Susan Tavilla oversees California produce for P. Tavilla Co. Inc., located on the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, MA, but the staff affectionately refers to her as “Madam President.” Her brother, Ernie Tavilla, is president, and their cousin Ricky Tavilla is the vice president.
“My father, Ernie Tavilla, and six of his brothers worked together to build this business,” said Ms. Tavilla. “Seven brothers working together is a true testament to their determination and devotion.”
The company got its start when Paul Tavilla emigrated from Sicily to Boston in 1920 to join his brother in his wholesale fruit business. In 1921, Paul married Stella Zullo, who was also from Sicily.
By 1925, Mr. Tavilla was eager to start his own business. He told his wife that if he had only $300, he could buy a truckload of lemons, which would get his foot in the door of the wholesale fruit business. Stella gave him the money, which she had saved from domestic work and her household budget.
Following a successful deal with the lemons, Mr. Tavilla invested in a small fruit business in Boston. He brought home the bills and receipts from the day’s business every night, and Stella did the bookkeeping.
By 1928, he had opened P. Tavilla Co. on Commercial Street. In 1933, most of the high-end produce trade in Boston was moving to the Faneuil Hall Market, and P. Tavilla Co. followed suit. It had one full-time employee, who earned $15 a week. Two of Mr. Tavilla’s nephews worked part-time.
In 1938, his oldest son, Steve, left school at age 14 to help his father full-time. Tina, the oldest Tavilla child, was handling the accounts after school also beginning at age 14.
P. Tavilla Co. grew steadily over the next several years, as did the family. By 1944, there were 10 children ranging in age from 18 months to 22 years. Tragedy then struck the Tavilla family.
Stella Tavilla, then 45, died in a fire in her kitchen. Her youngest son was asleep on the second floor of the home, but was not injured. Mrs. Tavilla’s father attempted to rescue her but he was overcome by smoke.
After his mother’s death, Ernie dropped out of school to work in the family business. Two years later, Paul Tavilla traveled to Sicily to find a new wife. He married Zia Flavia and brought her to the United States. She assumed the role of mother to the 10 children.
“She was a saint of a woman, and she kept the family going after the terrible loss of their mother,” said Ms. Tavilla.
The company continued to grow. Mr. Tavilla emphasized the value of a good name, often saying, “The name on the door means more than the money in my wallet.”
By 1945, P. Tavilla had outgrown its facility and moved to Clinton Street. Over the next few years, Mr. Tavilla learned the basics of the vegetable business. By the late 1940s, the company had once again outgrown its building and moved to North Market Street.
“The company was there for 17 years,” said Susan Tavilla. “In 1952, it started handling Maine potatoes. It was also about then that its first tractor-trailer was purchased. Tavilla Trucking Corporation was formed, which ultimately had a fleet of 46 trailers, 37 tractors and 11 trucks. They were hauling up and down the East Coast, and sometimes across the country.”
In 1954, Paul Tavilla retired. On Jan. 1, 1955, his seven sons incorporated the business and divided the shares equally.
In 1968, the company moved to the newly opened New England Produce Center in Chelsea, one of the larger owner-operated produce terminals in the United States at the time.
In the early 1990s, all the brothers retired, leaving three of their sons: Paul, Ernie and Ricky Tavilla as owners. Paul retired several years later. Susan’s cousin, Brenda, married Kevin (Big Daddy) Clifford, who has been with the company for 35 years.
“In the mid-1980s, farmers started going direct to supermarkets, cutting out distributors like us,” said Ms. Tavilla. “We had to figure out what we could handle that they would buy.”
People were also eating out more, which also played a role in how the industry was changing, she said. “We had to find a niche, and we quickly realized that retailers wanted only the best-quality product. We started repacking zucchini and yellow squash to make sure that what customers got from us was better quality than what they could get direct.”
Next, the company pared its line down to staple commodities that were always in demand, like lettuce, peppers and cucumbers.
“Eight years ago, I sold Iceberg and Romaine lettuce,” said Ms. Tavilla. “Then I added Romaine hearts and then green leaf and Romaine filets, which eliminate end-user labor. Today, I bring in hundreds of packages of green leaf filets each week, and more in the summer.”
Larry Pimentel, one of P. Tavilla’s salespeople, handles the Nova Scotia blueberry deal. Another, Al Beausang, is in charge of Florida strawberries. Ms. Tavilla handles over 30 items from California.
“I buy it, I get the truck, I get it loaded and I make sure it gets to our dock,” said Ms. Tavilla. “I get it unloaded, inspected and I sell it. Everyone here follows their shipments throughout the entire supply chain.”
The New England Produce Market services buyers from upstate New York throughout New England and into Canada. Ms. Tavilla said that the foodservice industry in New England is huge. Cruise ships dock in Maine daily in the summer, and Portland, ME, is a top town for destination restaurants.
“We have foodservice and retail customers from Maine in the terminal market every day,” she said. “But we also do a strong retail business. Roche Brothers has 18 stores in Massachusetts, and they support the market almost entirely because they know they will have the freshest-possible produce.
“Bostonians are major sports-loving people, and we pour a lot of revenue into sports bars and restaurants,” Ms. Tavilla continued. “The Boston Bruins hockey team was the Stanley Cup champion in 2010. The New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in the past decade. The Boston Celtics won a championship and the Boston Red Sox won two World Series [championships] in the past decade.”
Before joining the family business in 1996, Ms. Tavilla worked in hotel management. Ernie called her one day to say he needed her help, explaining that the company had some personnel issues.
“This was shortly after my father, Ernie, died,” she explained. “We’re a close-knit family, and I knew he wouldn’t ask for my help if he didn’t really need it. I told my boss that I needed a six-month leave of absence.”
Susan and Ernie’s father died in 1995 at age 63. Ms. Tavilla said that he was a perfectionist. “It showed in his work,” she said. “He put everything he had into all that he did. He was warm and charismatic, and everyone loved him. When I joined the company, I heard kind stories from market workers and customers alike about my dad. The best compliment ever given to me was ‘Your father would be so proud.’”
Ms. Tavilla knew almost immediately that she would never go back to her old job, saying that the industry is in her blood. She jumped in, taking orders and making business calls the day she started. Today, she goes to work at 1 a.m., alongside other terminal market employees.
“Ernie, Ricky, Kevin and I complement each other,” she said. “Kevin and Ricky oversee shipping and receiving. Ernie sells East Coast vegetables, but you’ll often find him packing pickles or pushing a broom. He is just like our dad in that respect. The four of us are the core of this business, and regardless of what challenges we face, we come back together the next day and get on with the job at hand.”
Ms. Tavilla’s passions extend beyond the company. In the past year, she has dedicated much of her time to raising money for the Brain Tumor Society in honor of her mother, Ginny Tavilla. “Mom was diagnosed with stage four Glioblastoma in April 2010,” said Ms. Tavilla. “Surgery removed the largest part of the tumor, but it will never go away completely. We’re strong believers in God and in prayer, so maybe that and her strong spirit are helping. You could say that she is a walking miracle. We formed Team Tavilla to help raise money for the society. Our team raised $35,000 this year, more than any of the other teams. Combined, over $600,000 was raised.”
Ms. Tavilla said that it is the smells of the market, the people, the suppliers and the customers that meld to create a life of its own — and that life is her calling.
“I’ve never looked back and I’ve never regretted joining the company for even a second,” she said. “I am passionate about my job. I love my family, our business and all of the people who we depend on and who depend on us.”