Richmond — When I first visited Olli Salumeria’s processing facility, the only person I saw stuffing sausages was owner Olivierio “Olli” Colmignoli. Tall, handsome and with a distinct Italian accent, Colmignoli wore a white chef’s jacket and expensive olive-green jeans. He was adding a bottle of Sangiovese to a batch of ground pork before loading the meat into sausage casings. “This is the same wine we had at our Christmas party,” he said. A drinkable wine, in other words.
That was 2011, and Colmignoli was one of just five people working in a quiet 700-square-foot space in Mechanicsville, Va. Today, the company employs 40 people in a building more than double that size, and Olli sausages can be found all over the country, including in Whole Foods Markets, Wegmans, Kroger and Costco. The growth of the company, begun only four years ago, is remarkable. Even though they wanted the company to grow, Colmignoli and then-partner Charles “Chip” Vosmik never expected that their product — artisan sausages at a fairly high price (around $9 each) — would go from something you might pick up in a small wine shop to pair with an intriguing asiago to something you can throw in your cart with a giant jug of olive oil at Costco.
The first big leap happened less than nine months after the company entered the market: Whole Foods came calling, and Olli soon was in its stores, rolling out regionally first but then rapidly expanding to shelves nationally. “It almost happened a bit by mistake,” says Colmignoli, 36. The natural-foods giant was looking for a line of charcuterie that adhered to its environmental and animal husbandry standards while also satisfying the sophisticated palates of its shoppers. Colmignoli, meanwhile, was focused on quality, but it just so happened that the most environmentally friendly and humane way to raise pigs also produced the best-tasting pork for his sausages.
“Whole Foods was kind of looking for us at the same time we were looking for Whole Foods,” says Vosmik, who now sits on Olli’s board of directors and has stepped back from day-to-day operations. “We filled a void.”
Colmignoli knows sausage. Innocenzo Fiorucci, his great-grandfather, opened cured-meat company Fiorucci Foods in the mid-19th century in Norcia, Italy, and Colmignoli grew up in the family business. His father set up a subsidiary of Fiorucci outside Richmond, Va., in the 1980s, and throughout his childhood, Colmignoli traveled back and forth between Italy and the United States, finally settling in Richmond in 2004 when he took over as vice president of operations for the company. His family sold Fiorucci Foods to a private equity firm, and although he stayed on for a time, when it sold again, Colmignoli started thinking about other things he might want to pursue.
Vosmik was a friend of Colmignoli’s father, Claudio. One day Vosmik asked Claudio why he brought only the company’s Italian-made products with him when he came to dinner, instead of those made in Virginia. Claudio had a short answer: the pork. The recipes were Italian, the people making the products were Italian, but the pork that the Richmond subsidiary of Fiorucci used was from Smithfield Foods, a giant industrial producer.
“To make a good product, you need good raw material,” says Colmignoli. “You need good, happy pigs that have been given the right feed — but mainly have been given the time to grow to a heavier-sized pig, which is what we have in Italy.”
He and Vosmik began talking about whether it would be possible to duplicate the higher-quality Italian products here. They bought pork from Caw Caw Creek, a small pig farm in South Carolina that supplied such chefs as Daniel Boulud and David Chang but has since closed. “The first product we did was prosciutto, which is kind of a terrible choice; it took us a year to make,” he said. However, after that long curing process, when it was time to try the ham, “the results were just amazing. Me and Chip looked at each other and said, ‘You know, maybe there’s a business here.’ ”
Salami — cured and fermented sausage — originally was going to be a side business. The duo leased space from Fiorucci to start production and then moved to the small plant that I saw in 2011. That same year, they took their sausage to the Summer Fancy Food Show in the District. They were corralled with the other new vendors at the back of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, but key national food buyers stopped to sample — and stayed to talk. For a little company, the show was transformational, says Vosmik. Soon enough, Olli took over the space next door to its original operation, expanding to 1,500 square feet. Distribution trucks now pull up to large bays at the back and load products to take to stores around the country.
Prosciutto and speck were phased out over a year ago because of space limitations, because they are costlier and more time-consuming to make, and because demand for salami has been higher. Colmignoli isn’t mixing spices and making the sausage himself anymore, but he’s hands-on when it comes to creating and testing products. The sausage making process itself hasn’t changed, but it’s on a bigger scale: more drying rooms, more storage, more people to pack and load boxes. The line has expanded as well and now includes 10 kinds of salami in addition to three all-organic varieties and four types of bite-size salamini.
They still start with pastured Boston butts and picnic shoulders that arrive already cut. (When I asked Colmignoli when I initially met him whether he butchered whole hogs on-site, he looked horrified at the prospect.) Once the pork is ground, mixed with spices and stuffed into casings, the fat sausages are hung on racks and sprayed with a benign white mold that fills the room like fog. White-coated, respirator-wearing workers move them onto tall racks that stretch to the top of the high ceilings of the fermentation rooms. They’re moved again to drying rooms, where they stay for about four to six weeks. During that time, each sausage loses half its weight. The salami is then packaged, boxed and shipped out.
At the outset, Colmignoli and company had a hard time persuading the Food and Drug Administration to allow them to keep the sausages at 72 degrees, the ideal temperature to induce fermentation and create the slow drying process traditionally used in Italy. But they prevailed, and today, the most difficult task is sourcing pork that meets their criteria: heritage breeds raised in the field, without antibiotics, on small- to medium-size farms.
The company has assembled a patchwork of suppliers, including one in Canada, and one of its main sources of pork is Becker Lane Organic in Iowa. A sixth-generation farmer, owner Jude Becker says that in the 1990s, as farms in the state grew larger and larger, he had to rethink the farming process or stop farming altogether. He didn’t want to resort to hog confinement, so organic farming and animal welfare became his focus, and eventually Whole Foods came knocking at his door. That’s how the two producers connected. “We’ve been able to dovetail pretty well, communicate well, and it’s been one of my better past decades,” Becker says. The farm has grown along with Olli Salumeria, and continues to: “We’re trying to find more land.”
Colmignoli is building a new 80,000-square-foot plant in Oceanside, Calif., that will be ready in March 2015. Right now the company produces 36,000 pounds of salami a week in Mechanicsville. There’s no room to grow at that location, and by adding the West Coast operation, the company will be able to increase overall production to 100,000 pounds weekly, with plans to eventually reach 500,000 pounds. “Our challenge is going to be finding the partners to supply all that meat as we grow,” he says. “That’s what we’re working on right now.”
I asked Colmignoli what his family back in Italy thought about his carefully sourced salami, still infused with fine wine as it was back in 2011. “They like it, but some more than others,” he said. “They like the spicy ones . . . but there’s one that’s too garlicky. Italians don’t like garlic as much as Americans think they do.”
Fox is the food and drink editor of Richmond’s alternative paper, Style Weekly.