Since the early '70s, Mozzicato-De Pasquale Bakery and Pastry Shop in Hartford has made a national name baking and selling sumptuous Italian breads and pastries at its South End facility.
Six miles away, in the city's North End, cheesemaker Sam Maulucci & Sons slowly built its reputation, starting in 1960, distributing its distinctive ricotta and mozzarella to area restaurants and supermarkets, later expanding into markets along the East Coast. Along the way, Mozzicato Bakery signed on as a major customer.
Now, cheese has united the two crosstown family businesses.
Following the death one year ago of patriarch and founder Sebastian "Sam'' Maulucci Sr., the Maulucci family members sought to sell the business.
Meanwhile, Mozzicato-De Pasquale was concerned about the possible loss of a premium dairy source for its signature canoli and other baked delights. So it acquired the business for an unspecified amount of cash and an assumption of Maulucci & Sons' debt.
The timing of the Mozzicato family's choice to expand its deft touch to cheese production shows that businesses, particularly small ones, can find attractive growth opportunities even in a slumping economy.
"We like to start businesses in a recession,'' said Paolo "Paul'' Mozzicato, who is among the second generation working in his family's café-bakery at 329 Franklin Ave. "If you can do business in a recession, you can do business anytime.''
Irresistible, too, he said, was the opportunity to rescue another venerable Hartford family business.
"We hated to see it go away," Paul Mozzicato said.
Connecticut is home to an estimated 90,000 family-owned businesses, according to the Family Business Program at the University of Connecticut. Their hallmarks are a disdain for debt and a laser-like focus on quality and customer service. Those qualities make them better suited to weathering downturns like this one, said program director Priscilla M. Cale.
The Secretary of the State recently announced that a record 13,456 Connecticut businesses shut their doors in 2008, many victims of the economy.
Some of them likely faced the same succession dilemma that threatened Maulucci & Sons. It can be a challenge to find qualified successors to run the operation after a founder departs, said Cale, who teaches entrepreneurship and international business at UConn.
"They find somebody that's really aligned with their values,'' she said, "because it's still their name on the business.''
Paul Mozzicato's parents — father Gino, an Italian immigrant, and mother Gisella — opened Mozzicato Bakery in 1973 at the start of a two-year national recession. In 1975, the family business expanded with the purchase of neighboring De Pasquale Bread Shop that had been in business seven decades. It never looked back.
"The business the way we are, is doing very well,'' Gino Mozzicato said, noting sales were up about 5 percent in 2008.
Paul Mozzicato, who with his sister Gina and brother Rino, oversee day-to-day operations, said their focus is on sustaining the Mozzicato-DePasquale brand amid gyrating prices for commodities such as flour and sugar. They aren't focused, he says, on the economic slump, which he believes is at times overstated.
"The trick these days … is figuring out how to improve the bottom line without affecting quality,'' Paul Mozzicato said. "We're not going to cut the quality.''
The desire to preserve the quality of their product was the main reason the Mozzicato family was receptive when the dairy became available after Sam Maulucci's death in January 2008, Paul Mozzicato said.
Maulucci & Sons' premium brand fresh ricotta is marketed to pizza and fine-dining restaurants, supermarkets, including Big Y, Highland Park Market, and Geissler's, and bakeries. Maulucci's' market stretches north into Massachusetts and as far south as Washington, D.C.
Farmington attorney Coleman Levy has been an adviser to the Mozzicato family for decades. It would have been easy for them to simply acquire the equipment and allow the Maulucci brand to fade, he says. Instead they chose to acquire the business intact.
"There are always people who see opportunity,'' Levy said. "When people are intelligent and recognize that these situations won't be around forever, they're going to take advantage.''
The Mozzicatos will continue producing Maulucci ricotta, made from leftover whey from the production of mozzarella.
"We want to keep everything, as far as production, the same," Paul Mozzicato said.
But the location of the production will change. The family has leased about 6,000 square feet in the Hartford Regional Market to relocate Maulucci's production-distribution and it four to six workers.
The new home replaces Maulucci's aging quarters at 3390 N. Main St., former home of the Fuller Brush Co., where Sam Maulucci once worked.