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2016-03-01 / Features

All in the Family

For more than a century, a tight-knit Italian-American clan has been cooking up success in Tipton, Pennsylvania.
Anne Quinn Corr

Visiting an amusement park is one way to keep your inner child alive. One of the big highlights of our grandson’s summers with us is always the trip to DelGrosso’s Amusement Park in Tipton. He and his friend dash off immediately to find the most terrifying ride — which was Rockstar in 2015 — while I sit on a bench deeply breathing in the heady bouquet of not the fried food typical at many amusement parks, but of simmering spaghetti sauce.

The aroma at the park is not just coming from the food stands; it’s emanating from across Old Route 220, where the DelGrosso production facility cranks out 40,000 gallons of tomato sauce each day — a whopping 20,000 cases. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the fragrance can wrap you in an almost palpable mantle of tomato and herb perfume that will get your salivary glands going until it’s time to indulge them at one of the many food stands — including the new ones planned for Laguna Splash, the Italian-themed expansion of the water park set to open this summer.


But first, a little history. The story of DelGrosso Foods, the oldest major family-owned manufacturer of Murf and Fred in the 1930s.Murf and Fred in the 1930s.pasta sauce in the United States, is a testament to the enterprising spirit of the immigrants who realized the opportunities of their chosen homeland in the 20th century. Marianna Pulcino arrived in America in 1911, and three years later the resourceful young woman was running Mom’s Café on Walton Avenue in Altoona, serving classic Italian fare to hungry railroad workers. In 1936 Marianna’s daughter Mafalda was waiting on customers at the café and met Ferdinand DelGrosso, who loved not only Mom’s spaghetti sauce but, instantly, Mafalda too.

The young couple, known as “Fred” and “Murf,” married in 1943 and, that same year, bought a small restaurant on 17th Street in Altoona that they named DelGrosso’s Café. Soon the restaurant was famous for its spaghetti dinners, and customers were asking to take some of the sauce home with them. Fred saw a marketing opportunity, but he needed more space to pump up the volume. At the time, Fred was working as a boilermaker for the railroad during the day and closing out the café at night. In 1946 he sought to expand the sauce operation by purchasing Bland’s Park, an amusement park with several kitchen areas owned by George Rinard that had operated on the Bland’s family farm since 1907.

It took Fred three weeks before he told Murf about the purchase, but soon the entire family, which now included a passel of children, was living in a small house in the center of the park and using an adjacent kitchen to increase sauce production to three to five cases of cans per day, each batch cooked in a 10-gallon pot and stirred by hand with a wooden paddle.

Fred with the canned sauces.Fred with the canned sauces.Joe DelGrosso is the youngest of the seven DelGrosso children, and he remembers how fun it was to grow up in an amusement park. “All our friends loved to come over and go on the rides,” he says, “but of course we would rather play in the woods or the creek.” His oldest sister, Mary Ann, married Carl Crider Sr. while the family lived at the park, and her son Carl Crider Jr. was born 8 months after Joe, who was thus known in grade school as “Uncle Joe” to his nephew and classmate. Carl Crider Jr. is now the president of the park, and all six surviving children (sister Cindy succumbed to cancer in 2014) sit on the board of directors and have a say in the operation of the DelGrosso family of companies.

In the early 1950s, the supermarket concept was just starting to replace the little mom-and-pop grocery stores that were the cornerstone of retail during the first half of the century. Ernie Wissinger owned a line of IGA supermarkets and put DelGrosso sauce on the shelves, which required that the DelGrossos up their game once more, going from 10-gallon to 20-gallon and then 40-gallon kettles in a commercial kitchen that kept expanding. From 1952 to 1979, the market grew — expanding to Pittsburgh, eastern Ohio and Maryland as production increased to 200,000 cases a year. DelGrosso sauce is still sold in this tri-state area, though the reach of the La Famiglia brand extends across the country, where it is available in 47 states.

During the 1970s, the family also operated a fine-dining restaurant called DelGrosso’s on Route 220, but the decision was soon made to go full-tilt and expand the sauce production in a state-of-the-art commercial facility. In 1979, DelGrosso Foods moved into its current building, then 40,000 square feet, and started making sauce in 1,000-gallon kettles fabricated by Lee Industries in Philipsburg. At that time, in the early ’80s, Ragu and Prego started heavily marketing their products, which were sold in glass jars. To keep up with that competition, DelGrosso put in a glass bottling line and carved their own substantial bit of market share in the burgeoning pasta sauce line that now stretches one full side of the aisle in most supermarkets in America.

We use 30 million pounds of tomatoes a year. The La Famiglia line… uses San Marzano tomatoes exclusively, and we have to open each can individually and use 4,000 cases in one day of sauce production.”
—Joe DelGrosso

After sharing the family history in a conference room lined with archival photos of Murf and Fred and their many kettles, “Uncle” Joe DelGrosso, president of DelGrosso Foods, is pleased to show the operation in action.

Joe DelGrosso moves through the busy DelGrosso sauce production plant in Tipton like he’s on a football field, leading the charge. He nods or gives a high five to every employee on each line in the production facility, while those of us in our matching hairnets scurry along behind him like a row of ducklings. He’s hard to keep up with.

His plant tour leads us through the cavernous 120,000-square-foot facility, past the end of the line where filled jars whip through the labeling station. We are at the receiving dock, stacked high with boxes of empty jars, cartons of something and rolls of stretch film. Forklifts roll with certainty, lifting and stacking, back-up warning sounds buzzing. We move cautiously through the maze, trying to keep up with our tour leader.

DelGrosso is fully in sync with every aspect of the highly mechanized production facility. “I’ve been involved with production for 40 years,” he says. “I grew up in the business and have done everything from purchasing to scheduling production.” The company statistics roll off his tongue easily; he needs no prompting from any of the employees we encounter on the way, including Director of Marketing Amy Mearkle, who accompanies the tour. He is excited by every aspect of the operation, leading us down a catwalk to get a better view of the palletizer that stacks the finished cases into neat 11-by-6-case bundles that are shrink-wrapped and stacked for transport.

Dry storage, full of pallets of seasonings and spices, houses 3,000-pound bins of California tomato paste, diced tomatoes in two sizes, crushed tomatoes and tomato puree that await blending into DelGrosso sauces. “We use 40 bins a day,” says DelGrosso, leading us through the maze, “or 30 million pounds of tomatoes a year. The La Famiglia line, our ultra-premium brand, uses San Marzano tomatoes exclusively, and we can’t get them in the bins.” He points to a tower of #10 cans that are shipped from Italy. “We have to open each can individually and use 4,000 cases in one day of sauce production.”

The plant runs two 10-hour shifts per day, with the first crew starting at 10 p.m., working one shift ahead to get everything ready for the 6 a.m. team. There are currently 89 plant employees, and many have been there for the long haul.

Climbing the stairs, we arrive at the cold room, where the vegetables for each batch of sauce are processed, and then at the dry room, where all the seasonings and spices are measured out and placed on a cart to be ready for the 40 batches that will be cooked the next day. The sack for each dry ingredient, like parsley, garlic and oregano, has a barcode so it can be scanned to determine where the ingredient originated.

“This is not required by law, but it is something that our customers wanted,” says DelGrosso. “We invested $500,000 in this system in case there is a recall so we can know where every ingredient came from. We are proactive,” he grins. “There has never been a recall, but we do mock recalls twice a year so we have a system in place should the need arise.”

Our hair-netted heads bob and nod as we peer into 2,500-gallon kettles the size of very large spas, watching as the interior paddles agitate the deep red sauce as it cooks to a velvety finish. No more wooden paddles needed here! DelGrosso peers in and can tell at a glance that it‘s the Garden Style Pasta Sauce in the works.

Our last stop is the lab, where a team of five food scientists, all Penn State grads, runs constant checks on the products. A jar from each batch is measured for pH and to see if the vacuum seal is secure. They also store jars of product for two years so they can evaluate them if necessary.

A viscometer in the lab is used to measure each batch of salsa to make sure that the vegetables are still somewhat crisp. Pressure is applied and measured to see how much force is needed to compress the salsa. “Salsa has to be made quickly,” explains DelGrosso. “We take the product up to 200 degrees and then need to fill the jars and bring the temperature down to 110 within 20 minutes or the salsa won’t have that familiar crunch.”

A large part of DelGrosso’s business at the plant involves co-packing, or taking a customer’s recipe and having the lab team come up with a formula for commercial production. A test batch of 25 gallons will determine if any adjustments are needed. “This has been our biggest source of growth over the past 60 years,” says DelGrosso. “We have customers come in and watch us prepare their product, both in the lab kitchen and in the cook room. We have one customer from Pittsburgh who comes here once a month to observe his product being made. The minimum batch for co-pack is 1,000 gallons, about 400 cases, though typically we want to do more than one batch.”

A small part of DelGrosso Food’s lab tests involve personal searches for the best wing sauce for a Super Bowl party, which Assistant Technical Director Matt Black was re-formulating to make slightly thicker with the addition of one gram of xanthan gum. This is, after all, a place of fun foods and fun-loving people.

The final step on the line for each jar, before being packed in a case, is an X-ray machine. There’s nothing getting past this quality control-conscious company.

With an eye on the past as well as the future, “Uncle Joe” shares the 100-year-old company’s vision for the next 100 years. “The DelGrosso family believes it is important to keep making improvements and upgrades in each of our companies. We work tirelessly with our dedicated staff to make changes that will improve all of our products. Laguna Splash is the largest project we have ever done as a family and a company. We want to keep providing the best in family fun memories at the park, and Laguna Splash will continue that legacy for years to come. We were blessed to grow up inside of this park, and we all have very special memories from our childhood. We want that tradition to keep going with our children and all our visitors.” •SCM

Delgrosso's Family of Companies

DelGrosso Foods
America’s oldest major family-owned sauce maker. Started in 1947 by Ferdinand and Mafalda (Murf) DelGrosso, based on the original recipe of Murf’s mother, Marianna Pulcino. The original DelGrosso line has grown to 14 pasta and pizza sauces, Sloppy Joe sauce and salsa.
DelGrosso Amusement Park
Features more than 30 rides and attractions with midway game stands, food stands and extensive picnic pavilions. Food venues in the park include Murf’s Kitchen, Sauce Boss Pizzeria, Kunzler Grill at Tipton Creek, Galliker’s Tipton Creek Dairy, Corner Bistro and Marianna’s Junior Hoagies in addition to other festive fare. New for 2016 will be Laguna Splash, an Italian-themed water park with a wave pool and lazy river, which will feature an island with a grill restaurant, a Leaning Tower of Pisa and Roman urn-style tipping buckets.
Marianna’s Fundraisers
The DelGrosso family established Marianna’s Fundraisers in 1981 as a way to help organizations meet their fundraising goals. By offering fresh, quality products, Marianna’s Fundraisers allows people of all ages to enjoy prepared, authentic Italian foods at home. Marianna’s Fundraisers helps thousands of groups raise funds for a variety of worthy causes such as churches, non-profit organizations, clubs, bands and schools.
La Famiglia DelGrosso
A new line of ultra-premium pasta sauces called La Famiglia DelGrosso was introduced in 2006 by a member of the next generation of DelGrossos — Michael, son of Fred Jr. Each recipe was created by a different family member as a celebration of the company’s sauce-making heritage and as a celebration of the lives of Fred, Murf and Marianna.

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