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.
“I went direct to Taiwan and secured an exclusive on all of the Santa Sweet seed in the world,” Joe Procacci said. Today, in addition to marketing “everything from apples to zucchini,” as Joe Procacci puts it, the company also sells its santa F1 grape tomato seed to customers in Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand, he said.
Another Procacci Sales heirloom tomato variety is marketed as UglyRipe.
A little recognized Procacci Bros. fact is that the company is the nation’s largest importer of chestnuts, J.M. Procacci said.
“We source only from Italy, where they grow the very best chestnuts, and my father negotiates all of those contracts directly with the Italian growers,” he said.
From that cramped Camden basement to the sprawling seven warehouses of today’s Procacci Sales — and its other divisions — Joe Procacci’s approach has not changed.
“You have to be honest with your customers, and it pays off in the confidence the customers put in you,” he said. “We just kept our nose to the grindstone and kept doing what was honest and fair, and it has paid off.”
Yet another constant is Procacci himself.
“I still come in here anywhere from five to seven days a week,” he said. “If I’m not here I’m doing business outside the office.”
Joe Procacci admits to a diversion, however. He will on occasion play hooky to get in a round of golf, he said.
A temporary diversion is the upcoming opening of the new Philadelphia Produce Market.
“We have a wonderful association here, and most of that is because of my father,” J.M. Procacci said.Now in his 80s, backing away from the stress of the business he built is not in Joe Procacci’s plans.
A recent restructuring of company management found the title of chief marketing officer added to Joe Procacci’s duties as chief executive officer.
In the face of business pressures, Joe Procacci still finds time for numerous civic affairs and causes.
“It’s an important part of being a good citizen,” he said. “I’m very grateful for the position I am in in life, and I’m glad to participate in charity work.”
For J.M. Procacci, there’s a sliver of selfishness to keeping dad — the man he said he loved working alongside as a kid — on board. After all, there is only one Joe Procacci.
The admiration J.M. Procacci has for his father is obvious as evidenced by his reaction when The Packer honored Joe Procacci with its 1995 Produce Man of the Year award:
“If there’s a hall of fame in produce, my father would be Babe Ruth,” J.M Procacci said at the time.
It still holds true today, he said.
J.M. Procacci is not the only Procacci offspring to play a role in the family business. His sister, Rita Neczypor, is a key member of the marketing staff.No longer just a repacker, the volume of fresh produce and flowers marketed by Procacci Bros. annually is approaching 300,000 tons, and the company has more than 12,500 employees.