Joseph G. Procacci, South Philly tomato king, dies at 90

Joseph G. Procacci, pictured here in 2012, was CEO and chairman of Procacci Brothers Sales Corp.

Joseph G. Procacci, 90, known as the South Philadelphia tomato king, died Friday, Nov. 17, of cancer at a hospice center in Cherry Hill, where he lived.

Mr. Procacci’s death was confirmed by his son, J.M. Procacci.

“If you’re standing still, you’re going backward,” J.M. Procacci said his father taught him. “Charge, charge forward. Be the innovator. Be the first. And then bring others with you.”

Mr. Procacci was cofounder with his brother Michael, and longtime chief executive of Procacci Brothers Sales Corp., a wholesale produce supplier based on Front Street in South Philadelphia.

The company, which owns farms in New Jersey and Florida and operates overseas, says it produces 10 percent of the country’s tomatoes. Its clients are as big as McDonald’s and as small as a produce vendor in the Italian Market.

Mr. Procacci also made a foray into the casino business, unsuccessfully bidding for Philadelphia’s second license a few years ago and later for one in western Pennsylvania.

He is credited with bringing two new tomatoes — the grape and the UglyRipe heirloom — to the U.S. market in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mr. Procacci won a fight against Florida agriculture regulators to sell the tasty UglyRipe out of state; Florida argued the tomato was too misshapen and could compromise quality.

“He commandeered a lot of shelf space,” J.M. Procacci said.

John O’Riordan, Mr. Procacci’s lawyer, described his client as an “old-world kind of gentleman” who believed hard work and honesty was the way to go.”

As chief lobbyist for the produce industry, Mr. Procacci prevailed over food service and supermarket groups that wanted Congress to eliminate a law that promoted fair trade in the fruit and vegetable industry, his son J.M. said. A trade group named him Produce Man of the Year in 1995 for those efforts.

“He looked out after the little guy,” O’Riordan said.

John Giordano, 55, who helps run a family produce business in the Italian Market, said he’d been buying tomatoes and other produce from Mr. Procacci since Giordano was 16 years old.

He’d go to Procacci Brothers’ at 7 a.m. on Sundays, and the whole warehouse was empty — except for the light on in Mr. Procacci’s office, where he was working.

“He’d be doing deals in California,” Giordano said, “and sell me 50 tomatoes.”

“He was an icon, this guy,” Giordano said Saturday.

Giordano said Mr. Procacci’s specialties were wine grapes and chestnuts, which he would buy in Italy.

Well into his 80s, Mr. Procacci began looking into a new business opportunity. Casino operators hoping to win Philadelphia’s second license wanted to buy some of his property. But Mr. Procacci thought the bids were too low, his lawyer said. Seizing a chance to provide even more for his family, O’Riordan said, “He got this twinkle in his eye, and he said if they can do it, I can do it.”

His bid was backed by the investor Walter P. Lomax Jr., a physician and private-equity executive. Mr. Procacci proposed the $367 million Casino Revolution for Front Street and Pattison Avenue, near Procacci Brothers’ headquarters.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board granted the license to another bidder, Stadium Casino LLC, in 2014.

Mr. Procacci was born and raised in Camden, where he got his start selling produce door to door with his father’s pushcart.

He didn’t graduate from high school, but in 1948 he opened Procacci Brothers Sales Corp.

Mr. Procacci raised his family in Pennsauken and lived there most of his life, his son said.

Mr. Procacci is survived by his wife, Teresa; two brothers, Michael and Sam; his sister Rose; children J.M., Rita, and Loretta; 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A viewing is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 24, in the evening at the Falco, Caruso & Leonard funeral home, 6600 Browning Rd., Pennsauken. Specific hours have not been set. A funeral Mass will be celebrated 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, at Christ Our Light Catholic Church, 402 Kings Highway, Cherry Hill.

Memorial donations may be made to the Abramson Cancer Center, Bladder Cancer Biomarker Discovery Fund, in care of Andrew Bellet, Penn Medicine Development and Alumni Relations, 3535 Market St. Suite 750, Philadelphia, Pa., 19104.