( Family of Batista Madonia (Image created by Amelia Freidline) )

Long-time East Coast tomato industry operator Batista Madonia, 81, has died.

His lifelong passion was growing, packing and shipping tomatoes, family members said.

In 1958, Batista and his wife Evelyn founded East Coast Brokers & Packers Inc.

Starting with 17 acres of land, the company steadily expanded. At its peak the company grew, packed and shipped $100 million worth of tomatoes a year from 12,000 acres in Florida and on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Following freezes in 2010 and 2011 and an earlier financial setback with a nationwide salmonella outbreak wrongly attributed to tomatoes in 2008, the company’s fortunes declined. The company filed for bankruptcy and went out of business in 2013, said son Stephen Salvatore Madonia, who is currently director of operations at  Immokalee, Fla.-based Chapman Fruit Company Inc.

Madonia said his father loved the industry and the people he worked with.

“I spent my whole life with him; he was just a wonderful person,” Madonia said. “He wanted the best for the family and put everything he made back into the company.”

An avid reader of The Packer, he said his father knew the buyers at different terminal markets and what product they needed.

In 2009, Syngenta gave Batista Madonia and his wife Evelyn Madonia its inaugural Thumbprint Award, recognizing the company for its treatment of employees.

Also in 2009, East Coast Brokers & Packers, Mulberry, Fla. was the first major shipper in Florida that worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to deliver an extra penny per pound to workers from customers including Chipotle, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King and Whole Foods. 

His father’s decision to break ranks with other Florida shippers and work with the CIW was motivated by the conviction that it was the right move, despite opposition from some quarters, Stephen Salvatore Madonia said.

Batista Madonia donated a building for a daycare facility and provided a church for his workers, he said.

Stephen Salvatore Madonia said his parents took their children out of school in Pennsylvania to set up operations in south Florida each year.

“We stayed down there for months and did all the school work and brought it back to Pennsylvania,” he said, recalling trips with his two siblings in the back of a 1965 Mustang.

Madonia said his father would take bare-root plants from Georgia to Pennsylvania, wet the roots and plant tomatoes by hand with a one-row planter.

In 1959, the husband and wife team created the design for their original “King’s Choice” brand on the back of a tomato box lid.

In the early days, the company had a 24-inch wooden roller tomato line in Pennsylvania that was heated with kerosene heaters to keep the family members warm as they worked. Later, the company expanded into a 300,000-square-foot packinghouse in Florida.

Batista is survived by his wife of 62 years, Evelyn Prenatt Madonia; three children, Stephen (wife, Teresa), Naples, Fla.; Rosemary Veronique Madonia, Plant City, Fla.; and Batista J. Madonia III (wife, Angela), Tampa, Fla.
He has 10 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.

Madonia was born in Buffalo, N.Y., to Batista and Rose Rizzo Madonia of Sicily. He attended Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, Mo., and Gannon University in Erie, Pa., according to an obituary

The Madonia family asks that In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory be made to: The Saint Benedict Education Foundation, 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe, PA, 15650-2690; (724)802-2607. Please write on the memo: GUEST HOUSE