The Austin Chronicle

Michael Angelo's Feeds Folks Family Style

By Amira Jensen, June 3, 2014, 2:00pm, On the Range

Michael Angelo Renna and his mother, Sara Agnello, had what was considered an unconventional business model when they began Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods over 30 years ago.

Sourcing only the same natural ingredients that they cooked with at home, their strict standards for what went into their meals were criticized by both suppliers and competitors. “Well we’re not food scientists,” Renna said. “We don’t know how to put in additives, and we never bothered to try and learn because we didn’t think that was valuable. Why not make food that’s clean? After 30 years, it still seems like a good idea.”

As consciousness about food quality and sources expands and more studies expose the harms of food preservatives, what Michael Angelo’s has been doing for decades is now sought by more mainstream diners. The family-owned business has grown from humble beginning as an after-hours family operation to making its way into select health food stores before expanding into nearly every supermarket chain nationwide. Michael Angelo's has recently launched a new line at Walmart that offers five of their traditional Italian dishes, including meat lasagna, baked ziti, and eggplant Parmesan, in family-sized containers that serve up to eight people.

Feeding a family with her authentic Italian dishes is what Agnello knows best. Raising a family in San Diego, California, she was constantly serving up her family’s recipes to her five sons and their friends. Dinner guests often suggested she start a restaurant, and when her boys were old enough to help out, they worked together to make it happen. “So at night after we finished our regular jobs, we used to put the other hat on and we started building a little restaurant,” Renna said.

They opened their family restaurant in Solana Beach, where they soon realized that locals preferred burritos and tacos instead of their hand-tossed pizzas and homemade pasta sauces. But rather than give up because they had chosen the wrong location, Renna brainstormed about how to get his mom’s meals to those who would appreciate them. Moving from an ill-fated restaurant to packaged foods seemed like a risk, but also the best option they had to share Agnello’s natural culinary talent. “We didn’t really know anything about being a food company, but we knew how to cook,” Renna said.

First, they started simply delivering the packaged meals to homes in the area, but Renna began thinking bigger. He remembered that when he was a kid, his mother would cook for the week on her days off and freeze dishes so that he and his brothers could have a home-cooked meal even when she was working. The memory of warming up his mother’s meals gave him a new and better business direction.

The family continued running the restaurant during the day, but transformed the place into a mini-factory at night once customers left. They pushed together dining tables and created an assembly line – lasagna, sauce, cheese – working through the nights to portion out Mom's dishes into single-serve trays. The restaurant walls became lined with freezers to hold the trays until Renna could drive them to the docks in the morning. As their newly transformed venture started to show promise, Renna's next step was to standardize his mother’s recipes for larger production.

“I didn’t have recipes, and he said, ‘That’s OK, I can figure it out.’ So he bought a scale and said, 'Go ahead and cook,'” Agnello recalls. “And every time I would add fresh onions, fresh garlic, olive oil – whatever you need to make a sauce, he weighed everything before I put it in the pot. And that’s how we started formulating recipes.”

Michael Angelo’s Italian frozen food began with four original meals of lasagna, stuffed shells, manicotti, and the family favorite – eggplant Parmesan. Over the years, their thriving business has expanded to include 80 entrées. Part of the family, including the family business, moved to Austin 20 years ago to be centrally located to make national distribution more feasible.

Agnello and Renna often visit farmers to see how they grow their produce, and take trips to Italy for inspiration. During their last stay, they stumbled upon kamut pasta, which is touted for being high in fiber and protein. Michael Angelo’s now offers its own line of dry kamut pasta in select stores, and incorporates the ancient grain into the pizza doughs and pastas of some of its frozen offerings.

“We keep our ear to the ground to hear what’s new, what’s healthy,” Agnello said. “We’re always concerned about eating right, and we want to offer that to our consumers.”

Now that clean food is what their customers want, too, Michael Angelo’s could have a corner on the frozen meal market. As Agnello continues to cook up new ideas in the kitchen, Renna has proven to find ways to get them on the dinner tables nationwide.

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