One man’s mission to increase awareness of an Italian cheesemakers authentic offerings.
When Italian Giacomo Veraldi joined Ambrosi in 2007, little did he know how far his mission to market the company’s cheeses would take him.
Fast forward almost a decade and a half later, and his goal to make a name for the company’s hard, washed rind, fresh, semi-hard and blue cheeses in the U.S. has been a rousing success. Among the highly-regarded varieties are Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano. As for the brands, the most sought after are the White Gold, Millennials and Tradizione lines.
Ambrosi Food USA is the subsidiary of iconic Italian dairy producer Ambrosi Group, which has been producing, importing and distributing authentic Italian cheeses since 1942. From the 60s, when aging Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano was its main purpose, to its investment in packaged cheese for supermarket sales in the 70s, to the mid 90s, when president Giuseppe Ambrosi decided to take the company global, to its expansion into North America in the 2000s, and finally to establishing U.S. headquarters in Brooklyn in 2015, this third-generation-run company has made its mark with Giacomo Veraldi as one of its biggest champions.
Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Giacomo Veraldi about growing up on a farm in rural Italy, bringing Ambrosi cheeses to the U.S. and what makes Italian cheese special.
CC: Tell me about your journey into cheese.
GV: I was born in a tiny village in northern Italy and grew up on a farm. My parents weren’t farmers but had people working the land for us. We were in a very rural area, so I grew up with cows and was always in the open air. When I first went to university, my dream was to be a politician, working as an ambassador for the government or for a consulate, and that’s where my studies were concentrated. After my first year, I knew it wasn’t for me. Although I loved that major, blessed of being one of only 35 students that the school took, I quickly realized that I was the only one not related to a politician. So instead, I got a degree in economics and my Masters in Business Management.
My first job was working in marketing for the University of Brescia, being a professor’s assistant and then as a marketing associate at a big bank. But food was always my passion. I grew up drinking milk from our cows, though the day we closed the farm, I stopped drinking milk. I was 17 when the farmer we hired retired, and my father decided to close the farm. Although my paternal grandfather was a farmer, my dad is an engineer and my mom is a math teacher. In 2007, when I was studying for my PhD in marketing, Giuseppe Ambrosi reached out to the university, as he was seeking to hire someone in my field for his company. My professor thought of me first, knowing I was working in the bank’s marketing department at that time. This is when I joined Ambrosi.
The company was created in Italy in 1942, and was mainly serving the domestic market, just selling to a few other countries. When I was hired, my boss, Giuseppe Ambrosi, who is the company’s owner and president, was seeking to take Ambrosi worldwide and open our borders. That is what I concentrated on for my first three years at the company. I put together the right strategy and, in 2010, we created a whole line that he wanted me to sell around the world.
After our export manager left, I started traveling. In 2009, when I landed in Seattle for the Cheese Fest, something happened to me. The U.S. is different from the rest of the world, as Americans care about the history of cheese and how it’s produced and not just about price. This spoke to my politics background, as I wanted to be our company’s voice in this country. I love the way Americans open up to learn about Ambrosi. From 2009 to 2015, I was traveling every two weeks back and forth from Italy to the U.S., meeting buyers, going to events and understanding the culture. At the end of 2015, my boss and I decided that I would move to the U.S. and revamp our strategy.
We are now everywhere in this country, from East to West; we are living our dream. And I’m still meeting people, hearing stories, visiting families of cheesemakers. You see, my job is not just doing business in the U.S. but also letting people know what we’re doing and what we’re famous for.
When I first moved here, I was alone with a desk in a warehouse. Then the company started growing, hired more staff, and we found different people spread out across the country to be a part of the company including brokers and salespeople. We are now based in Brooklyn and are like a family, with an Italian outpost in the U.S. In this location, we’re surrounded by startups and Millennials creating new companies, but we’re not a startup. Coming from a village of 1,000 to my whole block of 5,000 people is a cool thing. This young generation is so energetic, new and curious about the authenticity of our cheese, even more so than the previous generation. They like cheese and beer and want to have someone approach them in a way that can tell them about the history of cheese. I saw that and said I need to convey and deliver all my cheeses to Millennials across the country; we need to be in every city. My mission was to come in here, explain who we are, provide the history and company information and have consumers understand our products.
CC: Talk about Ambrosi’s evolution.
GV: Our cheeses are all produced in Italy. When the company was established in 1942, the country was in bad shape. Ottorino Ambrosi was an airplane pilot fighting in the war. At that time, they allowed those in the service to run a business rather than fight our enemies, so he came back to start the company.
For the first 10 years, till the early 50s, Ambrosi produced butter and traded cheese locally in stores and markets. Ottorino then decided to buy fresh cheese, age it and resell it. In the 60s, he produced the cheese himself, mainly Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, and continued to sell it. When supermarkets came to Italy in the 70s, Ottorino began selling his cheeses to these stores. These were in big wheels that his employees would cut to order on site. The company at that time had so many employees going to stores to cut cheese, and with the supermarkets so spread out, needed to find a way to cut and wrap cheese. So, in the second half of the 70s and early 80s, Ambrosi got big into production of prepackaged cheese. If there was a new technology we could use to cut cheese, that’s what we used. The facility became bigger, and we had production, aging, conversion and sales divisions covering the whole process.
Ottorino had farms and wanted to go back to the land so we could control the entire process. Because our farms are not big enough, we’re collecting milk from other local farms and converting it to cheese. When Ottorino passed away in the early 90s, his son Giuseppe took over the company at just 28 years old. He really believed in exports. The 90s and early 2000s were focused on first approaching the export market, and the last 10 years were when our company really became a big exporter. Today, we sell to over 70 countries around the world. Our sales are 50/50 Italy and exports. Giuseppe’s son Luigi started working in our U.S. division and is now our marketing manager. With Ambrosi’s export strategy, what was important for us was having the main markets controlled. Ambrosi USA was created in 2006 and Ambrosi UK in 2018. We have importers in Japan and China, in addition to all over Europe.
CC: What challenges did you face along the way?
GV: I have had so many doors close in my face and meetings cancelled. In one trip, I was flying back and forth from Italy to the U.S. I had to take three flights, going from Milan to Frankfurt, Germany to Chicago and then to Minneapolis. When I arrived, they cancelled our meeting. In the beginning, I struggled to get my voice out from the crowd but then something started changing. People began recognizing me. I went to stores, cracking wheels, talking to consumers, and now people in the business are familiar with Ambrosi and our products. They’ve seen me for the last 10 years. Then, of course, sometimes we have business problems like tariffs but it’s something everyone is facing. The hurdles in the beginning were the language barrier as well as getting customers and buyers interested in what I was saying. Most of my best friends today I met in the last 10 years, and that’s why I never get bored in my job. I can be at my farm with family in Italy and I can be in Seattle with a friend from France holding his baby daughter and talking about cheese. Every city where I land today, I know people who are very happy to see me. Some of them are close friends who I go on vacation with or visit when off work. When it’s a job you love to do you don’t feel like you’re working. I’m always excited to see customers. My life and job are similar, it’s all in one. I owe the cheese a lot, it brought me a lot of happy times. Of course, due to COVID-19 I’m stuck in Brooklyn and can’t go out.
CC: How has the pandemic impacted Ambrosi and the cheese industry as a whole?
GV: My company is owned by the producer. From that point of view, knowing we have a parent company helping in times of emergency, it works in a different way. We’re more relaxed with cash flow and payments, even though the pandemic has a financial impact. Foodservice sales went down to 20% in a week. That was really immediate and unpredictable. People stopped traveling; restaurants are not full.
Cooking Italian food is not difficult but sometimes you don’t have access to ingredients. In the U.S., you can use something else to substitute for Italian cheese. For this reason, we could’ve been hit hard but we were able to find ways to survive. We sell mostly to retailers, so that was a good thing. And we’re able to sell cheese across the country in 24 hours. Our Millennial line is sold at many stores, and cheesemongers don’t have to cut the cheese. It’s prepacked outside the store, so no expertise is needed in understanding the cheese. You just open the case and put the cheese out. Anyone at the store level can do it. Sales have also increased in the prepacked area during the pandemic. So, we’re lucky compared to other companies. Even though our team is all spread out and working from home, we keep in close contact daily with conference calls.
CC: What makes the cheese industry unique?
GV: Cheese is a live product that people are excited about. They are passionate about its history. Cheese lovers have a lot in common, as they know everything about cheese. The mission is keeping tradition alive in the industry. We’re not just selling cheese or introducing consumers to our products but we also are keeping a tradition alive. Other industries are quite different in this way. Cheesemongers at shows or events are excited about what they’re doing and want to know everything behind the products they are handling. I haven’t seen this enthusiasm in any other field. Also, when I go to ACS (the annual American Cheese Society conference), everyone is so proud of producing great cheeses. They are always trying to offer better products and elevate the quality. Although everyone is a competitor, we all work for the common goal, which is to have better products.
CC: What do you love best about cheese?
GV: When I first joined Ambrosi, the 80-year-old vice president took me into the warehouse where he was flipping Parmigiano. He cracked a wheel and said, “This is White Gold, put your sunglasses on, because it’s so white you’ll never see anything like it.” We started a special diet for our cows, which is mainly flax seed. These animals lead a healthier life, and the quality of milk is better. Our cheese is super rich, always creamy and bright white, no matter how long it’s aged.
My favorite is Parmigiano White Gold. Cheese changes so much, it’s really interesting. Also, the way cheese is historically hand salted to preserve the milk is fascinating. Farmers take cows to the mountains in the summer, but can’t in the winter, so this was the best way they found to preserve the milk.
A couple years ago, we launched our Millennial line of 30 Italian cheeses. These are fixed weight and prepacked, so any store can handle them. Also, the label explains everything to consumers. For example, it will explain that this cheese is a washed rind type, as the cheesemaker washes the rind with salt water, and it pairs good with this type of beer. Labels are in six different colors, so consumers can pick cheeses with three different colored labels to create the perfect cheese board. And the colors define the type of cheese it is—washed rind, soft, semi-hard, hard, blue and fresh.
CC: What do you want people to know about cheese?
GV: I would love people to start thinking about what’s behind our cheese, as there are so many people who cut cheese so it could be available in the U.S. There are many behind that 5-ounces of cheese they buy in the store. Since the beginning, when I first started selling, I would talk about the family that has cows. I would tell people in the U.S. if you buy this cheese, you’re supporting the farmer’s valley in Italy. If there is no demand for cheese, people will go to the city and work in a factory, which is easier than farming. We want to keep the tradition of our cheese making alive. I also want people to understand the different flavor profiles, types and how to select cheese. First thing is you have different animals that produce milk, such as cows, sheep and goats. And I want them to understand the process for making different types of cheese, like washed rind, fresh and hard. Also, people should recognize if the cheese is strong, mild or what the overall flavor profile is.
Italian cheese is different. If you think about it, it’s like a glass of wine and grapes. Except it doesn’t have to be heavy and dark when it’s traditional. People are afraid to buy what they don’t know, and we try to show them the way. Once they try Italian cheeses and the less famous types, they’re good, they’re happy, they remember and buy them again.
CC: What’s your goal in the years ahead?
GV: I want to create a diverse U.S. company, even though we are a subsidiary of an Italian company, with equality and diversity. I work with Americans with different heritages, and I love that because the point of views are different. Every year, Mr. Ambrosi hosts meals for all the company employees at his home. We gather from all around the world to have a Sunday meal together. Our company’s diversity is a big reason why we are so successful.