ISHPEMING - If you live in the Upper Peninsula, chances are that you've tasted Mama Russo's Italian cuisine. At the very least, you've heard the name.
The company's signature Italian dishes proliferate in the frozen section of grocery stores throughout the U.P. and even northern Wisconsin, and many have doubtless tasted its famous spaghetti sauce.
"I think our spaghetti sauce is by far the icon of our company," said John Korhonen, who owns the food manufacturing and catering business with his wife, Jean. "It sets us apart from anybody else, as far as the way we produce it."
John Korhonen holds some of the Mama Russo’s product. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Korhonen said what really sets Mama Russo's sauce apart from those of their competitors are two factors: a hearty helping of beef and a recipe that's been gluten free for about a decade.
"I think there's a big awareness now with gluten-free products - a lot more people are being diagnosed with having gluten issues that they weren't even aware of, so a lot of people are changing their habits because of that factor," Korhonen said. "And our spaghetti sauce not only being 20 percent meat - which sets us apart from most of your store brands, which have 3 percent or less, so there's quite a bit more meat than competitors - and also the fact that there's no preservatives in it and it's flash-frozen, so it freezes in and keeps all the freshness of the sauce. So it's definitely a homemade sauce."
Mama Russo's gets its name from Korhonen's grandmother, whose sons - Korhonen's uncles - named their business of delivering produce door to door after their mother soon after they founded it in 1938. Mama Russo remains the face of the company to this day, Korhonen said, with her picture part of the logo on the brand's label.
From its humble beginning, Mama Russo's evolved from produce delivery into a grocery, where the company began to sell its spaghetti sauce and other Italian food.
"The Mama Russo products got started, oh, probably 30 years ago - late (19)70s - when we were in the grocery business," Korhonen said. "We produced these products and just sold them out of our store."
"Our recipes came from Sicily originally. We became very popular ... and we do have an assortment of different products - ranging from homemade deli salads that we produce with no preservatives, that we sell to the area grocery stores; we also do a line of sausage, cudighi sausage, which is very recognizable in this area - it's a form of Italian sausage; and then also we do frozen entrees - and frozen entrees are made from our most popular item, which it all began with, and that's our spaghetti sauce."
After running the grocery business for years, the Korhonens sold the store, Russo's Food Center, to Super One. They began manufacturing their food products full time about 13 years ago, out of their facility in Ishpeming Township. In addition to themselves, they have eight employees to help them ship out literally thousands of pounds of food.
"We have probably the largest steam kettle in the area, without question," Korhonen said. "It's 250 gallons, so when we make spaghetti sauce, we make just over 2,000 pounds, or 1 ton of spaghetti sauce, in one batch. So our capacity has grown."
In addition to making and shipping food products to U.P. grocery stores, Mama Russo's also does catering - an aspect of the business that Korhonen "has always been good and it continues to grow."
For the immediate future, the Korhonens plan to continue to work together doing what they love, but John said they're always keeping an eye on future opportunities to change and grow.
"We're always looking, we're always trying to expand ... as a business, you're always looking forward," he said. You always try to move forward and see what else new is out there.
"My wife and I have been running this ... both of us started this and operate this, so we both do it together."
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.