Anthony T. Rossi, born in Messina, Sicily, in 1900, immigrated to the United States in 1921. Sailing from Naples, Italy, he landed in New York City with $30 in his pocket. He and four other friends came to the big city to make enough money to finance an adventure in Africa, where they planned to make a film. But Rossi found that he liked the United States and its moneymaking opportunities too much to leave, and the African expedition was quickly forgotten. After working in a machine shop, and as a cabdriver and chauffeur, in the late 1920s he purchased the first self-service grocery store in the country, the Aurora Farms market on Long Island, which he ran for 13 years.
In the early 1940s, longing to live in a climate similar to his native Sicily, Rossi—after first relocating in Virginia where he was a farmer—moved to Florida, settling in Bradenton, a small gulf coast town in Manatee County south of Tampa. He grew tomatoes on a 50-acre rented farm there, and also bought a cafeteria in downtown Bradenton, where his freshly prepared food proved popular. Dreaming of owning a chain of restaurants, he bought the Terrace restaurant in Miami Beach in 1944. Wartime gasoline rationing, however, crippled the Florida tourism industry, leading Rossi to exit the restaurant business.
The same week he sold his restaurant, Rossi embarked on a new venture, that of selling gift boxes of Florida citrus fruit to such department stores as Macy’s and Gimbel’s in New York City. Finding surprising success in this business, he moved in 1947 to Palmetto, a town just north of Bradenton, where he purchased the Overstreet Packing Company, renaming it the Manatee River Packing Company. Rossi was now able to buy his citrus directly from nearby growers rather than from retail supermarkets in Miami, cutting his costs and improving his product’s freshness.
Rossi’s gift boxes grew even more popular, and were soon being distributed across the country. He next expanded into selling jars of chilled fruit sections. But since only the largest fruit was selected for the boxes and the sections, Rossi needed to find a way to use the smaller fruit that was going to waste. He decided to squeeze the smaller oranges into juice, and ship it to the Northeast along with jars of fresh fruit sections, using specially modified refrigerated trucks.
In 1949 the company moved to Bradenton and changed its name to Fruit Industries, Inc. That same year Rossi also entered the burgeoning market for frozen orange juice concentrate, purchasing an evaporator to extract the water from the juice. In addition, he registered “Tropicana” as a trademark and began using it on his fruit section and juice products, which proved so successful that he abandoned the marketing of the fruit gift boxes.
Personified brands, such as Speedy Alka Seltzer, were popular in the early television days of the 1950s, and Rossi joined the trend in 1951 when he commissioned the creation of “Tropic-Ana,” a grass skirt- and lei-wearing, pigtailed girl balancing a large bowl of oranges on her head. The character provided an instantly recognizable symbol for the still-young company and helped establish it in the consumer market as Tropicana products began appearing in supermarket cases, mainly in the Northeast and Southeast. In 1953 the company moved to larger quarters, the former Florida Grapefruit Canning Plant in Bradenton, which served as the firm’s headquarters until its relocation to Chicago in 2004.