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Sam Perricone: Los Angeles produce icon (1920-2011)

Sam Perricone
When Sam Perricone was 15 years old and living in Pueblo, CO, with his mother and his three younger siblings, he told them he was taking them for a drive for a change of scenery. “They drove to California and never went back,” said Sammy Perricone, who heard the story from his grandfather many times.

Sam Perricone was born in Pueblo on Jan. 8, 1920, which was also the birthplace of his mother, Lucy, who had married Sicily native Joe Perricone. Sam’s father had come from the old country, where his ancestors were farmers, but in Pueblo, the Perricones ran a grocery store until his sudden death in 1933.

Sam Perricone at age 13 in Pueblo, CO.
When Sam and his family got to California, Sam worked in an olive oil factory for a bit before settling on what would become a career in the citrus business. Longtime partner and fellow Los Angeles produce industry icon Bob Witt did not meet Sam Perricone until the mid-1950s when he was already well established as a citrus wholesaler. But Mr. Witt knows his earlier story well. “When Sam was 16, 17, 18 years old in the late 1930s, he used to buy oranges from the Sunkist citrus auction and sell them to the local markets,” he said.

Mr. Witt said that at the time, there were many entrepreneurs buying a few hundred boxes of citrus and reselling them to small retail markets. “Sam always got along with everybody. What he did was create a co-op of all these small buyers and bought 8,000 boxes, and then they resold those each day to the local markets.”

Mr. Witt recalled that the Perricone group also started buying citrus in bulk directly from the farm, and then brought the fruit into Los Angeles, where it was packed in boxes and resold. As the story goes, he would often drive to citrus-producing areas of Southern California, including Corona and Riverside, load his pickup truck and head back to Los Angeles to sell the oranges at the Grand Central Market, which was somewhat like a farmers market in downtown Los Angeles comprised of many different stall owners.

Sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Mr. Perricone started a citrus house on the old Seventh Street Market called P&W Citrus. In 1947, he opened Sam Perricone Citrus, which was on a side street just off the market. That remained home to the company, which grew into one of the larger citrus suppliers in the country, for about 40 years.

Sam Perricone and his wife, Mary, circa 1960.
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Perricone was instrumental in the establishment of the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. He became one of the 26 tenant-owners and moved his operation to the new market, which is where it still resided when he sold the firm to Fresh America in 1998.

Along the way, Mr. Perricone got involved in dozens of produce partnerships, including farming operations, wholesale produce businesses, a trucking company, a juicing plant and a cold-storage facility. He was also involved in other businesses, including real-estate development and even owned a meatpacking company. Son Joe Perricone, who worked for the meat company in Vernon, CA, through most of the 1960s, remembered, “My dad owned a trucking company that used to send produce to the Midwest and bring hogs back to Vernon.”

Bob Witt and Sam Perricone, along with two other partners, opened American Produce Co. on the Seventh Street Market in 1967 and moved it to the new market two decades later as one of the anchor tenant-owners. Eventually, they sold the firm to Chiquita. “Sam was a great guy. He got along with everybody in the produce business. He was a very easy-going guy. Always optimistic and great judge of character,” said Mr. Witt.

Joe Perricone said that the best thing that ever happened to him was when he came back into the family business in 1994 to help his dad run a juice company that he had acquired because the firm could not pay him for the oranges he had shipped them. Joe was out of the produce industry at the time, but he called the opportunity to come back into the family business and work with his father side by side “a miracle. I was just so lucky to do that and work with him from then until now.”

Today, that company is among the larger producers of fresh-squeezed juice on the West Coast — but it was not the Perricone family’s first foray into the juice business. That initial endeavor dates back to 1961. Sam Perricone and his children and grandchildren served juice to people from all over the country and the world for years, though most of the recipients would never have made the connection.

“We had a partnership with Sunkist on Main Street in Disneyland for many years,” said Joe Perricone. “Sunkist had their name on the Citrus House, but that was our company. All that juice and the oranges sold were all from Sam Perricone Citrus Company,” he said proudly. “I worked there. My brother (Sam) and sister (Lucy) worked there, and so did all of my nieces and nephews.”

It was from that location that visitors from all over the world were introduced to California oranges.

While the firm’s signature operations were the Perricone Citrus Co. and the Perricone Juice Co., Sam Perricone’s involvement in many citrus orchards, avocado groves, melon fields, watermelon farms and other farming operations cannot be overlooked. Those operations produced millions of boxes and cartons of fruits and vegetables over the years and are still in heavy production. The Perricone farming operations marketed citrus through Sunkist for many years and sold its avocados through Cal Flavor.

When asked, both Bob Witt and Joe Perricone said that Sam was involved in well over 25 companies. “That’s probably understating it,” quipped Joe Perricone.

Through these companies, he is credited with many innovations and many marketing and product firsts, but the mark of the man was clearly not the produce empire that he left behind, nor the many awards he won for philanthropic or business successes.

“I am learning more about my father now that he is dead than I did when he was alive,” said Joe Perricone. “People are calling me from all over and telling me how great of man he was and how helpful he was in their careers. He helped lots of people over the years and lent lots of people money without ever asking for a contract. I will never be able to walk in his shoes, but I can follow his path.”

Joe Perricone said that his father was very humble and remained so throughout his life. “I am trying to learn humility from him.”

Mr. Witt agreed, stating that Sam just was one of those people everyone likes.

Grandson Sammy Perricone said that he was extremely close to his grandfather and loved growing up with him. He was obviously very proud of him, and when asked to tell a story exemplifying his grandfather, he picked one from World War II. “My grandfather used to work in the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. During the war, the Japanese Americans that owned stalls were interned, and my grandfather took over their spots. But when they came back, he was one of the few who gave them their spots back. He was just that kind of guy.”

Mr. Perricone is survived by a sister, Mary Santoro; a brother, Tony Perricone; and by three children, Joe, Sam and Lucy. He also has 18 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren — and a plethora of produce operations that owe their existence to him.