At age 15, Guy Emanuele from Cedar Avenue in Oil City was driving trucks filled to the brim with vegetables and fruits enroute to making deliveries all over the region.
The sources ranged from The Strip District in Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Buffalo, Baltimore and elsewhere.
The destinations included restaurants, open air markets, hotels, small corner grocery stores, larger supermarkets and more.
On Friday, he hoisted his last heavy load of produce and called it quits after more than 63 years in the wholesale fruit and vegetable business.
It was a vocation, said the 78-year-old Emanuele, a wiry guy with a sweet smile and a ready laugh, that “I was born into.”
He came by it naturally, courtesy of his family’s business launched more than 100 years ago in Oil City. His grandfather, Agostino “August” Manna, opened a fruit and vegetable store in 1918 on Spring Street.
Manna’s eldest daughter, Pauline, helped run the store until she married Louis C. Emanuele of Oil City. Together, they opened the L.C. Emanuele wholesale fruit and vegetable business at 300 Cedar Ave. next door to their home. It was 1930.
“Before they opened it, my dad was in partnership with the Leta brothers in a produce business on Seneca Street,” said Guy Emanuele. “He broke away and went out on his own.”
When Emanuele graduated from Oil City High School in 1958, he had already a few years work as a loader and a hauler under his belt.
“I remember I went to pick up this load of potatoes – a lot of our produce came in by train – at the Pennsylvania Railroad station (off Elm Street) and I waited and waited. Turns out I was supposed to be at the New York Central station on Main Street,” he said. “So I went back and unloaded 480 100-pound bags of potatoes, all in from one rail car and all by myself.”
When his dad died in 1964, he joined with his mother, Pauline, in taking over the wholesale operations, still located on Cedar Avenue. In 1973, he became sole owner.
“My mother had a Red and White store upstairs and she sold meat, cheese and lots of other stuff,” said Emanuele. “I took care of the rest of it.”
Emanuele’s customer turf expanded out to a 50-mile radius and required “putting out two loads a day, six days a week,” he said. The business listed an employee roster of seven people and an inventory of five large trucks, each bearing the fancy L.C. Emanuele Co. Wholesalers logo.
Emanuele would call his customers, take their orders, identify a source and head out for pickup and delivery. Truckloads of fruits and vegetables were loaded up in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and elsewhere. In addition, the drivers often unloaded rail freight cars in Oil City and transported the goods to customers.
“Our supplies were from all over the country. Years ago, you could never buy grapes in winter and then they began shipping them out of South America. So it changed,” said Emanuele. “We used to haul bananas out of Baltimore – I have a picture of when my Uncle Tony rolled a truck over, filled with 400 bunches of bananas.”
In the summer months, California was the source of potatoes but that eventually shifted to Union City, he said. Outlets for watermelons changed, too, said Emanuele, adding “We did trailerloads of watermelons at 2,500 a crack – heavy work!”
“We handled everything fresh, including a lot of peaches and pears for canning. You name it, we handled it. I would tell people, ‘we call, we haul, that’s all.’ The most popular orders? Probably bananas, lettuce, tomatoes and onions,” said Emanuele, adding “everything was heavier years ago, with 100 pound bags of potatoes now in 10 pound bags and half-crates being used now – not quite so much work.”
One company delivery remains a controversial one, said Guy’s wife, Mary.
“I had to use my own car to pick up frozen seafood in Pittsburgh and somehow it all melted,” said Mary. “I had to trade my car in because it smelled so badly.”
The L.C. Emanuele Co. never missed a delivery, although weather and other conditions sometimes created a brief delay, said Emanuele.
“I got stopped one time at Guys Mills because of winter weather and I turned around to go back home. I ended up putting my truck in at Andres Garage on Elm Street to keep it out of the weather. I didn’t want the stuff to freeze up. The next day, I delivered it,” he said.
“We stayed over, using cots, at the Spartansburg fire department, and got going the next morning,” he said.
While the company’s service area was about a 50-mile radius, one customer close to home was a favorite.
“Ellie and Jerry Falco – they had a popular restaurant in Siverly – asked me every once in a while to make a seafood run to Pittsburgh for them. In those days, I’d leave at 5 a.m. to get there. Ellie called me at 4:30 a.m. and instructed me to tell those “……..” not to substitute anything again and said she wanted some of the stuff returned to Pittsburgh. When I asked where I should meet her at that hour of the morning, she said, ‘I’ll be the only woman under the streetlight on the corner here.’ I laughed so hard,” said Emanuele.
The business owner’s retirement comes quite a few years after he agreed to retire when his wife Mary stepped down from her job in 1995 as owner of the Shamrock Tavern.
“He was supposed to retire, too, but he didn’t,” said Mary Emanuele. “He just wanted to keep working.”
The Emanuele enterprise will shut down completely with no sale to another company even contemplated, said the owner. No family members intend to pursue any extension of the business, either.
“Mary and I raised five kids and we sent them all to college and they are all doing well,” said Emanuele. “I told them all: Work with your head and not with your hands and back.”
A key reason Emanuele made the decision to step down is the retirement of his longtime sidekick, Steve A. Spence, who has been a driver for 40 years. His bookkeeper, too, Mary, is ready to fully retire.
“Steve. That’s a big reason,” said Emanuele. “But when you’ve talked to people on the road for more than 60 years, it’s tough to say good-bye. It was hard work. It was tough. But, I wouldn’t change anything about it. I enjoyed it all.”