2022 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner: Mike Grazier, Busseto Foods

Julie Besonen | 6 Jun 2022

Mike Grazier, 67, has pretty much always been in the meat business. He mostly grew up in the Midwest, wherever his father was based while working for Armour, the famed meat company. After college, at the University of Arizona, he became a salesman for Armour, then was lured to poultry producer Foster Farms as a sales rep, advancing to sales management and production.

“I had a very successful career there and loved it,” Grazier says.

Still, he was tempted when a headhunter contacted him, saying an Italian company in Fresno called Rapelli wanted an American to help them in the American marketplace.

“I had never heard of Rapelli. I couldn’t even spell salami,” he says.

But his dad had heard of its European-style specialty products and encouraged him to go for it. Grazier interviewed with the Italian family and realized it represented a unique opportunity to turn a company around.

After he took the job, he almost did a U-turn, ready to crawl back to Foster Farms. The company was struggling financially more than he thought and the plant manager at the time was a vegetarian who disliked the smell of meat.

“The old owner didn’t quite understand I was there to replace him and disagreed with me on virtually everything,” Grazier recalls. “I knew the company wouldn’t survive if it kept going the way it had been.”

For one thing, 90 percent of Rapelli’s business was on the East Coast and it was shipping products via air from California. He switched to less expensive trucks and worked from 1991 onward to get the volume up to where the company started to break even instead of lose money. In 1996, to reflect the changes, Rapelli was rebranded Busseto (the name of the Italian village where the parent company was headquartered), reintroducing themselves to the marketplace with a new look. After that, the company grew rapidly, adding more drying rooms and fermentation rooms and a 45,000-square-foot distribution facility.

“We knocked on enough doors and some of those doors started to open,” Grazier says. “Specialty foods became less niche and more mainstream.” They expanded the product portfolio and developed private-label programs. What also helped were consumers who were more traveled and educated, resulting in more awareness of charcuterie than in the 1990s.

In 2007, Busseto Foods became part of the Milan-based Fratelli Beretta group, which shared Grazier’s passion and vision. Its line of meats—salami, prosciutto, coppa, bresaola, pancetta—is available in a variety of packaging options for foodservice and retail. Dozens of snacking concepts have been launched, plus value-added meat-and-cheese trays and combo packages for antipasti, bringing the number of SKUs to around 250. Grazier says that last year’s revenue would have exceeded $100 million if not for the pandemic. When he began in 1991, it was under $2 million.

“I firmly believe the real key to success is innovation, bringing new ideas to the marketplace,” he says. “But deep down, the success of the company isn’t me, it’s the people around me.”

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