Posts made in June 2nd, 2010

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 7

Anthony Rossi and the S.S. Tropicana

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

Sorry for the lapse in my blog posts lately. I had run into a brick wall as far as new information was concerned, and I didn’t want to bother any of the Benedict family so soon after Elena’s death, so I was a bit stuck. However, I still had plenty of questions, and with a little digging, I was able to find some answers.

1. In what year did Hermann Kohl come to be an investor in Tropicana? Did he know the company’s founder Anthony Rossi?

About a month ago, I had purchased Anthony T. Rossi’s biography from Amazon.com, hoping to find some mention of Hermann Kohl’s involvement in the company. The book was written by Rossi’s second wife, Sanna Barlow Rossi, in 1986, and I have to admit, it was a pretty interesting read.

Anthony T. Rossi is widely known as the founder of Tropicana. In 1921, at the age of 21, he left his hometown of Messina, Sicily and set out for New York City with 30 dollars in his pocket and a knapsack on his back. Before too long, he had a job working at his uncle’s machine shop, and within a year, had purchased a car that he used to start driving taxi cab. Not long after that, Anthony bought a Cabriolet and became a chauffeur for the nephew of a famous NYC lawyer, Elihu Root. Soon he was making $450/month, and began sending regular checks home to support his family in Sicily.

By the time Anthony was in his late 30s, he had started a grocery business, a restaurant, and married Florence Stark, the daughter of a Methodist minister. It was about this time he decided that New York was too cold and he wanted to move south. Perhaps he would try farming. They spent one year in Cape Charles, Virginia growing tomatoes, then decided to move further south to Bradenton, Florida. They purchased 80 acres on Cortez Road and started farming tomatoes.

Before long, Anthony saw another business opportunity arise when a cafeteria on 6th Avenue and 12th Street came up for sale – the Floridian. He bought the building and the business for $8,000 and convinced his brother Joe, a chef at a large hotel in Chicago, to come and cook for him. In the cafeteria’s first year, its net profit was $35,000.

With expansion in mind, Anthony convinced Florence to move to Miami and open a second restaurant in July of 1944. The Terrace Restaurant could seat 500 guests, but it was war time, and the tourists just weren’t coming in like he had anticipated. Soon, he was losing $1,000 a day. A devout Christian, Anthony was reluctant to sell alcohol in his restaurant, but in order to stay in the black, he agreed to start selling liquor at the tables, as long as there was no bar. He sold the Floridian in Bradenton for $35,000 in order to shore up the failing restaurant in Miami. But in one month, all the money was gone.

On December 28, 1944, only five months after starting the Terrace Restaurant, Anthony received a call from a realtor who had a client willing to buy the business – Lou Walters, father of television news personality, Barbara Walters. The deal was made, and Anthony Rossi was free to start again.

Anthony began his career in the orange business picking out Florida citrus from Miami supermarkets, packaging them, and shipping the gift boxes to retailers like Macy’s and Gimbel’s department stores in New York. He worked hard to pick the best quality fruit and sell it at the lowest possible price, and soon his business was thriving. Florence’s niece, Dorothy Brown, and her husband Bob joined the gift box business, and the orders continued to pour in. They named the company Fruit Industries, Inc.

But Anthony wasn’t satisfied. He realized if he returned to Bradenton, he could buy the fruit cheaper straight off the trees and make a higher profit on each gift box. So, Anthony and Florence returned to Bradenton while Dorothy and Bob stayed in Miami. They purchased a warehouse, and soon, two rail cars of fruit boxes were shipping out of Bradenton each day.

But, the dilemma… what to do with the smaller oranges that weren’t big enough or perfect enough for the gift boxes? The answer? Orange juice.

Word had it that the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City was employing 40 women a day to cut up the Florida citrus fruit for appetizers and salads, and squeeze the remainder into fresh orange juice. Anthony knew he would have a market for his jars of sliced citrus and fresh fruit juice if he could just figure out a way to ship it up to the great New York hotels without spoiling.

They began acquiring trucks and blew chipped ice into the trailers to keep the juice and fruit sections chilled on the one-and-a-half-day trip to New York. The trucks had to make regular stops to add more ice along the way, but it worked, and business boomed.

By 1950, Fruit Industries, Inc. had changed its name to Tropicana and had a standing order of 1,000 gallons of fruit juice per week, just for the Waldorf-Astoria alone. Even with the new refrigerated trucks, they couldn’t ship the juice fast enough. Anthony had to think of a way to get more juice to New York faster.

On April 12, 1951, Anthony’s beloved wife, Florence, died of a heart attack. Left alone, he threw himself into his work. He wracked his brain over the company’s transportation dilemma and finally decided that the only way to get the juice up to New England faster was to buy a ship. And so, he did.

After much nay-saying from his critics, Anthony Rossi watched the S. S. Tropicana pull into New York harbor on February 19, 1957. The ship left Tropicana’s new five million dollar packing plant at Port Canaveral, Florida, loaded with two million gallons of orange juice, chilled in six custom-welded, refrigerated, stainless steel tanks. They called it “The Golden Stream” as the juice left Florida, bound for New York City.

When cold weather ruined Tropicana’s orange crop in 1964, Anthony Rossi had to get creative once again. He refused to buy orange concentrate even though it was readily available from Brazil, and instead focused on how to supply his Florida plants with fresh oranges from Mexico. He began shipping oranges on giant freighters, but on the third cargo load, a state inspector noticed evidence of the Mexican fruit fly and shut down the operation. It was then Anthony proposed the world’s first floating orange juice factory.

The Mexican Pride was a fifty-foot-wide hulking barge that loaded fresh oranges by conveyor belt from wherever they could be found, then processed them and chilled up to 225,000 gallons of juice, all on board the floating factory. From there, juice was pumped from the mother ship to another barge that would take the juice up to Tropicana’s bottling plant where it was distributed to the hungry juice markets.

Better plans and production methods were always in the works, and soon the S. S. Tropicana and the Mexican Pride were replaced with more efficient methods of processing and transportation, namely refrigerated boxcars. This concept evolved into Tropicana’s famed “Great White Juice Train,” consisting of 150 insulated boxcars.

In 1969, Tropicana Products, Inc went public, and in 1978, Anthony Rossi sold Tropicana to Beatrice Foods. The company was later acquired by PepsiCo in 1998.

So, back to my original question, in what year did Hermann Kohl become an investor in Tropicana? And, did he know Anthony Rossi? The answer is, I don’t know. According to the Benedicts, Tropicana was a tiny local company prior to Hermann Kohl’s involvement. It grew to national prominence at his direction, and the whole concept of fresh juice distribution, logistical expertise, and the ability to finance it were all his.

That being the case, then why was Hermann Kohl’s name left out of Anthony Rossi’s biography? I don’t know, but I may have a guess…

Next time: More on Dr. Hermann J. Kohl and a theory on how he made his fortune…

Read Chapter 8…

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