You opened the Mozzarella Company 35 years ago. What was Deep Ellum like in the early ’80s?
Rudolph’s Market & Sausage Factory was here. They have been my landlord from the very beginning. There was a guy named Joe down the street whose claim to fame at the time was that he created a big jalapeño that ran on the cover of D Magazine.
You traveled to Italy, fell in love, and returned to Dallas to open a cheesemaking factory. How did you know where to start?
It was a little crazy, because I’d never made cheese by myself. Then I had Giovanni Marchesi, a professor of cheesemaking, come from Italy to teach me. He was here for a month and taught us how to make mozzarella and ricotta. The day he left, it didn’t work for us. He was on the plane back to Italy, and we just had to figure it out.
How did you fix it?
We started calling universities in the U.S. with cheese departments and told them what we were doing. They all told us that was not the way to make mozzarella or ricotta. We told them we’d had a guy from Italy here telling us how to do it. In the end, the cheese professor was right. The schools didn’t have a clue. We were so far ahead of anyone making cheese, it was shocking.
What did you make next?
I met a guy named Danny Brackeen from Americana Foods. He was selling frozen yogurt under the escalator at Neiman Marcus downtown. He got an investor and became TCBY. He told me Neiman’s needed crème fraîche, so I figured out how to make it.
Would you say that you have been lucky?
No, my whole business has been a series of people helping me and being nice to me. When I didn’t know what I was doing, Rodney Lockhart, a dairy equipment salesman from Fort Worth, took me under his wing and introduced me to everybody in the dairy industry in Dallas. After he retired, he came to the Mozzarella Company and volunteered once a week for a free lunch.
Do you remember your first big order?
We started in August 1982, and that September Neiman Marcus had a Fortnight that featured Italian products. We didn’t have a clue. When we heard about it, we just jumped on their coattails and got big orders. From there, we got restaurant customers like Mario’s, the restaurant owned by Phil Vaccaro. Their chef would call us up and order mozzarella. When I told them we were sold out, they wanted it so bad that we went to the dairy, bought the milk, made the cheese, and delivered it to them. Then The Mansion, run by 21 Club, called. They were using Kraft block cheese. I went over and showed my mozzarella to the chefs. One was French and one was Israeli. They asked me how I made it from flour and water, and I said I make it from milk. They had no idea. When The Mansion changed to American food, their consultant came to town, and they considered taking mozzarella off the menu. The consultant’s name was Wolfgang Puck. In the end, we kept it on the menu.
You have such a loyal, capable staff, yet you still show up at local markets to hand out samples.
Octavia has been with me for 33 years and Carmen for 29 years. Then there’s Mauricio, the manager, and Ross. I couldn’t do it without them, but I think it’s important to get out and meet my customers.
Do you have any idea how many pounds of cheese you have sold in 35 years?
We average about 200,000 pounds a year. We used to sell more than we do now, so with a little simple arithmetic I’d say we’ve sold close to 7 million pounds. And it has all been made in that one 1,200-square-foot room.