(Jan. 9, 2:50 p.m.) Joe Procacci gives little thought to how successful the company he founded in 1948 has become.

While he acknowledges the accomplishment of the Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. reaching its 60th year of business, Procacci said he and his employees only keep working to better serve their customers.

The Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros. — which has become one of the largest U.S. wholesale produce distribution firms — was formally started shortly after the end of World War II by Joe Procacci, 21, and his brother Michael Procacci, 26, who ran their tomato sales and repacking business out of a cramped basement in their father’s home in Camden, N.J.

When he was 8, Joe Procacci entered the business by hawking bananas from his father’s pushcart during the height of the Great Depression.

Soon after founding the business, the brothers relocated to a 6,000-square-foot operation in Philadelphia’s Old Dock Street Market and would move to the city’s current produce market when it opened in 1959. Today, Procacci Bros. is instrumental in relocating the city’s aging market to new facilities.

Procacci Bros. continues to introduce items in the tomato category.

The company imported heavy volumes of Cuban vine-ripe tomatoes before the rise of Fidel Castro and partnered with Florida tomato growers during the early 1960s before it started its Garden State Farms growing division. Before the turn of the century, Procacci Bros. introduced trademarked Santa Sweets grape tomatoes and heirloom UglyRipe tomatoes.

“We always have to come up with a better mousetrap,” Joe Procacci said. “There are a lot of produce dealers in the country, but we want to develop good-quality produce and have something that we know is superior. People want quality and taste.”

New offerings continue as Procacci Bros., through a sales partnership with a Mexican greenhouse grower, this fall introduced a hothouse tomato. It also rolled out the hand-picked and vine-ripened “Papa Joe’s Tomatoes” in honor of Joe Procacci.

Mike Maxwell, the company’s president, said many things have changed in the produce industry since even during the early 1980s when he joined the company, working the floor and unloading trucks.

Then, Procacci Bros. had less than a dozen managers who also acted as buyers and handled 200 stock-keeping units. Today, Procacci Bros. offers more than the 750 SKUs.

“The business has changed so much from when he (Joe Procacci) started with a pushcart and when his brothers worked out of a basement,” Maxwell said. “Not only the size of the company, but different company dealings. Before, your customer changed every day. One sale stood on its own. Now, it’s more of a growing partnership with every customer you have.

“It has become a different game,” he said. “There are a lot more pressures in doing business in this age.”

Cleaning up piles of pallets in the mid-1990s, Procacci Bros. led an industry effort to persuade shippers to pack on reusable pallets.

Procacci Bros. has helped independent retailers remain competitive with their bigger competitors through a direct-store delivery program the company began in 2004.

At 81, Joe Procacci shows few signs of slowing. He said he enjoys his work and plans to continue working until he’s 95.

Succeeding in the produce industry requires individuals devoted to service and quality working 24 hours, seven days a week, Joe Procacci said. Because every owner can’t work all the time, he said it’s important to assemble organizations that can provide such service.

“The proof of the success of our company is that we’re dealing with customers for a long time,” he said. “We have their confidence, and we keep progressing as a company.”

Timeline: From Philly pushcart to international powerhouse

1935 — Joe Procacci, 8, son of Italian immigrants Vincenza and Antonio Procacci, sells produce from a pushcart.
1948 — Joe and Michael Procacci start Procacci Bros. Inc. out of their father’s Camden, N.J., basement.
1949 — Move to a storefront and then to Philadelphia’s Old Dock Street Market.
1959 — Relocates to the new Philadelphia produce market.
1961 — Grow tomatoes at Immokalee, Fla., through a partnership.
1968 — Starts Garden State Farms for handling and importing other produce items.
1972 — Michael Procacci leaves Procacci Bros. to enter south Florida development business.
1992 — Repacks tomatoes, potatoes, lemons, kiwifruit, oranges and sweet corn.
1993 — Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. buys 340,000-square-foot facility; the company has seven buildings on 32 acres at the Philadelphia Produce Center.
1996 — Joe Procacci receives The Packer's 1995 Produce Man of the Year award.
1996 — Procacci sells Gargiulo Inc., Naples, Fla. to Monsanto.
1999 — Repurchases Gargiulo, which has operations in Florida, California, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
1999 — Acquires Ag-Mart Produce Inc., Plant City, Fla., for growing Santa Sweets grape tomato variety.
1999 — Takes part ownership of Palmetto, Fla.-based tomato packer Harllee Packing Inc.
2007 — USDA clears way for more UglyRipes to be shipped outside of Florida.

Procacci Bros. marks 60 years in business
Joe Procacci (left) and his brother Michael Procacci pause at a railroad terminal in 1958. They began what became Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. in 1948.

Courtesy Procacci Bros. Sales Corp.