Recipe for success | Wittenberg University

A teacher and high school principal for 18 years, Mike De Massimo, Wittenberg University Class of 1999, would make his family’s homemade lasagna for his students and staff around the holidays.

“I was born and raised in Cleveland and come from a large Italian-American family,” says De Massimo. His mother ran an Italian restaurant in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and his sister is also in the business. “Food is our love language.”

De Massimo’s annual tradition of celebrating his students and fellow teachers with a homemade Italian dish has since become a successful entrepreneurial venture, De Massimo’s Authentic Sauces and Imports, located in Columbus, Ohio.

“What started as a tribute to my family, and especially my grandmothers, slowly became a small business,” he says.

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After his last living grandmother passed away, De Massimo “wanted to do something to honor her and [the] family that came before” him. Making pasta sauce from traditional family recipes passed down through the generations seemed like a natural fit.

As a high school principal, he had partnered with adult internships to help employ students with disabilities when they left high school. When it came time to produce larger batches of sauce, he used a local commercial kitchen that works with adults with developmental disabilities and began selling the sauce at local farmers markets.

“The following year, I asked the students in our business and entrepreneurship classes if they wanted to run their own farmers markets,” says De Massimo. “Needless to say, a small business was created.”

The business has since grown and expanded, with De Massimo’s Authentic Sauces now produced in a larger facility and sold in Meijer, Kroger, Giant Eagle, Fresh Thyme, Food City, Heinen’s and many independent grocers in Ohio, the Midwest and the South. Seven years ago, De Massimo left his job in education and now dedicates his time to building the family business. He credits wife, Bethany Schlater ’04, with providing the support necessary to make the leap into full-time entrepreneurship.

As the business grew, the village of San Giovanni in Galdo, Molise, Italy—the hometown of his grandmother—noticed their similarity in the company’s packaging and invited the De Massimos to visit.

“We were welcomed with open arms, given the key to the village in a ceremony, they awarded me honorary citizen status, had a festival in our honor and basically rolled out the red carpet,” says De Massimo. “We got to see where my grandparents were born and raised and live with our family in our ancestral roots.”

They have continued to visit the village and have brought more family members, and are now importing olive oil produced in the Molise region.

At the same time, the De Massimo family in Abruzzo, Italy, home of the paternal side of the family, also invited them to visit.

“It was during one of our visits that we were introduced to our family tree that could be traced back to 1683,” said De Massimo. “Our sauces that we sell to consumers are based on the sauces that my family has created for centuries. We use the word ‘authentic’ in our brand identity. We take this word seriously because our sauces are not only authentically influenced by our roots , our creation story is authentic and can be linked to our past. We are proud of that.”

In addition to supporting the small producers of Molise, De Massimo’s strives to also support the local Columbus community by donating produce to the Hilliard Food Pantry and time to St. Aloysius Community Outreach to feed the hungry.

De Massimo admits that his path to business ownership is a bit unusual. An English major with a secondary education minor, he did not take a single business class at Wittenberg.

“I can say without a doubt that the education I received was top notch in many ways,” he explains. “I got to experience some of the most intelligent, student-centered and challenging professors around. Some of them even became dear friends and mentors. The Wittenberg community is also infectiously positive and supportive.”

A four-year member of the Tiger baseball team, he served as an assistant coach for the team from 2000-2003 before starting his career in education. He believes that “being part of a team of individuals who worked hard for a common goal, stretched their abilities and challenged each other” all contributed to his confidence to later make the leap from school administrator to entrepreneur.

“My business path has not been the most traditional, but what I learned and achieved at Wittenberg definitely made an impact,” said De Massimo. “Students should not be afraid to chase and catch their dreams.”