Discover Massarella Catering Group's Fascinating History and The Secret to Becoming a Successful Yorkshire Family Business
Our series on successful family businesses in Yorkshire starts with a look at the history of what is now Massarella Catering Group
When Ronnie Massarella was 10 years old he and his brother would come home from school and fill a wooden barrow with their father Carmine’s ice cream. The boys would push this barrow 12 miles to the local pit, where they would wait to sell their ice cream to the miners finishing their shift (the ice cream helped the miners clear their throats of coal dust).
The barrow was heavy and the journey long, so often on the way back the boys wanted to shove the barrow into the river. ‘They didn’t because they were frightened of the wrath of my grandfather,’ laughs Michael Massarella, Ronnie’s son and great grandson of Giovanni Massarella, founder of the family business which is still running today.
The Massarella family business has come a long way since Ronnie pushed that barrow, and even further since Giovanni and his brothers began making ice cream in the cellar of their terraced house in Doncaster. Today the Massarella Catering Group is a market leader in UK retail catering, operating more than 150 sites including cafés, restaurants and coffee shops in shopping centres, garden centres and department stores.
The company works with brands including House of Fraser, TJ Hughes, Wilkinson and TK Maxx, and Michael is the firm’s Food Development Director.
‘Back in Italy my great grandfather and his brothers were classed as contadini, which means they were peasant farmers,’ says Michael. ‘They lived a pretty meagre existence.’ Sixty-five-year-old Michael has been researching the history of his family, and how his great grandfather and his brothers came to be in England.
‘They were going to go to America, but somehow they ended up in England.’ Michael believes that the brothers came to England to visit people they knew from home, and ended up becoming part of the Italian community in England, first in Nottingham, then further north in Doncaster. ‘They’re very social people the Italians, they like to be with their own,’ he explains.
Giovanni and his brothers weren’t skilled men, but they were used to working with their hands, and working hard. Like many others in his situation, Giovanni built himself a barrow, put a barrel organ on it and took to the streets in an effort to make money. ‘They soon found out they couldn’t put a roof over their heads by standing on a street corner playing music,’ says Michael. But the barrow came in handy once the brothers started making ice cream. They removed the organ, filled the barrow with ice cream, put a canopy on it and took to the streets again. This time it worked.
By the mid 1950s C Massarella & Sons was one of the biggest ice cream producers in Europe, producing 5000 gallons a day. ‘5000 gallons today is not a lot, but in those days it was massive,’ exclaims Michael. By this time Michael’s father Ronnie and his brothers were in charge of the company, and had built an industry-leading plant in Bentley, Doncaster. In 1954 they were approached by J Lyons and Company, who made an offer for the business.
‘They decided that the offer was too good to resist,’ says Michael. The business was sold, but Ronnie stayed to run the plant. He soon got fed up with working for someone else, and after a few years bought back some of the retail side of the business. He had around 120 vehicles selling ice cream, but the rise of the supermarket saw ice cream lose its luxury status and in the mid-Sixties Ronnie, seeing the way things were going, began to open coffee shops. ‘He knew about food, most Italians do,’ jokes Michael.
By now Ronnie was also managing the British showjumping team. While competing on the North American circuit with the team, Ronnie saw ice cream parlours in department stores. ‘He came back and said to myself and my brother, “I’ve seen an absolutely fantastic idea in America, we should try it here,”’ Michael remembers. The family’s equine interests did a lot for them at this time. They also had a livery yard, and one of the girls who kept a horse there had an uncle with a department store in Sheffield. Michael says it was pure fluke.
‘We ended up putting this Italian ice cream parlour into Atkinsons department store in Sheffield,’ Michael laughs. One of the members of Ronnie’s show jumping team happened to be the wife of Sir Hugh Fraser, of House of Fraser, and this connection led to ice cream parlours opening in House of Fraser stores in Newcastle and Blackpool, and eventually to the Massarellas taking over the running of most of the department store’s cafés and restaurants.
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Ronnie held the post of Team Manager for the British Olympic Showjumping Team for more than 30 years, right up until the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when he retired. Now in his nineties, he is still Chairman of Massarella Catering Group. At 65, Michael is due to retire next month. ‘I’m going to attempt to, whether I’ll be able to or not I don’t know,’ he admits. It could well be difficult to step back, because Massarella is still truly a family business – two of Michael’s brothers (Mark and Stephen), his partner Karen and his daughter Daniela all have roles in the company, and Stephen also runs the livery yard. Daniela is the marketing and food development manager.
‘She’s slowly taking over my role,’ says Michael. Mark’s three children are currently working abroad, and all plan to return to the business, and one of Stephen’s sons also hopes to be part of it one day. ‘The next generation are primed and ready,‘ smiles Michael. ‘New blood will be coming in, they’ll have no fear and they’ll have loads of ideas.’ Michael seems more than willing to let the younger Massarellas move the business forward. ‘We’ve always been a family that’s embraced change,’ he says. ‘I think that’s probably why we’ve been here so long.’