Sicilian fulfills an American dream, turning $30 into a $495 million citrus empire marketed as Tropicana
What began as an African dream for adventure ultimately turned into an American dream of entrepreneurship.
Inspired by stories of opportunities in America, Anthony Talamo Rossi sailed from Naples to New York in 1921. Armed with $30 in his pocket and rough, broken English, he and several friends planned to earn enough money in New York to finance an African expedition they planned to turn into a film.
“It was exciting, exciting,” Anthony said. “I came here to make money, to make enough to explore Africa. There were five of us, other boys like me, in Italy. We wanted to make a film, to cross Africa from the Belgian Congo, to film the animals, the life, the country. It was not the film—it was the adventure. I came first to New York. But I like the country so much, I don’t leave.”
From a modest start shipping fruit boxes from Bradenton, Florida, to New York, Anthony emerged as a citrus industry power player, creating the iconic brand Tropicana more than 70 years ago.
He not only dominated the market, but revolutionized the industry.
Born September 13, 1900, in Messina, Sicily, Anthony was lucky to survive childhood. A catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Messina when Anthony was 8 years old, flattening much of the town and killing thousands.
From an early age, Anthony was an individualist. He didn’t enjoy school. He wanted to work and build something.
Anthony showed a flair for agriculture, raising all of the vegetables for his household in a large garden. He also grew fruit in the surrounding idyllic countryside.
When Anthony came to the United States, he found business possibilities bountiful. Deciding to stay on in New York, he worked as a machinist, cabbie, chauffeur and grocer. After a stint farming in Virginia and longing for the Mediterranean clime of his native Sicily, Anthony moved to sunny Bradenton.
He grew tomatoes and ran a cafeteria and restaurant, but soon went into the fruit business, producing fruit gift boxes he sold to Gimbel’s and Macy’s department stores in New York City.
That success led him to buy the Overstreet Packing Co. in Palmetto, just north of Bradenton. He renamed the firm Manatee River Packing Co. and began buying citrus from local growers.
After expanding into marketing chilled fruit sections in jars, Anthony started making juice out of the smaller fruit that had been going to waste. He shipped both to the Northeast in refrigerated trucks.
Anthony’s early fruit business—established as Fruit Industries Inc. in 1949—grew quickly and was soon providing 1,000 gallons of sliced citrus fruit weekly to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That success led Anthony to drop the gift boxes.
In 1949, he registered the name Tropicana. He and a friend each invested $15,000 in creation of the brand.
Anthony bought an evaporator to extract water from orange juice to produce and market frozen concentrate.
In 1951, he commissioned creation of the character Tropic-Ana—a pigtailed girl in a grass skirt carrying a bowl of oranges on her head. Tropic-Ana appeared in TV commercials and provided quick brand recognition of Tropicana products in supermarkets.
Tropicana moved its operations to the former Florida Grapefruit Canning Plant in Bradenton in 1953—premises it occupied until the late 1990s.
Anthony created a way to freeze pure whole—not concentrated—juice in 20-gallon blocks for convenient storage and shipping. Tropicana also pioneered frozen concentrated orange juice packages featuring the image of Tropic-Ana.
A Tropicana watershed occurred in 1954 when Anthony developed a flash pasteurization process. Briefly heating the juice extended the product’s shelf life to three months while not detracting from its flavor. This breakthrough made fresh orange juice shippable and available across a wide region.
Anthony taste-tested his juice daily.
“The main thing is how you extract,” he said. “If the orange is green, you must squeeze light. When you get too much rain, the orange gets more crispy. Water tightens the skin. Then you’ve got to loosen the machine. I am the quality control. I have a very keen taste.”
To avoid wasting any part of the fruit, Anthony bought machinery that converted the peel, pulp and seeds into cattle feed.
In the 1950s, Anthony spent $1 million on refrigerated trucks and turned to American Can Co. to create wax-lined cartons in sizes from a half-pint to a quart.
Combined with Anthony’s pasteurization method, this paved the way for the widespread delivery of chilled orange juice to supermarkets. Tropicana had 2,000 dairies provide doorstep delivery of the juice every morning. The scheme was a great success, especially in New York, where chilled Tropicana orange juice accounted for up to 40 percent of orange juice sales in the 1960s. The chilled juice—which differentiated Tropicana from its competitors—led Anthony to drop production of frozen concentrate.
Anthony’s business exploded to the point where he bought a ship to carry his citrus cargo. The 8,000-ton SS Tropicana began service in 1957, carrying 1.5 million gallons of juice from Florida to New York weekly. The ship hauled the juice in bulk in a massive stainless-steel tank. The product had to be packaged upon reaching port at Whitestone, Queens, so Anthony built a receiving, packing and distribution plant there. Tropicana later switched to packaging its juice before shipment.
“When we made the first fruit section in jars, they think we are crazy,” Anthony said. “We start to chill juice, we are crazy. But the chilled juice got so good, we had to buy a ship to move it. That’s crazy too.”
The SS Tropicana made its final orange juice delivery in 1961, when Tropicana shifted to truck and rail transport.
Amidst these successes was the occasional setback, such as when the company introduced concentrated Tropicana Coffee in 1958. Packed in an aerosol can, the coffee was meant to be sprayed into a cup with the press of a button, but a faulty valve spelled the end of that product.
A much more serious difficulty occurred when greater than one-third of the Florida citrus crop was destroyed in a December 1962 freeze.
Ever nimble, Anthony responded by installing processing equipment on a ship and anchoring it off the coast of Mexico—a country that provided an abundant and inexpensive orange crop.
A success initially, the Mexican government soon raised the price of the country’s oranges, foiling the plan. Tropicana sold the ship and its onboard processing machinery, losing $2 million.
In the early 1960s, Anthony developed a high-speed vacuum packing system that led Tropicana to pack and ship more of its juice in glass bottles.
Due to the plentiful sand in Florida, in 1964 Anthony built his own glass factory to produce Tropicana bottles.
Tropicana began manufacturing plastic containers in 1968. It was the first citrus company to run its own plastic factory.
International sales started in 1966, with Tropicana shipping 14,000 cases of juice in glass bottles to France. The company’s growth continued, as Tropicana became a publicly traded company in 1969.
In the early 1970s, Anthony bought a train—dubbed the Tropicana Juice Train—that delivered juice to a Kearny, New Jersey, distribution center. Demand for juice was so great Anthony had to schedule more weekly shipments. By 1971, Tropicana was running two 60-car unit trains, each hauling about 1 million gallons of juice across 1,250 miles.
The Great White Juice Train began service June 7, 1971. This roughly mile-long train consisted of 150 100-ton insulated boxcars. Tropicana soon pressed 100 more boxcars into service, and added small refrigeration units to the cars.
In the first decade of operation of the juice trains, Tropicana saved $40 million in fuel costs it would have spent in employing trucks for hauling the freight.
A second train serving Cincinnati entered service in 1997. The trains ran 10 times a week each, providing powerful advertising as they traversed the American countryside.
Continuing in the spirit of making Tropicana as much a self-contained company as possible, Anthony opened a corrugated box factory in 1972.
A second fruit processing plant was added in 1973 in Fort Pierce, Florida.
“What can I do next? What can I do next? I’m never satisfied,” Anthony said.
In the mid-1970s, Tropicana expanded its marketing in the U.S., Bermuda, the Bahamas, the West Indies and Europe.
The success of Tropicana led to many purchase and merger offers from Kellogg, Philip Morris and PepsiCo. Kellogg made three attempts to merge with Tropicana, but each time Anthony walked away. In August 1978, he sold Tropicana to the Beatrice Co. for $495 million.
As a testament to the quality of Tropicana’s products and the loyalty of its customers, when a 1983 freeze forced Tropicana to raise the price of its chilled juice three times in rapid succession, its sales remained steady.
The company reached a milestone in 1986 when, for the first time in the U.S., chilled juice outsold concentrated juice.
Tropicana changed hands again in 1988 with its sale to the Canadian Seagram Co. Ltd. In the 1990s, Tropicana expanded its chilled juice market to Canada, Central and South America, throughout Europe, Hong Kong and China.
In an advertising coup, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ baseball stadium was named Tropicana Field in 1996.
Seagram sold Tropicana to PepsiCo for a mammoth $3.3 billion in August 1998.
One of Anthony’s legacies was instigating the inclusion of Florida citrus juice in American school lunch programs.
After selling Tropicana, Anthony founded the Aurora Foundation, which funds charities and educational institutions.
Through attention to every detail of his business, Anthony created what is now the only worldwide citrus juice business. Tropicana is the world’s leading maker of chilled orange juice and controls about one-third of the U.S. orange juice market, and an even greater share of the U.S. chilled juice market.
Anthony was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1980, he received an honorable doctorate from the University of Tampa.
Anthony died in 1993 in Bradenton at the age of 92, but the citrus empire he created lives on.
Given that he started in New York with $30 and eventually sold his company for nearly half a billion dollars, it was a staggering achievement.
Juice Joust Pits Fresh Against Frozen Concentrate
In 1973, Minute Maid—owned by Coca-Cola—went into direct competition with Tropicana by introducing chilled orange juice, though Minute Maid juice was reconstituted from frozen concentrate.
A debate ensued over which company had the superior product.
While Tropicana’s juice came direct from the orange to the bottle following pasteurization, Minute Maid claimed that drawing on frozen concentrate meant the flavors of juices from oranges harvested at different times of the year blended together, giving a consistent flavor through the seasons.
Behind the power of Coca-Cola’s marketing machine, Minute Maid became the first nationally available chilled orange juice in the U.S. Tropicana struck back in 1975 when it once again put frozen concentrate on the market.
Competition intensified in the 1980s between the two juice giants and newcomer Citrus Hill—owned by Procter & Gamble—but Tropicana managed to stay ahead in the chilled orange juice sector.
The juice joust between the two citrus titans proved too much for newcomer Citrus Hill, which withdrew from the orange juice battlefield in September 1992.
Florida’s Citrus-Greening Epidemic Threatens Industry
Citrus-greening disease—officially known as Huanglongbing—is caused by a bacteria transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid. Once a tree is infected, yield, canopy foliage and root density decline. The condition makes trees sickly and causes them to produce undersized, misshapen fruit that stays green on the bottom. Symptoms can be found year round, but are more prominent September through March.
The disease has affected more than 90% of Florida’s citrus trees, and is confirmed in all commercial citrus growing counties in Florida, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center. The yield has declined by more than 80% from the early 2000s to the present crop forecast, says Steve Futch, a UF/IFAS extension agent based in Lake Alfred.
Tropicana is working with grower partners and UF/IFAS to tackle what is regarded as one of the most devastating citrus diseases worldwide. Scientists and Tropicana are testing citrus varieties bred by UF/IFAS for increased tolerance to greening. Tropicana leases a 14.5-acre commercial grove for trials of rootstocks and cultivars in Polk County. The plan at that location is to develop greening-tolerant trees as a short-term solution, until greening-resistant trees can be developed. Scientists working on the project employ standard grafting methods to combine new and improved scions and rootstocks, which hopefully will provide greater tolerance to citrus greening.
UF/IFAS citrus breeders advise Tropicana on which combinations of rootstocks and scions to test in this and other trials, as well as on new types of oranges and hybrids thought to be most promising to enhance yields and improve juice quality to meet the needs of the citrus juice industry.