Southern pride: the secret of
Mediterranean Wholesalers’ success
How a family emerged out of poverty in Calabria to revolutionise food imports at the bottom of the world
HEN introducing visitors to Brunswick, I often take them to the “aisle of pasta” at the Mediterranean Wholesalers, the largest continental supermarket in the southern hemisphere.
For the entire length of the supermarket, on both sides, you can enjoy every possible version of the iconic Italian staple: there’s pappardelle, penne, conchiglie, farfalle and fusilli in all different colours, shapes and ingredients. It’s a baroque product of human creativity, skill and appetite.
What’s the story behind this temple of Italian cuisine? To discover the origin story of Mediterranean Wholesalers, I talk with Andrew Madafferi, one of the sons of its founder, Giuseppe, who passed away this year. We wend our way through the trolleys of customers, many coming from regional Victoria to stock up for summer. Back in his humble tiny back office, Andrew weaves an epic tale.
Giuseppe Madafferi was born in Varapodio, Reggio Calabria, fourth in a line of eight children. It was a tough life. Andrew remembers the tale of him stealing olives to make a little money, which he used to buy shoes for his brother Frank, who was migrating to Australia. They were so precious then that Frank wore the shoes around his neck on the boat, to keep them new.
At age 11, in 1936, Giuseppe followed his brother to Shepparton, where they worked on a vegetable farm. By 18, he owned his own farm. Then in 1961, he decided to move to Melbourne where he opened an Italian delicatessen in Sydney Road, a few shops south of their current location.
He soon opened a second shop to sell wholesale. “Dad was always better cashed up,” says Andrew. “He was a better operator. He could bargain better. And he would outdo or outcompete the current delis.”
One by one, Giuseppe bought the properties of other Italian delis, ensuring there would be no competition.
Then in 1977, the current premises came up for sale. But there were soon problems with the rise of supermarkets. Importers began to undercut him, offering better deals to the big chains. By 1980, Giuseppe had enough of this treatment and called in a key supplier.
“Dad called him on Monday morning and he said, ‘I want to see you’. He probably thought he was going to get another order. So he came into this little office here. [Giuseppe said:] ‘I have all the money I owe you for all the invoices that I have pending as of today. And I don’t want your stuff anymore!’
The supplier thought he was crazy. How could he operate without all the iconic brands, such as Sirena Tuna or Lavazza coffee?
Within a week, Giuseppe was on the plane, returning to Italy for the first time, on the hunt for alternative brands.
Andrew recalls these were rough times. He and his brothers would work in the shop immediately after school until late at night, followed by a quick meal and homework. “It was just a vicious, vicious thing that we did for many, many years.”
Giuseppe Madafferi during the store’s early days. Photo: Facebook
Andrew accompanied his father overseas first at the age of 12 and then solo at the incredibly young age of 15 years. Giuseppe threw his son into the deep end.
“‘I don’t care what you buy, as long as you know you’ve got enough money to cover what you buy. But don’t buy anything stupid! And don’t come back with any shoes or pants or shirts!’ It was strictly for business and nothing else. Dad always used to put the fear of God into me.”
Despite the financial stress, Giuseppe made a point of always paying his suppliers on time. He soon developed a reputation in Europe as a good customer. Andrew remembers Giuseppe’s pride in being courted by the suppliers, taking his arm to show him their wares.
There was much Calabrian theatre. He liked to make a “scena”, an Italian word for “scene” that Andrew pronounces with a dramatic emphasis. For instance, he remembers his father offering to buy pasta from a marginal supplier, “But I’m not paying you”. It was a scena, implying that he was important enough a customer to warrant supply without conditions. Only a very prestigious customer could offer to buy something for nothing. Of course, he ended up buying his entire stock, and paid within 30 days.
Over time, father and son came back to Brunswick with replacements for the old brands. The next challenge was to convince their customers to try them. Giuseppe charmed the customers, handing out samples.
Coffee was a challenge. How to introduce an alternative to the iconic blends? The strategy was to engage face-to-face. They started offering coffee tasting in the shop, which eventually became the cafe that is now a unique bustling side business to the supermarket. It worked.
They also started making their own bread, cakes and pasta. A special machine was brought over from Italy. Their fresh lasagna sheets are one of their most popular items.
Andrew Madafferi with the Annalisa brand, which became part of the “family”.
But there was also a lot of work on the ground in Calabria. Every year, Giuseppe and his wife Carmela would spend several months on the farms of suppliers. They helped develop their clients, like Annalisa.
“My mother used to work on the conveyor belt where they used to do the sorting of the tomatoes.” She made sure their business got the best produce.
It was the Calabrian way. “It became about family. They were part of our family and we were part of their family.”
So even though they are importers, they are hands-on working with producers at the source. “The word just gets around that you’re not only an importer, but you’re also a human as well.”
Giuseppe would fill up the boot of his car with chocolates and go to the piazza to distribute treats to the children.
It was very different north of Rome. With northern customers, at the trade fair in Cologne, everything had to be above board and there was no interest in bargaining.
This Calabrian way is a feature of Sydney Road. The Patti family supply fresh produce with warm perfectionism at La Manna Fresh and Organics. There is also the ever-reliable Bus Stop shoe repairs on Victoria Street and Gangemi’s fruit shop in Barkly Square.
The Madafferi family preserved a Calabrian dialect and values that had partly disappeared back in Italy. Giuseppe’s recent funeral at St Mary Star of the Sea church included the traditional procession and was watched by many back in Italy.
Today, it is still a family business. While Leo manages the warehouses, Charlie does administration, Fiori handles the goods and Andrew covers international procurement.
For Andrew, a new generation of foodies bring specialist tastes. He points to the fusilli by Gentile Pastificio, one of their exclusive products that achieved IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) status as authentic to the Grangnano locale of Naples, combining local water with durum wheat from Puglia.
But the Mediterranean is not only for shopping. There are film crews and school students on assignments along the aisles, not to mention locals from the same village back in Italy catching up in the cafe.
The old Italians still come for the familiar goods, like the chianti, oregano on the stem and sweet-smelling detergents. But the icing on the cake is the panettone, an essential feature of the year’s two major feasts.
“I always say to my wife, people don’t necessarily have to come to us every week or every month. But when it comes to Christmas and Easter, they’ve got to come home to Mama.”
This article was originally published on ‘Culture Makers’, a newsletter written by Kevin Murray. Subscribe here.