Humble start for business empire

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It is said it is not what you know, but who, that is the key to making good connections. And that anecdote applies just as well to South Yorkshire food firm Massarella, as it ever did in Hollywood, as the firm marks 150 years of business in England this year.

The business began in the 1860s, when farm labourer Giovanni Massarella left his home in central Italy and started producing ice cream in the cellar of his new Doncaster home.

A traditional ice cream cart.

A traditional ice cream cart.

That venture soon took off, until by the 1950s the business was one of the biggest producers of ice cream in the whole of Europe.

But it was a chance trip to America – where Giovanni and his brothers had been heading before they stopped in England – that helped the firm to expand into the coffee shop field it is now best known for.

Giovanni’s grandson Ronnie, who had bought part of the company back from a multi-national firm with his brother in 1963, was on a trip with the British showjumping team that he later managed when he spotted an ice cream parlour inside a US department store.

Ronnie’s son Michael, talking in the firm’s bustling cafe in Atkinsons on The Moor, Sheffield, explains: “He came back and said ‘I’ve seen this fantastic idea we should try’.

MD Michael Massarella in one of his cafes in Atkinsons store in Sheffield

MD Michael Massarella in one of his cafes in Atkinsons store in Sheffield

“We all thought ‘great’, but we didn’t know any people who worked in department stores, how could we get in there?One day we were talking to a girl we knew through some stables who said her uncle had a department store in Sheffield.

“It turned out to be right here in Atkinsons. We had an ice cream parlour made in Italy then brought over, placed in the window, and it was very successful. This is our oldest client and we are very grateful to them.”

Another showjumping trip led Ronnie to meet the wife of Sir Hugh Fraser, the man behind the House of Fraser empire, and two more parlours duly opened in its Blackpool and Newcastle stores.

Now Massarella has 128 outlets across England.

From the original coffee shop in Nottingham market, there are cafés in garden centres, in stores, and it also runs Café Nova in Meadowhall.

Ice cream parlours were frozen out, due to its seasonal appeal, and now home-made scones are the company’s biggest seller, alongside coffees and teas.

But some things never change.

Food development director Michael, who spent most of his life living in South Yorkshire, says: “I started off in the business when I was seven. I used to come home from school and be sent out on a horse and cart selling ice cream around Doncaster.

“So we were working from a very young age, not just me, but my brothers and cousins. We all worked in the business at some stage.

“It was really part of our education, getting us used to a work ethic.

“My daughter Daniella has been working in the business for seven years and she’s hopefully going to take over from me as I start winding down.”

Michael says the company credits its success to loyal staff and regular customers, as well as the ‘ability to change and move with the times’.

A competition to win a trip to Venice, plans to bring back the original ice cream product in some way, and a mammoth family reunion that could draw more than 500 relations to the head office in Thurcroft, Rotherham, are planned to celebrate the anniversary of the family’s arrival in England. The challenge for the next 150 years is to broaden the firm’s appeal to an even wider customer base.

But what would Giovanni now think of the business, which has a turnover of about £30 million a year?

Michael, aged 65, says: “He wouldn’t recognise it.

“It’s totally different to what he started with, but I like to think he would be proud of what has come from the humble beginnings that he had, making his ice cream and coming to England with not a penny in his pocket.

“I’m sure he would recognise the family ethos. The one thing I think has been key for our success is that each generation has passed the business on and recognised the value of youth.

“When my father gave me and my brothers more autonomy over the business we were very young.

“But the good thing about passing it on to the young is that it brings fresh ideas and you are not afraid to make changes.”

Staff loyalty

Long-serving staff member Julie Heighington has been serving coffee for 22 years.

The mum started working for Massarellas in Meadowhall and now manages the café in Atkinsons.

Julie, of Woodhouse, says: “I just love it really, it’s a great firm to work for.

“We get a lot of people coming in on a regular basis because of the good service that we give. We always try to be very friendly.”

Relative newcomer Kelset Hardman, of Lowedges, Sheffield, has clocked up two years with the company.

The 23-year-old says: “Everyone gets on together, it’s like a family.

“There are loyal customers that we can have a smile with. Scones are definitely our most popular item because they are home made.”

Customer Harold Stringer, a regular at the Chesterfield store, calls in to Atkinsons during visits to Sheffield.

The 72-year-old says: “The coffee is quite good and it’s quite convenient for me to call in. I go to the Chesterfield store a few times a week.

“The staff are excellent, and I know the ones in Chesterfield very well.

“They are so friendly and it keeps you coming back.”