Joe Procacci outside his company's building in August 1993. File photo
Joe Procacci was no stranger to hard work, and virtually everyone in the produce industry was no stranger to Joe Procacci.
From pushing a produce cart as a child to building a business empire for nearly 70 years, Procacci maintained his tenacious love for business and family to the very end.
Ninety-year old Philadelphia produce legend Joe Procacci was hailed by family, friends and competitors after his Nov. 17 death.
Joe Procacci’s always-on smile never left him, even at the hour of his passing, his son J.M. Procacci said.
“If the produce industry ever opened a Hall of Fame, my dad would be our Babe Ruth,” said J.M. Procacci, president of Santa Sweets Inc., chief operating officer of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., and CEO of Procacci Holdings LLC, in a statement.
In September, Joe Procacci stepped down as CEO of Procacci Holdings LLC, passing that title to his son and transitioning to the role of CEO emeritus.
The numerous honors he received include The Packer’s Produce Man of the Year, Eastern Produce Council Man of the Year, National Association of Perishable Agricultural Receiver of the Year and the United Fresh Produce Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
Procacci always appeared to be a larger than life produce industry icon, Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, Los Alamitos, Calif., said in an e-mail.
“But, when he flew to Washington, D.C., while I was chairman of the USDA Fruit & Vegetable Advisory Committee and pulled me aside and passionately asked for our committees’ help to get permission for his new minted “Ugly Ripe” tomatoes to cross state borders, I realized he was a humble, hard-working, passionate produce man,” she said.
Caplan said she developed a special bond with Procacci, and she said she was honored to be asked by him to introduce him when he received the United Fresh Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
“He loved his family and he loved his produce family,” Caplan said. “He will be missed.”
Joe Procacci helped reshape the U.S. tomato market with the marketing of Santa Sweets Grape tomatoes and trademarked UglyRipe heirloom tomatoes. After four years of struggle, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2007 issued a rule that allowed the UglyRipe variety to be exempt from shape requirements of the Florida tomato marketing order.
J.M. Procacci said Nov. 20 that his father stressed the importance of being first to innovate.
“He said, ‘If you are standing still, you are going in reverse,’” J.M. Procacci said.
As long-time CEO and chairman of Procacci Bros., he was a key force on industry issues including pallet standardization, grading standards, food safety, trade agreements and preservation of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.
Procacci’s testimony before Congress in 1995 on the importance of preserving the trust provision of PACA was critical when several retail groups were trying to eliminate it, J.M. Procacci said.
“He testified that the PACA must be maintained for the protection of all produce providers; produce people cannot afford to lose their receivables because they work on such tight margins,” he said.
When he was finished, the retail groups knew the debate was over, J.M. Procacci recalled.
From pushcart to new terminal market
At eight years old, Joe Procacci began selling produce on the streets of Camden, N.J., from his father’s pushcart Later, during World War II — rejected for military service because of blindness in one eye — Procacci would work for 24 hours straight at a fruit stand near a ship factory in New York City, then catch sleep on the train back to Philadelphia. The money he raised would eventually be used to help start the family business in 1948 with his brothers Mike and Pat.
The company would expand with world-wide sourcing of produce and then started tomato farming operations in Florida in the early 1960s, benefiting from the trade embargo put in place by the U.S. against Cuba in 1962.
“He was always a step ahead of where the rest of the industry was going,” J.M. Procacci said.
Ed Pohlman, produce category manager of Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, said Procacci shaped the tomato business with his success with grape tomatoes and UglyRipe heirloom tomatoes.
“You look at where he started, pushing a banana cart in the street and repacking tomatoes in his basement, to the business he built, it is amazing,” Pohlman said. “He was living the American dream.”
Pohlman said Procacci took great interest in all of his accounts.
“He was very appreciative of his customers and would come to our expo every year himself and work a booth well into his 80s,” he said. “He just kind of made you feel special.”
Harris Cutler, president of Race-West Company, Clarks Summit, Pa., said in an e-mail that Procacci was a pioneer in developing tomato flavor and invested wisely in both his family and his business.
“He leaves a great family and a great team that will carry his vision and the family legacy for generations to come,” Cutler said. “Who was Joe Procacci? Take a look in 10 years, when his business is even greater than it is now.”
Procacci was the driving force behind the development of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, said George Manos, CEO of T.M.Kovacevich-Philadelphia Inc.
“Without his stewardship this project would never have happened,” Manos said in an e-mail. “I am personally grateful that I had to opportunity to work with and know this wonderful man. He will truly be missed.”
Survivors include his wife of 69 years, Teresa; his son, daughters Loretta and Rita, 10 grandchildren, 1 great-grandchild, brothers Michael and Sam and sister Rose.
The family said a viewing was scheduled for Nov. 24 and funeral Mass was to be be celebrated Nov. 25, at Christ Our Light Catholic Church, Cherry Hill, N.J.
Memorial donations may be made to the Abramson Cancer Center, Bladder Cancer Biomarker Discovery Fund, in care of Andrew Bellet, Penn Medicine Development and Alumni Relations, 3535 Market St. Suite 750, Philadelphia, PA, 19104.