TIPTON — The DelGrosso family is celebrating two major milestones this year as both DelGrosso Foods Inc. and DelGrosso’s Park mark 75th anniversaries.
The two businesses have been intertwined ever since Ferdinand and Murf DelGrosso bought a “rusty rattle trap of a park” in 1946 and started operating both the park and a willow-making enterprise in 1947.
But the sauce-making roots of DelGrosso Foods dates back a bit further.
The oldest major family-owned producer of pasta sauce in the US, DelGrosso’s can trace its history back to 1911, when Marianna Pulcino immigrated to America, bringing with her an old-world recipe for pasta sauce. Pulcino established Mom’s Cafe on Walton Avenue in Altoona, where she served up her classic dishes to the delight of hungry patrons.
In 1936, her daughter Mafalda (Murf) met Ferdinand DelGrosso at the restaurant and they fell in love instantly. They later married, and in 1943, the couple bought a small restaurant on 17th Street and called it DelGrosso’s Cafe. With the help of Pulcino’s original sauce recipe, the restaurant soon became famous for the “best spaghetti dinner in town”
Looking to expand, they bought Bland’s Amusement Park in Tipton and started making sauce at the park.
When they bought the park, it included a skating rink, bowling alley, picnic area and a few rides, said Amy Mearkle, DelGrosso’s spokeswoman.
“The park had fallen into shambles. Murf said Fred had bought a ‘rusty rattle trap of a park,’” said Carl Crider Jr., today’s park president/general manager.
Willow manufacturing expands
The first sauce-related expansion took place in 1951, when Fred built a small cooking room behind Bland’s Park. It contained four 20-gallon, gas-fired, hand-stirred kettles and an automatic can sealer.
DelGrosso’s first commercial customer was Ernie Wissinger of Wissinger’s IGA on 31st Street.
“Ernie was the biggest reason dad was able to start. He was very instrumental in getting us started in the business,” said Joe DelGrosso, company CEO and second generation family member.
DelGrosso’s sauce was sold at Clover Farm and A&P stores in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1960s and 1970s, DelGrosso’s started to branch out to the Pittsburgh area with its products sold at Foodland, Shop N Save and Giant Eagle, the three big chains in the Pittsburgh market, DelGrosso said.
By the late 1970s, the company had outgrown its original amusement park production building and constructed a new plant across the road. The new 40,000-square-foot facility enabled greater efficiency and the ability to pack sauce not only in cans, but also in glass jars.
“National brands were in glass jars and we were in cans. Consumers could see it better in the jar; it was a consumer preference,” DelGrosso said.
In the 1980s, DelGrosso Foods began packing store brand sauces, known as “private label,” for grocery chains. Later, the company’s sauce-making expertise attracted the attention of other brands, who contracted with the company to pack their recipes.
Today, in addition to its own brands, DelGrosso Foods packs over 300 distinct recipes for nearly half of the nation’s 20 largest grocery chains, as well as several national brands of pasta sauce and salsa.
Park improvements continue
The 1980s also marked a period of growth at the park with the addition of the Zyklon roller coaster in 1987 and the construction of a pedestrian crosswalk over Route 220 in 1988.
“The pedestrian crosswalk was huge, it improved accessibility and was better for both traffic flow and pedestrians,” Crider said. “It was one of the bigger things done here.”
A miniature golf course was added in 1992 and a go-kart track was added in 1994, followed by the Tipton Waterworks in 1997 and the Tipton Rapids water slides in 1999.
“Anytime you put in an addition, you usually see a spike in attendance for curiosity and newness. We had a plan of growth for the future. Every couple of years it was something new and exciting,” Crider said.
In 2001, Bland’s Park was renamed DelGrosso’s Amusement Park, mainly because DelGrosso’s was looking to cross promote and putting Bland’s Park on a jar of DelGrosso’s spaghetti sauce wouldn’t work.
“Fred and Murf were very modest,” Mearkle said. “He didn’t want to slap his name on everything.”
“Tom Riley was instrumental, we had an audience with millions of jars of sauce, it made sense to cross promote the sauce with the park, and put coupons on the sauce jars,” Crider said.
The park’s biggest expansion — the $12.5 million Laguna Splash Water Park — opened in 2016.
Adding the water park to the amusement park was the next logical step, Crider said.
“You saw major growth in the amusement park industry by putting water attractions in,” he said. “They were something bigger and nicer, that was the trend in the industry.”
Mission statement, employees key to success
DelGrosso’s Park expects to attract about 300,000 visitors this year and in recent years has drawn people from all 50 states, Mearkle said.
The park is well known for its food—including Murf’s Potato Salad.
“We are best known for our potato salad and pizza,” Crider said.
The park makes between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of potato salad on a normal weekend, and 2,500 pounds for Memorial Day weekend, Mearkle added.
The park also sells about 20,000 pizzas — complete with handmade dough — each summer.
Crider said the park’s mission statement is the key to its success.
“The mission of DelGrosso’s Park and Laguna Splash has always been to provide high-quality food and family entertainment in a clean, safe and friendly environment,” Crider said. “We stick to that. We have always provided good food, from the days of the cafe, and brought it here. We never want to compromise our quality, we always want to be fair in pricing, people appreciate that.”
Mearkle also credits the park’s employees for its success.
“We wouldn’t be here for 75 years without our employees,” she said.
Both Mearkle and Crider are optimistic about the future of the park.
“Expansion is tough, we are out of space, we are continually looking at improvements. We put new roofs and windows on existing buildings, that is what keeps the park up,” Mearkle said.
“We need to keep the beautification up, we always do that, regardless of putting in new attractions, we want to maintain the beauty of the grounds, keeping things fresh and painted,” Crider said. “We pride ourselves on our cleanliness, keeping it swept and clean. We also redid our restrooms, the park is spotless in a lot of ways.”
DelGrosso Foods continues to grow
Expansions to the 1979 DelGrosso Foods facility have brought the building up to 120,000 square feet.
Over the years DelGrosso’s added additional flavors to its traditional meat-flavored spaghetti sauce, and sloppy joe sauces and salsa were added as well.
DelGrosso’s pizza sauce also continues to be very popular.
“The pizza sauce my father did,” DelGrosso said. “I have added actual pepperoni to the formula, ground pepperoni in the mix to make it more unique.”
The business has grown exponentially in its 75 years, with DelGrosso Foods making 300,000 jars of all products a day.
“We make 7 million cases of sauce a year,” DelGrosso said.
Michael DelGrosso, chief sales and marketing officer, is given credit for the introduction in 2016 of a new specialty line of sauces called LaFamiglia DelGrosso.
The new product line features special recipes, each created by a different member of the DelGrosso family.
Michael was seeing a lot of products called ultra premium, DelGrosso said. Those products were made with Italian plum tomatoes and sold for $6 to $8 a jar.
While DelGrosso’s was not in that market, the company was making those styles of sauces for other customers.
Diving into the specialty sauces helped create new ventures.
“It took us more national,” DelGrosso said.
Expansion in the works
This year’s 75th anniversary coincides with the largest planned expansion of the company to date — a $60 million project at the former 160,000-square-foot Cenveo Envelope plant building on Kristel Lane, just six miles from the willow maker’s current location. The creation of a second production plant will eventually allow the company to double its existing production and better serve its private label and contract packing customer base. The first cases of sauce are expected to come off the new line later this year.
DelGrosso’s also recently purchased the 70,000-square-foot Gardner Denver building, which will be used for warehousing.
“We have over 100 employees at the factory today,” DelGrosso said. “We will be hiring 40 to 50 over the next several months.”
More expansions may occur down the road, but DelGrosso can’t disclose the plans yet.
“Different products will be produced. … It will be a combination of DelGrosso’s and store brand products,” he said.
Mearkle said the DelGrosso name is known throughout the industry, with DelGrosso’s being called upon by other companies to make their sauces.
“We need more space to make the sauce,” she said, adding that “there are some other things we would like to do.”
Both businesses are well respected, said Joe Hurd, president/CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce.
“From my own standpoint, these are the businesses I brag about when I’m touting our county to people who don’t know much about us,” he said. “They’re our heavyweights, and it’s always great to be able to describe them not simply by what they do but by the way in which they do it.”
Both Crider and DelGrosso are excited to reach the 75 year mark for the family businesses.
“I take pride in keeping the legacy going to the wishes of the founders, I’m just part of it. They took all of the risks, they had no clue what they were getting into. We came along then and tried to build on what they started. It was their blood and sweat and risk that started it all,” Crider said.
“I feel honored that our family has been able to achieve 75 years in business. We are now in the third generation of the business. We want to continue the family legacy, both in the park and sauce business to keep it going into the fourth generation,” DelGrosso said. “My father was a visionary, he took a lot of chances, if not for him and my mother, we would not be where we are today. We credit them for what they have done. He would be proud of what we have done, he would be amazed but not surprised by what we have done.”
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.