Sanfillipo Produce Co. Has Catered to Columbus Restaurants for Five Generations

The fifth-generation family business started in 1899 as a small stand in Columbus’ West Market and now sells wholesale fruits and vegetables to restaurants, hotels, country clubs and other customers.

Jill Moorhead
Jimmy Sanfillipo (left) with his oldest son, Jamie, at the Sanfillipo Produce Co. warehouse on East Fifth Avenue near John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

For more than 50 years, the family-owned restaurant chain Tee Jaye’s Country Place has provided consistent comfort fare for its loyal customers. And the locally owned business doesn’t do it alone. Two to three times a week, often as early as 6 a.m., the Sanfillipo Produce Co. truck shows up with crates of romaine lettuce, green peppers, red onions, spinach, tomatoes, potatoes and apples to be prepared and served in the chain’s seven locations.

The partnership between the restaurant and the 124-year-old, Columbus-based produce company goes back a generation. “When I was a kid,” says Tee Jaye’s president Dayna Sokol, “we were already with Sanfillipo. My father worked with Joe Sanfillipo. We’ve never used anyone [for produce] but them. Their business is a family, and our business is a family, and that’s why the relationship has evolved over the years.”

A Family Business With Deep Roots

The Sanfillipo family has been providing produce to the greater Columbus area for five generations. Run by James “Jimmy” Sanfillipo and his son Jamie, the company supplies produce to small grocers, hotels, country clubs, the Ohio State Fair and at least 300 restaurants, including Moretti’s, Basi Italia, Giuseppe’s Ritrovo, Windward Passage and Brown Bag Deli. The company also has an on-site produce shop on East Fifth Avenue, run by Jimmy’s sister, Robin, offering wholesale prices to the public.

One of Sanfillipo’s oldest clients is Adriatico’s New York Style Pizza on Ohio State’s campus. Owner Greg Fortney routinely orders lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers and mushrooms from Sanfillipo.

Bags of onions waiting to be delivered in the Sanfillipo Produce Co. warehouse

“They’re always willing to do whatever you need. If you’ve under-ordered and need something, you reach out, and they take care of it,” Fortney says. “Between service and product quality, it’s as good as it gets.”

Sanfillipo brings in semitrucks of produce from New York and ships in fresh herbs and specialty items from Los Angeles two or three times a week. It also works with a dozen Ohio farmers, including Michael Farms in Urbana and Rainsboro Produce in Greenfield.

Restaurants are its main focus. Every day at 1 a.m., five or six workers arrive at Sanfillipo’s warehouse at 4561 E. Fifth Ave. to pull custom orders for restaurant customers. “If they want two stalks of celery, we give them two stalks,” Jimmy says.

Stacks of boxed pineapples at Sanfillipo Produce Co.

Customers refer to the company not by its name, but by the individuals they work with, namely Jimmy and Jamie. When a walk-in cooler went down at Tee Jaye’s, Sanfillipo came to the rescue at no charge. “Jimmy brought a refrigerated truck out for us to store food for a week. That’s the kind of relationship that you want to have with a supplier,” Sokol says. “Anytime we need something, Jimmy’s our first call.”

It was no surprise that Jimmy ended up running the family business. “My dad would take me [to the warehouse] when I was a boy,” he says. “And I would get crates of corn and go from house to house to sell them.” He remembers asking his grandfather how to tell if a honeydew was ready to eat and laughs at the answer, “You cut it,” his grandfather told him. “You don’t have X-ray eyes.” With a lifetime in the industry, Jimmy can now tell when a melon is ripe with a squeeze or a tap.

Sweet Beginnings: Sanfillipo’s Start as a Fruit Stand

The company got its start when Jimmy’s great-grandfather, Salvatore SanFilippo, emigrated from southern Sicily in 1899. (According to family history, when Salvatore’s son Giuseppe, aka Joe, later arrived at Ellis Island, the family name was given a new spelling: Sanfillipo.) Salvatore set up a fruit stand in Columbus’ West Market on Gift Street, sourcing produce from Central Market at Fourth and Rich streets, with Joe delivering to restaurants, grocery stores and restaurants en route to East Franklinton.

When Salvatore passed away in 1911, his descendants took over the business, generation after generation. Some spun off to create their own operations, and multiple iterations of the name existed: Sanfillipo Bros., James Sanfillipo Produce Co. and, finally, Sanfillipo Produce Co. Over the generations, the company has distributed produce by horse and buggy, a 1926 Dodge Truck (the first truck the family owned) and now, semis.

Jimmy Sanfillipo’s office is filled with family photos, a poster for “The Godfather” and photos of Jimmy with cast members of The Sopranos.

In the 1980s, Columbus restaurants could choose from 25 different locally operated produce suppliers. But now there are only five or six companies, in part because supermarkets like IGA, Food World and Super Duper closed to make way for major chains that own and operate their own produce warehouses.

Over the years, Sanfillipo’s offerings have also changed. They now carry a full line of dairy to assist restaurants with last-minute needs that larger suppliers cannot handle. “Because you’re [at restaurants] so often, the produce guy is often a kind of catch-all when chefs need something on the fly,” Jamie says.

The fruit industry has grown dramatically over the past few decades, too. Sanfillipo once carried three basic types of apples and has since added varieties such as Gala, Fuji and Cosmic Crisp. They also stock up on premium grades for fruit baskets at Christmastime. And citrus fruit varieties have expanded, as well, with Florida juice oranges and tangerines joining the mix.

“We used to keep maybe a box of mangoes, but now we keep pallets. It’s the most popular fruit in the world. And people ask for jackfruit all the time,” Jimmy says. “It’s not one of my favorites.”

Vegetable packaging has evolved, as well. “When my grandfather was young, potatoes came in 150-pound barrels, but now they’re distributed in 50-pound increments to avoid injuries,” Jimmy says.

“Everything You Have Goes Bad in Seven Days”

Sanfillipo had its biggest sales year ever in 2022, and 2023 is looking even better, Jimmy says. That growth isn’t just in produce. The company has started dealing in a different kind of fruit—the bottled kind. In 2019, the company received its first shipment of Italian wines and now operates EDV International, which imports and distributes 65 Italian labels to stores and restaurants.

Will Sanfillipo carry on to a sixth generation? It all lies with Jamie’s three daughters, ages 12 to 20. “They all love fruit. But when it comes to taking over the business, most likely not. If they can make a living and not have to grind out like this, I’ll be happy,” he says. “In this business, everything you have goes bad in seven days.”

This story appears in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.