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Sorry, Branford: Onofrio’s Stays Here, & Grows

by Allan Appel | Dec 20, 2013 9:10 am

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Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, The Annex

Allan Appel Photo The good smells combined with good vibes at Onofrio’s Fresh Cut and Onofrio’s Ultimate Foods as the Onofrio family celebrated its purchase, with the city’s technical assistance, of two buildings it had previously rented on a sprawling industrial site. Branford tried to steal the company—and lost out.

The “Wing It” sauce was bubbling sweetly inside a 1,000-gallon tank in the production kitchen. The aroma wafting out of the building at Wheeler Street and Forbes Avenue made the port district smell like a Sunday picnic.

The move enables the 80-year-old family business not only to stay in town, but also to add 25 percent more workers to its current 100-employee staff.

It almost didn’t happen.

The family business has been cutting bologna, brewing and bottling hundreds of sauces and marinades, and providing fresh-cut meats and produce for 80 years in New Haven. It was on the verge of leaving town for lack of space to expand into.

The family sought to purchase the buildings it rented from Laydon Enterprises at 192-222 Forbes Ave./35 Wheeler St., but encountered trouble with the paperwork and the environmental clean-up required.

So the Onofrios—whose paterfamilias Angelo began with a small operation at Ferry and Peck streets in Fair Haven and then established a market for 50 years on Lombard and Fillmore—was year on the verge of signing a lease for a building in an industrial park in Branford instead.

Enter New Haven city Economic Development Officer Helen Rosenberg and others of her department’s staffers.

“There were uncountable obstacles. The city gave us directions how to do the clean-up [and to file the paperwork,” said Richard Onofrio (pictured), the vice president and founder Angelo’s grandson. Onofrio demonstrated how he had sliced off the top of his thumb as a 14-year-old working with his grandfather at the market on Lombard Street.

“This is a story to celebrate business, that we make things and process things here in New Haven,” said outgoing city Economic Development Director Kelly Murphy.

“The absolute priority is to retain our existing businesses. These are [often] older in industrial districts; their businesses evolve over time,” said the department’s deputy director, Mike Piscitelli.

Surrounded by three generations of his family, many of whom are in the business, Richard Onofrio said, “I want all our employees to sleep easy tonight. We’re going to stay.”

Onofrio said the purchase will enable the company to add 25 percent more staff over the next year. The purchase also gives the company retail outlets directly on Forbes Avenue.

On With Your Hair Nets
During a brief tour of the production facility, Onofrio said he is triply certified to produce products that are kosher, organic, and have the blessing of the FDA.

This day, the crew had arrived at 6 a.m. to start the brewing and were now bottling “Wing It” in large quantities. Thursday was producing between 1200 to 1400 cases of Wing It, a barbecue-style teriyaki confection for a company in Boston.

It’s one of more than 400 sauces that Onofrio’s Ultimate Foods produces. The sister company, Onofrio’s Fresh Cut, produces table or “case-ready” vegetables and meats for markets.

“You give us the recipe and the dream, and we bring it to life. We upscale to size, we produce it, we bottle and cap it, date it, label it, and deliver,” said Richard Onofrio.

Their range is any customer within a three-hour’s drive from New Haven, he said.

The family business used to make their own Onofrio-labeled sauce products, and then use the leftover portion to bottle other customers’ labeled brands.

Their first big break was mixing and bottling for Stew Leonard’s, recalled Richard’s uncle, Jimmy. They no longer produce an Onofrio brand because that might be competition for a clientele of recipe-mixers who now number in the hundreds, said Richard.

Jimmy Onofrio said that when he was working at his father Angelo’s market, which was then called DeFeo and Onofrio, he could not have dreamed that his offspring would be presiding over industrial kitchens with tanks capable of holding 1,000, 500, 250-gallons of aromatic sauces.

“And it’s all word of mouth,” he added. Literally, it’s a business without a sales staff that gets customers from other customers.

“You give us an idea and we put it in the bottle. We do something different,” said Richard Onofrio. “We invite you here, you put on a hair net, a white coat, and you taste it [the product you want created] all the way.”

The fourth generation is at it as well.

After he climbed down from the 1,000-gallon tank of bubbling Wing It, 30-year-old Angelo Onofrio, who manages the production kitchen, said of his four great-grandfathers that three are named Angelo.

“I’m proud of the family business. I have a seven-year-old daughter who’s dropped off here after school. She says, ‘Daddy, can I work here?’”

Since the Onofrios purchased the new buildings, they have also already attracted another business, MGM Carting and Recycling Corporation, to rent space from them and to move in from out of town.

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