Massimo Vidoni speaks exclusively to SME Advisor about his passion for food and how its helping propel his company Italtouch to greater heights…
Charismatic, driven and determined, Massimo Vidoni has a personality that is larger than life. But, what’s more fascinating is the story behind his company. “Everything started in 1992 when I moved to New York. I went there to study marketing, I began working at a very young age. I discovered that Americans were really in love with truffles even though it is an expensive item that comes from Italy. They noticed that they were willing to pay the price so I began commuting to Italy and bought two different kinds of truffles. I used to go to restaurants with bags of truffles and tried to sell them to the chefs. I used to import truffles for all the big restaurants in New York and they saw me as a trusted source. Then I went worldwide I started to do Tokyo, Brazil and San Paulo. That’s how it all started,” he reminisces.
Fast forward 18 years and the global economic crisis has forced Massimo to shut down operations. His passion for food, however, continues to inspire him. “After I closed my company, I happened to be visiting Dubai for a couple of weeks and I absolutely loved the vibe of the city. I tried to apply for a job as a sales manager as I speak four languages, but nothing was working out.”
Naturally, Massimo decided to fall back on his tried and tested truffle business. He was met with a cold response. “Truffle wasn’t considered as revenue generating product. I didn’t lose hope – I took it up as a challenge. I got four kilos of truffles from Australia and I went first to the chef of a prestigious restaurant convinced him to buy two kilos. I knew I had gotten the break I needed! He then introduced me to other chefs and in an hour I had sold the entire four kilos. That’s how I began operations in Dubai.” Massimo knew that there was a demand in the market; he just had to start small. “I had no investors so I invested my personal savings to the tune of 30-40k Euros that I had and started small. I have a lot of vendors from Europe that helped me with the sourcing. I built my own line of products in Italy and that’s how the name Italtouch came about. I then localised my product and chose to make my packaging gold and blue, which is a very unusual colour for any food product because I knew it would stand out on the shelf. It was minor details like these that helped me during the initial stages.”
He continues: “I used to operate out of RAK Free Trade Zone as I did not want people to visit my warehouse because there was only one flexi desk and one fridge. Then I moved to DIP where I had to hire a logistic company to store my boxes for me. It cost me a lot but saved me a lot of headaches and allowed me to focus on selling. My first office in DWC was in 2012 and they gave me 86 meters, it was just me and one shelf!”
Hard to stomach
Massimo isn’t offering a mainstream product – his product is exclusive and so is his business. But, not everyone has been able to digest this. “When I embarked on my entrepreneurial journey, not many people understood the concept or why truffles were so expensive. When I would go to deliver my products in Jumeirah, people would be bewildered by my invoices of AED 25,000! It took some time for people to understand that truffle is a luxury food item. In fact, once my shipping agency called me to check what I’m shipping because they would see a small box weighing five kilos valued at around AED 100,000,” he recalls.
Today, Massimo continues building the awareness of his product. He has built powerful relationships with leading restaurants in the country – and the chefs that head these establishments. “I share such a good relationship with the chefs that I work with. They call me the truffleman!” he jokes. “A lot of companies have started offering truffles so there has been a rise in awareness of the product. I continue to strengthen the position of my brand through social media and by staying in touch my network of chefs. With rising competition in the market, you can’t afford to be complacent!”
Spicing up the business
Initially, Massimo’s business was a solo operation – he used to manage everything from delivery and invoicing to collecting payments and customer retention. Of course now that he’s expanded to a team of nine, his operations are more streamlined. “I started with a truffle line of eight products for restaurants and wanted to scale up operations by opening my own store. I have to be honest – the investment was simply too huge for me to venture out. That’s exactly why I decided to stick to what I did best: selling truffles to restaurants. How I did broaden my reach, however, was by approaching new restaurants. I did some research and got to know that Emirati and British population loves truffles – so I wanted to target this demographic.”
Things are in a good place for Massimo. “Now, we are nine people and expanding. We are looking to get a bigger office. I also have a line of pasta and vegetables. I don’t need to chase clients, they tell me what they want and I source it for them. I am picky when I sell. I have my top clients that I follow as they pay in time as I have to pay the vendors,” he beams.
Currently, I have lot of investor requests to open up offices in Saudi Arabia and Doha, but it’s still in the works. My dream, however, is to open cafés across the city. And, achieving that isn’t too far!