POST 50
02/12/2013 07:36 am ET

Daniel Mancini, Owner Of MamaMancini's, Is A Meatball-Obsessed Entrepreneur

After a successful 30-year career in the fashion industry, New Jersey father of two Daniel Mancini, 51, decided to leave the rat race in 2007 and create a new business out of his passion for making meatballs -- MamaMancini's.

Driving the move were his childhood memories of sitting around the family dinner table in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn each Sunday, sharing his grandmother's home-cooked meatballs. His grandmother, Ana Mancini, came to America in 1921, but didn't leave her trove of recipes behind in Bari, Italy.

Upon launch, MamaMancini's sold frozen meatballs online and in about 200 grocery store outlets across New Jersey. Today that number has ballooned to 12,000 stores nationwide, including such big name establishments as Whole Foods, Publix and Costco. As a result, Mancini has transformed a small family business into a highly successful million-dollar family company that recently went public.

MamaMancini's currently offers four different meatball options along with its famous Sunday sauce: pork, beef, turkey and chicken. MamaMancini's has been featured in numerous publications including "The New York Times" and "People" magazine and Mancini himself has appeared on "The Martha Stewart Show," CBS New York and other programs. Last year, Mancini opened his first "walk up" window in New York City called Meatball Obsession where meatball lovers can literally walk up and order a "meatball in a cup" with Mancini's sauce and bread.

Throughout it all, Mancini has stayed true to his grandmother's methods: browning, then braising the meatballs for hours in a special tomato sauce.

Huff/Post50 recently had the pleasure of chatting with Mancini about his "second act" in the meatball business.

So tell us how this love of food and meatballs started?

I grew up in Brooklyn. My grandparents had come here in 1921 from Italy. My grandfather passed away long before I was born and we moved in to take care of my grandmother. I was very close to her and I was the one out of the four kids who helped her in the kitchen. People tell me that from an early age I would sit on a stool and watch her cook and chop. It was like pure entertainment. I was probably around 15 when I really started to learn her recipes. I loved the way all our relatives would show up on Sundays and she would do all the cooking. It's what people should be doing now ... gathering as families and enjoying long meals.

And so you continued cooking as you grew older?

I got married at 25 and my wife didn't cook so I started doing all the cooking. I did my grandmother's recipes. I have two girls and they would always ask me what's for dinner on Sunday and who's coming over. I love that!

But you ended up in the apparel industry?

When I was in my early 20s I discovered I liked sales and so I switched from working at a retail store to working on 7th Avenue in the garment industry. I stayed there about 25 to 30 years. I had a great run. I started as a salesperson and then I helped with design and manufacturing. In the beginning I really loved it. I loved working with people and all the interaction and all the creating.

When did you decide to get out of the industry?

It was 2007. The economy was falling apart. My business was starting to become difficult and I was watching friends lose their jobs. I remember sitting at my desk and just thinking that I was done with it. I probably was having a bit of a meltdown. I knew I loved to cook and I loved everything my grandmother cooked. And everyone was always telling me my sauce and meatballs were great. I knew that you could go into a supermarket and usually find a decent sauce and some not-so-great meatballs but that you could never find good meatballs and sauce together. I thought that this was something I could create.

What did your wife think when you switched careers?

In the beginning, my wife thought I'd lost my mind, just like a lot of people did. But now she gets it.

So how did you get started?

There was something on TV about how Whole Foods liked helping local businesses and so one day I walked into my nearby Whole Foods with a pot of meatballs and just took it up to the customer service counter. They sent me to the prepared foods section, where people tried my meatballs and loved them. They agreed to give them a try. I then talked to a neighbor who had some experience in the food industry about how to make volume meatballs. That friend, Carl Wolf, and I started the business. We got the meatballs into gourmet stores in Manhattan and in New Jersey and we started doing well. Then, in 2009, Martha Stewart put me on her show. She wanted to try my meatballs. From there, we started getting a lot of press. Now we have a facility in East Rutherford, New Jersey that makes the product and we're in locations across the country.

What would you tell someone who wants to start a new business later in life?

If you have something you are passionate about, don't let anyone tell you it's not possible. You also need to surround yourself with a good team in order to be successful. One of my heroes in Richard Branson. He surrounds himself with good people. If you treat people well, and stick with what you believe in, you will succeed.

EARLIER ON HUFF/POST50:

Post 50s Declare Their Independence

CONVERSATIONS