In a region that is famous for tourism, olive oil and wine, Sicily also plays host to an industrial innovator in the form of Zerica. The Palermo-based beverage dispensing specialist is a third generation family company which is making increasingly bigger waves in the foodservice sector.
While the firm has a rich history of invention to draw upon, having been established in 1931, it was only just before the turn of this century that it began exporting its water coolers and fountains to the UK market, at that time aimed mostly at the b2c sector in large offices and factories.
The firm is now run by brothers Marco and Antonio Zerilli, with the former as CEO and the latter as MD. Antonio recalled: “The most difficult part used to be making people try our units, but the moment they did, they understood our difference. It’s really different technology – quality is important to us.”
European business development manager Joe Ferrara emphasised: “Zerica has always been very high end – we are the Rolls-Royce of water chillers. We are marrying this quality technology with the most attractive prices in the market.”
The Italian manufacturer is managing to balance these often-conflicting elements by producing as many components as possible itself for its machines. Marco explained: “We are always looking for total customer satisfaction, so we wanted total control of the sub-assembly and the raw materials, not only of the product itself.”
Plus in 2018 the firm purchased equipment to produce its own PCB (printed circuit boards) for electronic operation of its units. Therefore less than 10% of components are now externally purchased, essentially only standard items such as compressors and solenoid valves. Marco summed up: “Each unit is a business card for us. We believe in the quality and we want our products to work for years and years.”
Over the last decade, the manufacturer has expanded into producing juice dispensers and hot beverage machines. Putting its innovative thinking cap on, the firm launched its first juice units in 2016 after collaborating with an Italian juice concentrate manufacturer with the aim of eliminating issues it reported with bacteria development in competitors’ machines.
The resulting BeviLaNatura brand, featuring units with patented mixing technology with no mixing chamber and no peristaltic pumps, is the name that the UK catering equipment supply chain may be the most familiar with. Marco disclosed: “We invented a hermetically-sealed way to mix the juice so there is no risk of bacterial contamination and the maintenance is practically zero.”
Underpinning this development was opening an office in Cambridge, UK, which stemmed from the Zerillis liaising with their childhood friend Giovanni Tepedino, who lives in the area. The brothers demonstrated the patented juice machine technology to Tepedino as they knew he could assist with research and development and integrating internet of things (IoT) technology into the units for telemetry monitoring using a touchscreen display.
Describing Cambridge as the “Silicon Valley of the UK”, Ferrara detailed that since the UK office was established in 2016, it has grown headcount in sales roles and now includes a team of software developers continuingly updating the programs controlling its beverage dispensers. Marco detailed: “In the UK we found the same passion and same professional ethos that we have.”
The UK push was further boosted this year with the appointment of ex-Lincat salesman, Dean Griffiths, who was then instrumental in securing a deal with Cascade Water Systems to stock and supply Zerica products to the UK market, as well as managing the after-care.
According to Ferrara: “When Dean started he went to visit customers and they all asked the question, ‘do you have stock locally?’. They wanted delivery next day or in 2-3 days maximum. So that drove us to make the agreement with Cascade, which is now set up to hold our stock in the UK and fulfil orders for any size of customer.”
In 2017 the company then opened a sales office in central Palermo, a few miles away from its Termini Imerese-based factory which outputs about 14,000 units annually. The sales, marketing and communications teams are all based there, overseen by Antonio, while Marco manages the factory headquarters.
Antonio underlined that the driving forces behind the innovations are ensuring its designs are as simple as possible. Innovation is in the family’s DNA, with Antonio labelling himself a ‘geek’ and admitting to being given a soldering iron as a present when he was only 6 years old.
Some of the inventions down the years include the high performance direct chill patented cooling system, which uses a ‘pipe in pipe’ design utilising antibacterial copper. This is designed to cool water to temperature in just 3 minutes, using less than 7kWh.
Another significant development was the ‘silver turbo clean’, which generates a water vortex internally, preventing biofilm formation. This hermetically-sealed stainless steel cooling system is welded together with silver, a material well known for its antibacterial properties.
As it is a relatively small company, Zerica is nimble enough to offer customisations quickly. Marco pointed out: “With our total control of components we can practically instantaneously change the cabinets, the cooling capacity, the assembly or even the operation in line with companies’ requests.”
Zerica also regularly supplies its machines with end users’ individual branding, with more than 60% of its dispensers supplied in this way. Already exporting to over 40 countries, to ensure that international expansion continues, the firm is investing in obtaining UL approval for the USA and the CSA mark for the Canadian market.
Noting that the global distribution channel is complex, Antonio outlined that Zerica is seeking to partner with complementary dealers which work in separate sectors. Ferrara added: “UK foodservice is almost a virgin market for us, so this is a channel of distribution we really want to develop now. We are looking to form partnerships with the right dealers.”
While Antonio felt that there were gaps in Zerica’s range for the foodservice market, the firm has been working on a series of new product launches that he feels has now possibly even “overfilled” the gap. He hinted at the latest units being countertop and undercounter water dispensers and water dispensing taps that incorporate IoT technology, as well as a wall-mounted water machine. The firm intends to make a big splash at Host Milan in October by introducing them all there.
One thing Zerica won’t be doing however, is being bought out. According to Marco: “Our goal is to develop new ideas, we are not focused on margins or reducing cost. We constantly want to reinvent our units.” Recounting that one company offering to acquire the business would have made the vast majority of employees redundant, Marco would not countenance this, as he and Antonio want to continue to foster the family feel of the firm. “Zerica is made of people. Our ideas are the expression of everybody here and they are a part of our passion.” And indeed the company ensures it treats its employees well, assigning each one an individual tutor to train them up when they join.
Looking ahead, Marco revealed: “We will continue to maintain our philosophy of respecting the ambient environment, saving energy and reducing pollution. Our units are ready to conquer the world.”
1931 – Marco Zerilli establishes company in Sicily and produces first cooling systems
1965 – Second generation Giacomo Zerilli takes over the business, re-naming it Frigotecnica Zerilli and manufactures its first cold water fountains in Italy
1970 – Company enters the HoReCa sector
1980 – The business becomes Zerica
1989 – Creation of the ‘direct chill’ system
1996 – Zerica produces the world’s smallest under-sink chiller
2000 – Patent on the ‘high performance direct chill’ system granted
2010 – Implemented SAP system
2016 – Opened sales office in Cambridge, UK
2019 – Launched slim Kolumna dispensing with internet connectivity and telemetry