Teachers often tell students to dream big.
But one teacher's encouragement to a principal inspired him, after almost two decades in public education, to pursue his dream.
Former Darby High School assistant principal Mike DeMassimo, 41, is the founder and owner of De Massimo's Authentic Sauces, a pasta-sauce business he started after stepping away from education in 2016.
"I always thought I'd be a school superintendent," said DeMassimo, a Hilliard resident.
Today, he crisscrosses the Midwest, expanding his customer base and the number of retail outlets that sell a trio of sauces made from his family recipe.
"I'm it right now," DeMassimo said, though his wife, Bethany, assists with finances and their children, Anthony, A.J. and Olivia, chip in.
After all, it's a family business – and it was a family decision.
"It was a tough decision but I have my family's support," DeMassimo said about the choice to forgo a comfortable salary as a school administrator to launch a small but growing business.
He plans to hire his first full-time employee within a year; he previously has employed interns, mostly former Hilliard and Olentangy students.
"I believe in Mike and I believe in our family," Bethany DeMassimo said. "Taking the leap ultimately wasn't a tough decision because I knew God was behind this opportunity. Now we get to share a piece of our family with everyone and that means the world to us."
DeMassimo said after almost two years after leaving his job at Hilliard City Schools, he does not regret the decision.
"I've never quite had the passion and the energy for anything else like I do for this," he said.
DeMassimo recalls the conversation with a teacher at Olentangy Liberty High School that meandered into hopes and dreams. He was principal at Olentangy for four years before accepting the job as assistant principal at Darby, which he held for one year.
DeMassimo said the teacher told him he should market his family's sauces. DeMassimo was known for preparing homemade lasagna using the secret sauce for staff members each Christmas season.
" 'How could I do that? Where would I even start?' " DeMassimo thought at the time.
But the seed was planted.
"I called the (Food and Drug Administration) to learn about how to produce and market a sauce," he said.
The FDA put DeMassimo in touch with ARC Industries, a Columbus-based nonprofit organization that matches people who have disabilities with suitable jobs.
"I began making small batches in a commercial kitchen (and) ARC put on the lids and labels," he said.
The products initially were sold at farmers markets in central Ohio, including one at the Hilliard United Methodist Church, in 2015.
"We sold all 120 jars every Tuesday (that summer)," DeMassimo said.
DeMassimo said some of the early success likely was connected to the familiarity of his name in Hilliard – he also is a coach for local travel baseball teams – but in 2016 he decided to expand the product to more than a dozen farmers markets.
"It sold really well everywhere and that's when I started to think we may have something here," DeMassimo said.
Demand even persisted after farmers market closed for the season, he said.
Customers in Powell even began asking the manager at Kroger if the store carried the product, he said.
Now, De Massimo's Authentic Sauces are part of Kroger's local-foods program in its Columbus division, as well as at several private grocers, such as Weiland's Market in Clintonville and Huffman's Market in Upper Arlington.
DeMassimo said his products soon should be available in Giant Eagle Market Districts and Target stores.
Three sauces currently are marketed: De Massimo's Authentic Pasta Sauce, De Massimo's Authentic Arrabbiata Sauce and De Massimo's Authentic Pizza Sauce. DeMassimo explained that the space in the name reflects the correct way to spell "De Massimo," which was Americanized on many records without the space.
"Our sauces are family recipes handed down over generations," DeMassimo said. "We plan to introduce a fourth line in the fall and are working in importing olive oil from my grandmother's village (of San Giovanni in Galdo, Italy)."
The bell tower in the Italian village of 600 is depicted on the labels of De Massimo's pasta jars.
Word of DeMassimo's success has reached San Giovanni in Galdo, which is in the mountainous Molise region of Italy.
Last fall, DeMassimo and his wife were invited to San Giovanni in Galdo, where he was presented a key to the village and they were proclaimed honorary citizens.
"I rang the bell in the tower and they told me that was the same bell my grandmother (born in 1911) heard when she was cooking in her kitchen," DeMassimo said. "It was quite an emotional experience for me."
DeMassimo said his father's side is from the Abruzzo region of Italy, which is to the north of Molise and east of Rome, but he was raised in Maple Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, where the importance of family and food was inculcated from as early as he can recall.
"As a family, food was always at the center and we always sat down at the table and had great meals but even better fellowship," he said.
DeMassimo said he hopes the success of his product fosters such memories for other families and serves as an inspiration that it is never too late to pursue a dream.
For more information about De Massimo's products, visit demassimos.com.