Having the time to dream was a luxury for 8-year-old Joe Procacci.
Between school and selling produce from pushcarts on the streets of Camden, N.J., the son of Italian immigrants had little time for anything else. Selling fruits and vegetables was not then a professional goal, however.
The word “career” may not paint a true picture of Joseph Procacci’s achievements in the more than six decades since he and his brother, Michael, set up a tomato repacking business in the cellar of their parents’ home. What became Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Philadelphia, is a tribute to Procacci’s work ethic and integrity.
“We saw an opportunity to meet the demand for repacked tomatoes, and we took advantage of it,” he said of the basement operation.
The business soon moved to the old Dock Street Market and also served retailers on a direct delivery basis, he said.
“That’s how we founded our wholesale business,” Procacci said.
In those days, the tomatoes marketed by the Procacci brothers came by train from Florida, Mexico and Cuba.
“We didn’t buy train loads,” Procacci said. “When we first started, we bought a minimum amount in the auction in New York or in the Philadelphia Terminal Market.”
The company’s role as a wholesaler would change dramatically in the early 1960s when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, an event that would forever change Procacci Bros. and a wide swath of the East’s fresh produce industry.
A Cuban grower who had supplied Procacci Bros. before Castro made his way to Florida, but lacked the funds to resume growing tomatoes.
“He needed backing, and that’s when my brother and I became growers, too,” Procacci said. “I think my greatest achievement is growing tomatoes.”
His son, chief operating officer J.M. Procacci, tends to disagree.
Joe Procacci is responsible for so many achievements that it is difficult to choose just one, J.M. Procacci said.
For instance, it was Joe Procacci who in 1995 went before a Senate subcommittee and single-handedly prevented the demise of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, said J.M. Procacci.
“I think the greatest accomplishment, though, was making the grape tomato popular,” J.M. Procacci said. “It was probably the biggest shake-up of any category in the produce department.”
Joe Procacci did more than popularize the grape tomato, but it wasn’t easy.
After finding the variety, the company discovered supplies of seed were limited.