunct Gimbels department store, where he also served as a manager. Mr. Mancini held posts at a variety of other stores, like now-defunct Alexander’s department store on 59th Street and Sasson Jeans before he was recruited to work in sales for a junior collection company that launched in 1986 called Ultra Pink, where he rose through the ranks to become president.
“I love the fact that it’s very creative and wherever I was I always had my hand in on design,” says Mr. Mancini of the fashion industry.
But as his career played out, Mr. Mancini began to wonder what might be next. It was memories of cooking alongside his grandmother Anna Mancini that led to a second act.
Some of Mr. Mancini’s earliest memories involved helping his grandmother in the kitchen. As he grew up, he became Anna’s right hand, helping her shop for groceries and cook the recipes she had memorized. At 15, he asked her to teach him exactly how to cook her dishes. “I just felt that if I didn’t learn all the recipes, they’d be gone,” he says. None of the 25 recipes used exact measures and he never wrote them down either.
In 2008, long after Anna had died and he had made his name in the garment industry, Mr. Mancini was looking for a new challenge. He had often cooked his grandmother’s recipes for friends, earning the nickname “Meatball Dan.” It was after one such meal that he decided to create a business that brought the family dinners he had enjoyed as a child to people outside his social circle. In a nod to his favorite dish, the meatball, Mr. Mancini went into business with his grandmother’s recipe, creating what became “Meatballs and Sunday Sauce.”
At first, he wasn’t sure what to do with his idea. Mr. Mancini sent an e-mail to a local New Jersey market called Eden Gourmet (a division of Garden of Eden) about his product and was invited to bring them by. Mr. Mancini cooked up a batch of his grandmother’s meatballs in his own kitchen and served them up to the manager. After serving the meatballs to Eden Gourmet management, Mr. Mancini knew he was on to something, but wasn’t ready to quit his day job without financial backing. Once he had a working recipe, Mr. Mancini approached Carl Wolf, who lived in the same central New Jersey town as he did and who is the former chief executive of Alpine Lace Co., a deli cheese company, with his idea for a product that he named “MamaMancini’s.”
“He came to us and said he had the world’s greatest meatball,” says Mr. Wolf. “And we said, ‘Oh sure.’ Sure enough, it was a really good product.”
He worked at perfecting the recipe — which took over 18 months and involved turning a small scale recipe into thousands of meatballs. Mr. Wolf then agreed to license the product from Mr. Mancini for about $1.5 million. Under terms of the agreement, the name MamaMancini’s as well as recipes Mr. Mancini created are owned by Mr. Wolf. Mr. Mancini says that in addition to the licensing agreement, he receives royalties.
“I knew that if this was going to work, I had to make a deal with someone who was an expert,” says Mr. Mancini.
After that deal was inked, Mr. Mancini quit the garment industry to focus on becoming the face of a meatball empire. He declines to disclose his salary, but says it is about half of what he made in the garment industry.
Production was moved to a 17,000-square-foot factory in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and the meatballs started rolling. After selling the product locally in supermarkets in New York and New Jersey, in April 2009, Mr. Mancini got his chance to go national with his product when “The Martha Stewart Show” featured Mr. Mancini with his meatballs.
The attention boosted the brand enough to catch on and win distribution with well-known supermarket chains, including Whole Foods, which carries the products in 24 stores in the Northeast.
The fact that his career change also pays tribute to his grandmother makes his success twice as sweet. “When I made this change, I was scared to death,” he says. “I felt in my heart that if you do something that you love, it will be successful.”
Corrections and Amplifications
MamaMancini’s, a gourmet food startup, received $1.5 million in capital investments from investors including Carl Wolf, former chief executive of Alpine Lace. Mr. Wolf, his partner Matt Brown and Daniel Mancini started MamaMancini’s by developing over 18 months a meatball recipe inspired by Mr. Mancini’s grandmother. This article incorrectly says that Mr. Mancini received $1.5 million as part of a licensing agreement and that Mr. Wolf was still CEO of Alpine Lace. The article also incorrectly gave the company’s name as Mama Mancini, incorrectly said that the recipe took Messrs. Mancini and Wolf two weeks to develop and failed to note Mr. Brown’s involvement.