Though they’ve added plenty of new ingredients over the years, Rustica Foods has never strayed from its winning recipe as it grew from a small family run pizzeria to a 400-person pizza manufacturing giant.
According to president and CEO Richard Morgante, the Montreal-based, immigrant founded, family-run business has always remained loyal to those roots, which proved strategically vital at key moments through its nearly 25-year history.
Mr. Morgante founded the company alongside his Italian-born parents, Stefano and Assunta, as a spin-off of their family-owned pizzeria. In early 2000 they purchased a small manufacturing line to sell the tomato pizza that had made their restaurant a neighbourhood staple to local grocery stores.
“We went from [selling in] five stores to 14 stores to 20 stores,” he says. “As it grew, we started automating the system a little bit.”
In 2014 Rustica acquired Mia Foods, which exclusively produced shelf-stable pizza crust and had a pre-existing relationship with Walmart USA.
“Our portfolio moved from tomato pizza – which is freshly baked pizza delivered every single day – to a shelf stable crust, which has an approximately 120-day shelf life, that we now export to Walmart USA and the Caribbean,” says Mr. Morgante.
From there, Rustica expanded into new flavours and formats, including frozen pizza, and found a way to offer North America the only frozen pizza with a fresh cheese stuffed crust.
“In 2017, I approached the president of Nestle Foods and made an agreement that if I built this frozen pizza manufacturing facility we would enter into a business relationship to become their exclusive pizza co-manufacturer in Canada,” says Mr. Morgante
As the company expanded Mr. Morgante says he continued to emphasize those values that had made it successful in the first place. Namely, he says the business never cuts corners in the interest of lower prices. Rustica also continued to add family members to their ranks, including Mr. Morgante’s sister, cousin, uncle and aunt. In 2010, they also added a family friend as a partner to the company: Vincent Giove, an entrepreneur with experience in pizza manufacturing who went on to be named as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2021.
“We’re bringing in our children now, who are in their teens, to learn the business, but we don’t only promote this for ourselves as owners — we also promote this for the people that work here,” says Mr. Morgante. “We encourage them to bring in their own families to work for us.”
That strategy, according to Rustica’s CIBC coach Michael Montecalvo, has helped the company maintain consistent staffing levels and a close-knit culture through periods of expansion. In fact, Rustica was just named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for 2023, an award which recognizes excellence in private Canadian-owned enterprises.
“When your mom or your dad or your cousin says, you should come join us at Rustica, that speaks volumes,” Mr. Montecalvo says.
Mr. Morgante explains that after witnessing how much pride his immigrant parents took in their work, he wanted to extend the same opportunities to others. That is why the company hosts hiring events in neighbourhoods throughout the city to attract diverse talent, and encourages staff to invite their own family and community members to apply.
“We have over 20 different nationalities that we can identify at Rustica foods, so it’s really a multicultural work environment,” he says.
The company also maintains a strong focus on collaboration and transparency. Mr. Morgante says he and other executives have an open-door policy, check in regularly with team members, share performance metrics with all staff, and employ their assistance in solving business challenges.
This approach, according to Mr. Morgante, proved vital when the pandemic hit in 2020, and allowed Rustica to maintain operations as others closed their doors.
“During the pandemic we didn’t miss a beat; it was very challenging for us, but with the quality of people we have working for us, they really kept us going,” he said. “We accommodated everyone so they felt like they had the support that was necessary.”
Just as the company recovered from that disruption, however, Rustica found itself facing another hurdle this February, when Nestlé announced it was winding down its frozen food business in Canada. “Once again we asked everyone to step up, and ideas started flowing through the company,” says Mr. Morgante.
Suddenly Rustica was in a race to develop its own branding and its own line of frozen pizzas, while convincing retail partners to replace Nestle products with their own, all in a matter of six weeks. Nestlé Canada was instrumental in supporting them during this transition, notes Mr. Morgante
“It’s kind of unheard of in our industry to develop a product that quickly, but because of our expertise and the commitment we have from everybody, we were able to achieve this,” says Mr. Morgante.
As the company begins to establish its own brand, it continues to honour its roots while celebrating new ideas and cultures. Staples like the tomato pizza that made it famous, and the stuffed crust frozen pizza that made it an industry leader, will remain, alongside some new ideas inspired by the many cultures that have found a home at Rustica.
“We always maintained an Italian flavor in every product , but it’s not only Italian anymore; you can have cheeseburger pizza, you can have shawarma pizza and you can have feta cheese pizza” he says. “We don’t sacrifice quality, we maintain that artisanal aspect in every single product that we produce. My mother - or Mama-Sue as she is better known at Rustica Foods - is still part of the R&D team!”
To take the next step in becoming a Best Managed company with the help of CIBC, click here.
This is one of four profiles from the “In their Orbit” series in partnership with CIBC, where leaders of Canada’s Best Managed Companies share what gives their organizations pull.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with CIBC. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.