UB Insider #51: A Bite of Italy in the Beehive State
About this episode:
A decade ago, Cristiano Creminelli brought his family’s salumi-making tradition from Italy to Utah. From making a few batches in a borrowed kitchen to an award-winning operation that still places a high priority on its heritage. In this episode of UB Insider, as Creminelli Fine Meats celebrates its tenth anniversary, Cristiano talks about the company’s origins, how it maintains quality as it grows, and the power of tradition. Subscribe to our podcast or download this episode on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Google Play.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. In 2004, an entrepreneur met an Italian salami maker. A few years later, they set up shop in Salt Lake City. Now with a long list of industry awards under its belt, Creminelli Fine Meats is celebrating its tenth anniversary in the Beehive State. Cristiano Creminelli who brought his family’s salami-making tradition from Italy is here to talk about the business and how it’s grown over the last decade. Welcome.
Cristiano Creminelli: Thank you.
Lisa Christensen: Well first off, congratulations for hitting this milestone.
Cristiano Creminelli: Thanks a lot.
Lisa Christensen: Can you just briefly tell me how the company began and kind of how it has evolved a little bit over the years.
Cristiano Creminelli: Yeah. Actually, I spent a lot of time in the U.S. before starting this business just because I like this place, honestly. So when I had a little bit of time I came here with my wife and took a little bit of a vacation. And I always had in the back of my mind, it would be nice to spend a little bit more than a month and actually try to live and do what I do in the U.S.
Then as it happens, I think it was in 2004, I met one of my actual business partners, Chris Bowler. He was working for the Olympic Committee in the Torino Olympic Games. And I started to talk with him about the idea to come here in the U.S. and start to do salami in the U.S. And actually little by little he liked the idea and we became partners and we actually started to do some sample production here in the U.S. And it was around 2006, 2007 and little by little, now we are in the factory where we are. At the start, a small idea and more because I like this place. I like the U.S. in general so that’s why.
Lisa Christensen: Well I’m glad that you like this place. I’m glad that you’re here. Why did you choose Salt Lake?
Cristiano Creminelli: Usually a lot of people ask me why and I say for the night-life because it’s amazing. Not really. But let’s say it’s for the climate. The climate was the first choice. To be really traditional you need to be able to use the environment to be able to dry the salami and age the salami. And in Utah, and in Salt Lake City it’s amazing because we have really low humidity. So it’s the perfect place. Then for some cultural connection.
My English is really bad, but believe me, ten years ago it was horrible. Like ten words. I can’t tell you what kinds of words. And it was also the availability of the meat. We have a lot of small farms around Salt Lake City. They raise the pig in a totally natural way. So basically I was just able to order the meat and then the next day I still have the meat warm. To give you an idea. So what was amazing was a wonderful start. And then little by little I saw that Salt Lake is really friendly with people that want to start a new job. So I said to myself, the place is wonderful, wonderful people, wonderful place, very helpful, climate perfect, so why wouldn’t we stay here forever? So that’s what we did.
Lisa Christensen: Well we’re glad to have you.
Cristiano Creminelli: Thank you.
Lisa Christensen: So you mentioned the small farms and the pigs around here. You and your company prefer a specific breed of pig right? More heritage breeds?
Cristiano Creminelli: Yes.
Lisa Christensen: What kind of breeds do you prefer and why is that so important in your product?
Cristiano Creminelli: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Duroc. Duroc is a particular breed. Why? Because more than anything, the meat is really marbling and dry, so it’s basically perfect for making salami. When I came here in the U.S., I drove a bit around different states: Oregon and also on the East Coast. But I found that the local farmers here had a good quality of meats so it was perfect. It’s not just a question of heritage pig, but also the way they raise the pig. So you need to think of these farms as all-natural. The pigs’ condition of life is very particular.
First of all, they are totally free. They usually have a lot of land so they can run, do whatever they want, they can express themselves and develop real muscle actually. Because when you walk, when you run, when you do exercise it’s going to affect the flavor of the meat.
Second was not just the environment itself, but also the food that they give to the animals. The food was all-natural most of the time, actually all of the time they have vegetarian food. So basically they have a wonderful and happy life. And I know when I tell these kinds of things people start to laugh. But happy life, happy pigs make wonderful meat. They’re animals, if they have a wonderful life and stay with the family, and have lots of land where they can run and be happy, they’re going to produce wonderful meat. And this is the situation I’ve found in Utah. And believe me, it was heaven for me. So the perfect breed I like, with the perfect condition of life. And more than everything, the thing I like a lot is not just the quality of life, but how they treat the animal.
You know, most of commercial meats stay in small cages, they don’t move a lot, they have artificial light. So let’s say they have 18 hours of light and they feed the animal a lot so that they grow a lot in five months. So let’s say a commercial pig at five months is ready. If you think that these guys have a long life, they live all the life they have to live and when at the end they’re big and happy and everything, we’re going to use the meat. I like meat, but I also like to think that they are an animal that can have a nice and a good life. So all of those three things together make me like Utah as the perfect place. And Duroc is still the meat.
If I need to tell you, there is just a little difference between the animal I find in Italy, the Duroc you find in Italy and here in the U.S. It’s just the way that they are selected, if we can tell this way. I don’t know if I would, because it looks like it will be more complicated. But basically if you think here in the U.S., what the cut of the meat people like more from pork is belly and loin. So here the Duroc are usually really long because during generation and generation, these are the pigs that the farmers select. So over time the pigs become longer and longer so that you have a lot of loin and a lot of belly. In Italy, the selection is a little bit different and they are actually really short and have giant legs and shoulders because in Italy we use a lot of leg and shoulder. You think prosciutto, in Italy, prosciutto is the prime cut of a pig. So you need to have a lot of prosciutto and they are three times bigger than here. They are ginormous. Sometimes when you see the difference you think, this is a bear not a pig!
Lisa Christensen: Well I’ve never considered that. That would be different. I’ll have to see an Italian Duroc.
Cristiano Creminelli: Yeah. They are different. They look really similar if you see the animal from the front, from the face, but the size of the body is totally different. We love fat in Italy. So if the pig has a lot of fat we are super happy.
Lisa Christensen: Well you mentioned the Duroc in Italy and also the way that you make the salami is part of a tradition, a long family tradition. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Cristiano Creminelli: Yes. I can divide tradition into different categories. The first one for sure is made with a traditional method. So we are artisan. We consider ourselves artisan. We use some machinery for sure because the end-quality of the product will be better. But our production is not machine-centric, but is human-centric. At the end, our product will go through no less than seven different hands of seven different operators. And this is our quality control. We tie by hand, we stuff by hand, we examine the meat by hand and everything. Most importantly, when we go inside the dry room, inside the aging room, we touch the salami with the hand and understand what we need to do to make the salami better. So if we need to increase humidity, decrease temperature, whatever. It’s really important to be artisan, and for me, tradition means artisan.
Secondly, let’s say the quantity of the batch we do, it’s not really a question of quantity. That’s not the right expression because we can do ten, fifteen, twenty batches per day, but it’s the size. The size is really small. You know, usually when you go in a factory when they produce meat, salami or whatever, usually the batches of meat are ginormous. A ton. Our batch is actually 400 pounds, 450 to be perfect. Why? Because 450 pounds is basically one square meter. So when we do the salami, we have the control. We know we can check the salami just in front of you, but be busy with your end goal and also check the last one at the end of the cart so you never lose control. So it’s not really important if you do 20, 30, 40 batches per day, but the size is important. With that size you know you can have the best control.
And the last thing in tradition is probably the most important for me, honestly. I want to tell you a little story. I like to tell stories. But basically, from Salt Lake City to Biella, my hometown in Italy in the West of Italy, there is an eight-hour difference. So I am a lucky guy. Why? Because when I have lunch, my father has dinner. And we have Skype and we Skype together. So we eat dinner and lunch together and I have my live Wikipedia. He’s there. If I have trouble or something I don’t really understand I can ask him. Because I know it’s already happened to him or to my grandfather or great grandfather and he knows and is going to explain it to me. So tradition is also this kind of deep connection that I have with my roots in Italy. And being able to do little adjustments. But it’s the kinds of little adjustments that are going to change the flavor of the product. So tradition is really important.
Lisa Christensen: Well you have amassed a lot of awards and gotten a really great reputation. You’ve been written about in the New York Times, correct?
Cristiano Creminelli: Yes.
Lisa Christensen: Tell me about the early days of the company and gaining traction, getting the word out there?
Cristiano Creminelli: I tell all the time that I feel I’m a really lucky guy. I feel that being in the U.S. right now is being at the center of the world for food. I think here in the U.S. is the place that you need to be because of its sense of food. If you think ten or fifteen years ago, let’s say probably twenty, food was just gas for your body. Nobody really cared. People were going to eat something because they needed to eat something. But now, people are really smart. They want to know what they eat. They want to try new things. They want to understand really well what kind of story is behind a product. It’s a perfect place for a guy like me because I don’t just do a product, I prepare something I’m really passionate about and that has a lot of story. I like when people stop and ask why I do things this way and why do I make things this way and why these kinds of ingredients. Being in the U.S. right now is the perfect place. And I saw a lot of people in the food scene, they little by little came to the U.S. because they understood that this is where they need to be now.
Lisa Christensen: How has the company grown in terms of scale and operations? You mentioned keeping the batches small but having a number of batches. How has that grown in the last ten years?
Cristiano Creminelli: A lot. But in a good way. When we started we had a vision to provide not just authentic food, but something really genuine and really well done. We never go out of that way. The only thing is we grow. We grow a lot. When we started in the basement of a friend, I probably can tell you that it was Tony Caputo, my production was 150 pounds every month. Right now we do probably more like 20,000 pounds a day, to give you an idea. But again, it’s not really a question of how much we can do but how much people we have to help us.
When we started it was just me and my two business partners, my two friends. And little by little we asked more people to come from Italy, and we actually had a lot of people here in the U.S. and we started to teach them how to do our work. They became fans and became passionate like me. We are like a big family. Right now we are more than 100 people in total between different positions in the company like sales and marketing and production and everything. But we still have the idea of where we started, like doing things in time, taking the time to create the product the way we like. So yes, we’ve grown a lot. And I don’t know, in terms of size I can tell you a lot.
The company is growing and still growing. Every day people like the idea to do this kind of little step and maybe with some food that they don’t know really well, they don’t understand it. Let’s grab something we know is made in a particular way without any kind of preservative, without any kind of chemical stuff inside. We do some really simple products. Probably the best example is our prosciutto. If you read the label there are two ingredients, meat and salt. That simple. Doing this way takes a lot of time. This is why not just the company is growing, not just the people inside, but the company itself. Because we need more space to age the product because the aging takes a lot of time.
Lisa Christensen: Well speaking again of tradition, where do you see this tradition that you have upheld from your grandfather to your father and now to you, where do you see that going? How do you see the company continuing to grow in the future?
Cristiano Creminelli: I like to think that we will go in this way forever, hopefully. I think it’s important. The most important thing is that we are a group of people that like food, we really enjoy food. We want to do something really special. We want to share. I think in the future we have room to grow. Why? Because at the end, if you think that less than 5% of the people in the U.S. know what prosciutto is, and prosciutto is probably the most important product that we do. I don’t know how much they know about salami. There is a lot of room to grow and I’m sure it’s going to grow the company because I’ve seen other little producers around the United States who have started, they grow and have a lot of success. They use local ingredients, local meat, and so I think the future will be growing but keeping always in our mind, our value. This is what I think is going to separate us from a regular company. Growing little by little, step by step, but in the way we like.
Lisa Christensen: Well great. I can’t wait to see what the future brings for you.
Cristiano Creminelli: Well it will be fun. It’s always fun. It’s always an adventure.
Lisa Christensen: Well thank you so much for coming in today.
Cristiano Creminelli: Thanks a lot. Thanks to you.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help today. You can download our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google or really wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us on social media at @utahbusiness and drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.