Sauce of family pride

Feature An Italian immigrant and his family have created an oddly diverse yet thriving business, selling food products - and amusement park rides.

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Building on the popularity of his mother-in-law's spaghetti sauce, an Italian immigrant and his family have created an oddly diverse yet thriving business, selling food products - and amusement park rides. Rose Dakin traces the fortunes of the DelGrossos. In a small town in America, an amusement park and a spaghetti sauce factory sit across from each other on a one-lane country road. One is called DelGrosso's Amusement Park, the other is called DelGrosso Foods, manufacturer of spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, salsa and meatballs.

At 500 jars per minute and at least 500 revolutions of the carousel per day, they are both in their prime. One is thoroughly global - DelGrosso spaghetti sauce can be found in the UAE - and the other is thoroughly local, with families driving from within a 160km radius to enjoy the rides. They are the result of more than 60 years of one family's gumption. In some senses, DelGrosso Foods has always been a global business. Ferdinand DelGrosso's parents emigrated from Italy to Altoona, Pennsylvania, during the American economic boom of the late 19th century. Altoona was a production centre for railway parts, and the DelGrosso men worked in the quarries or on the railway.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Mafalda Pulcino and her mother had turned the living room of their house in Altoona into a restaurant, and its signature sauce became known among homesick Italian labourers: a full-bodied taste of home. Some of them came not just for the spaghetti, but for a glimpse of the pretty young woman waiting at the tables. When he first started going to the cafe, Ferdinand's friends made fun of him, doubting his hunger for its pasta. But he had the looks and character to win Mafalda's heart.

"When she first met my dad, she said he was the most handsome man in the world," says their daughter Linda, who has worked alongside her mother for most of her life. After they were married, Ferdinand and Mafalda opened a cafe in Altoona called DelGrosso's. Mafalda and her mother ran the cafe and Fred - as he was always known - kept his job as a boilermaker for steam engines and at night closed up the cafe.

Then one day in 1946, as he was on his way to play in a baseball game, Ferdinand did something impetuous: he bought an amusement park. He had stopped and chatted with the park's owner and found out the man wanted to sell. There and then, for the sum of US$5,000 (Dh18,365), financed by the seller, he got 13 acres and all the rides. Just to make sure, the seller stayed at the park for the next six summers to count out revenues and take his share.

Ferdinand was a dreamer. His idea was to run the park all summer and make sauce all winter, using canned tomatoes brought in by truck from California. The park gave him space, his growing family gave him a future ready-made labour force, and his mother-in-law's already popular spaghetti sauce gave him an edge on the competition. Nonetheless, he was nervous about the consequences. He kept the purchase secret from his wife Mafalda for three weeks, until the day they had to sell the family's cafe for a down payment and move from the bustling city of Altoona to the quiet town of Tipton and a small brick house without a kitchen. His mother-in-law's sauce recipe and three small children moved with them.

Mafalda was no stranger to work, but she may not have imagined that she would be raising seven children in a small brick outbuilding without a kitchen while fixing up one derelict business (the Great Depression had been hard on amusement parks) and helping to start what her husband hoped would be a major corporation. "Whatever it was," says Linda, "she was always willing to please the customer, no matter if it was serving 1,500 dinners or a sandwich. From the time she got up in the morning to the time she went to bed she was cheerful and conscientious."

Linda worked alongside her parents and then lived with and took care of her mother until she died in 2003 (Ferdinand died in 1994). "And what she accomplished in the end was a beautiful thing," she continues. "I'm sure she had dreams as well. She probably wanted a new house. It was difficult to raise seven of us in that small house. Like everything, you start small and you get bigger and bigger and bigger. And you know that's a hard thing, because it creates more work and more paying attention."

The start of the DelGrosso Foods corporation was, indeed, small. "We had a couple of little stove tops, two 10-gallon pots and a wooden stirrer. It took about five hours from start to finish. We had a hand-cranked machine seamer to seal the cans, and it took seven to eight revolutions, one can at a time. My dad would fill it, my uncle would crank it. Then they put the labels on by hand," remembers Freddie, Ferdinand and Mafalda's eldest son, who was four years old when his father bought the park.

"We all worked," says Linda. "When we came home from school we'd all share in helping. We'd hand the cans to my mother, and she would use a pot holder and put the can on the pot holder and hold the spigot of sauce. We would clean up, hose, whatever we had to do to get the production over with. "My mother counted on us to watch the little ones, and when we became old enough to work in the stands we did. I worked the popcorn side and the cotton candy, ice cream stand and wherever else I was needed. Later on I was in the gift shop, and then I ran the restaurant."

In those early years, the DelGrosso family made sauce every day from September to the end of April. While the park stood eerily quiet and the creek froze over, the nascent sauce factory was busiest. During summer the canning slowed down as the family had to clean the park before it opened every day, man the rides, make the food and popcorn, and do the accounts. The DelGrossos' little house was bursting at the seams.

"We all lived in the house," says the eldest daughter, Mary Ann. "I got married at 17 and I had my baby, Carl, and we lived in one bedroom with my husband. In the other bedroom was my dad and mother. My other six brothers and sisters stayed in the other room on the floor. The front porch was screened in, and in summertime we always took a boarder." Ferdinand then expanded the sauce operation to a separate building just outside the house, allowing an increase in output. In the 1950s and 1960s the cans of sauce were sold in local supermarkets.

"As a kid I can remember taking the cans, still hot, to the store, and they ran a special on DelGrosso sauce. It would still be warm because it was so local," says Joey, the youngest of Ferdinand and Mafalda's children. The factory started running round the clock in the mid 1960s, with about 2,270 litres made each shift. There were two rows of eight 150 litre kettles and two men would go up and down each row with a big wooden paddle to stir the sauce. There was a machine in the middle that took two cans off a pallet, put them on the line and filled them, and it had a little crank on top to seal the seams of the cans. At 30 cans per minute, the factory produced 6,800 litres each day, five days a week, until 1979.

These were prosperous times, and the family invested the money in local farms and real estate. Mafalda and her daughters were also running a formal dining Italian restaurant in a corner of the park property. In 1976, Ferdinand DelGrosso turned his business over to his seven children - Mary Ann, Freddie, Linda, Cindy, Jimmy, Bo and Joey - and all of them became board members of the amusement park and the sauce factory.

In 1979, the family built the existing plant and warehouse across the road from the park. "We went from 2,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet," says Joey, who is now the vice-president of DelGrosso Foods. The DelGrossos expanded their distribution in American supermarkets in the 1980s and Nineties, and changed their packaging from cans to glass jars. But it all nearly came crashing to the ground in the 1980s.

"We thought because we had a new building we would instantly get a lot of new business, and we didn't," says Freddie. At the same time, the US economy tanked and interest rates on debt rose to nearly 18 per cent. The family decided to sell its accumulated real estate and the restaurant to reduce its debt. "There were days we weren't sure the company would still be around," remembers Joey. To generate income, the company decided to subcontract its plant to package other brands. Business was back on a strong footing by 1990, when the factory was expanded. The company expanded the factory again in 1999, and last year it installed a high-speed production line.

DelGrosso started to export its sauce worldwide in 2007, including the Middle East last year. Its sauce is now available in 80 supermarkets in the UAE, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, including chains such as Carrefour, Abela, LuLu and the Union Co-ops. Ferdinand DelGrosso's dream has now become the largest family-owned sauce business in the US, producing 240,000 jars a day and with more than 100 employees.

Inside the factory there is a deafening clanking of metal lids and the buzz and roar of spinning gears and rotors and moving conveyor belts. Glass jars speed along what can only be described as jar highways as the high-speed production line eats up and spits out 20 lorry loads of jars, caps and trays each week. The tomatoes arrive in cubic-metre wooden crates lined with plastic and foil and labelled "paste", "ground", "whole", "diced" or "organic". Forklift trucks empty the crates into tanks where the tomato is mixed with water to the desired consistency and then pumped upstairs to the cook room, where the other ingredients - fresh onions and celery, frozen green peppers, dried spices and ground meat - await their turn. The olive oil is added with a "drum dumper", and the computerised monitor on the cookers keeps track of pH, temperature, time and solids. There is a final taste test and then all 3,800 litres from a cooking vessel are emptied into jars that rush forward on a merry-go-round filler that looks, for all the world, like a dizzying amusement ride.

A pedestrian overpass connects the factory to the amusement park across the road, where there is a different kind of deafening noise: screaming children, clanking rides, splashing water and, behind it all, the sounds of country music and classic rock. Currently, six of the seven children of Ferdinand and Mafalda DelGrosso are involved in the day-to-day operation of the amusement park. Carl Crides, Mary Ann's eldest son, who is the same age as Joey, is the general manager of the park and runs it with his brother. All seven DelGrosso siblings are still on the board of directors, which meets three times a year. Joey says the family follows bylaws for the meetings, "but that's where we've stretched the limits a little bit, because its family".

The meetings, held at a local restaurant that is closed to the public, stretch for four to five hours and end with lunch. "By 2pm we're done, and that covers the plant, and then we have the park meeting after that." In terms of revenue, the sauce factory is 10 times bigger than the park, though the park employs about five times as many people as the plant. "The only thing I can tell people is, if you have seven brothers and sisters and you have two major companies that are major contributors to the economy in our area, and [for the most part] still get along, work together, talk to and live with each other every day, I feel that that's really special," says Joey.

He adds: "Believe me, it's not easy. Sometimes we are too bullheaded." His eldest brother, Freddie, explains the situation in remarkably similar language. "As far as a family [goes], we've worked together our whole lives. We've had some conflicts over the years. We vote on decisions and losers have to live with it. "For everything that we're involved in, though, it goes along pretty smoothly," he says. "I might get mad at something my brother might say or do, but the next day I'll say 'hey, let's go out to dinner'. You have to be level-headed. We have a big operation. We employ 650 people."

Carl, the eldest of the third generation, adds: "You know what, since it is family, we disagree like anybody else would, and maybe more intensely. But at the same time we're still here, all the time, and we're laughing and smiling. "Yes, we disagree, but when we turn around later you don't even know what the point was because it's over."