John Croce was the founder of Pacific Food Importers, a Seattle-area wholesale imported-food business, and its retail outlet, called Big John's PFI. The business, which began when Croce started selling products from the back of his car, grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise that he passed on to his three children. The son of Italian immigrants, Croce grew up in the grocery business, first from 1946 to 1954 helping his parents run the Atlantic Street Grocery they owned, and then as the owner of two Thriftway grocery stores. He later became a produce consultant. In 1971, Croce stocked the trunk of his car with imported food items and began selling them to restaurants, pizzerias, delis, and grocery stores. Encouraged by the response, he opened Pacific Food Importers that same year in Seattle (it later moved to Kent). Ten years later, he added a retail store to serve a larger customer base. An enthusiastic cook and winemaker, Croce won several local awards for his Zinfandel production. He was knighted by the Italian Consulate as a "cavaliere" for his service to the Italian Republic. He died August 23, 2015, at the age of 91.
Growing Up in Garlic Gulch
John Croce was born in Seattle to Nazzareno and Rosa Croce on February 8, 1924. His parents had emigrated in 1906 from San Benedetto Del Tronto, a seaport town in the Le Marche region on Italy's Adriatic coast. They settled in Seattle's Rainier Valley neighborhood.
"Back then, the Valley was largely forests and farms with the streetcar running down the middle. Many of the area's farmers were immigrants, and many of those immigrants were from Italy. In fact, the neighborhood around Atlantic Street was so heavily dominated by Italians that it was called 'Garlic Gulch.' These Italian immigrants brought a rich culinary tradition to the Rainier Valley that can still be enjoyed today ("Dinnertime in Garlic Gulch").
Croce graduated from Franklin High School in 1941 shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, and a few years later joined the war effort. From 1943 to 1946 he served in the U.S. Seventh Army, the unit responsible for the 1945 liberation of Dachau, the first concentration camp established by Germany's Nazi regime. Daughter Holly Cochran recalled that he would talk about Dachau at times. "His experiences from the war left him with one lesson: Never sweat the small stuff. That's how he lived his life" (Cipalla interview). After the war, the G.I. Bill paid for Croce to attend the University of Illinois, where he earned an engineering certificate after two years.
In 1946, Nazzareno and Rosa Croce bought the Atlantic Street Grocery on the corner of Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street in the Rainier Valley. John and his three sisters worked in the store. Although he really wanted to be a lawyer, as the oldest child and the only son he did not have a choice.
The Atlantic Street Grocery stayed open until 1954 when it was demolished to make room for the construction of I-90. The following year, Croce was hired to manage the produce department at a new Albertson's Food Center that opened at 35th Avenue SW and W Morgan Street.
Food, Family, and Friends
As a first-generation Italian American, Croce was surrounded by food, family, and community, and he was a lifelong promoter of all three. In 1953 Croce went down to the waterfront to welcome his friend Pfc. Vincenzo Commisso, who was returning from a tour of duty in the Far East. A reporter from The Seattle Times covered the homecoming and the paper ran a photo showing Croce with a large sign that read "The Gulch Welcomes Vincenzo Home."
"More than one touch of old Italy was on hand. The soldier's father, Carlo, hugged and kissed Vincenzo as he must have done when Vincenzo was a baby. Vincenzo's best friend, John Croce, waved a huge sign, declaring a welcome to the soldier from 'The Gulch.' Not everyone understood the significance of the big placard. 'Why, that's Garlic Gulch!' exploded Croce. 'Everybody down around Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street is Italian" (Heilman).
John Croce met his wife Rose Corak (b. 1928) when he delivered groceries to her house, and the couple married in 1953 at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church on Beacon Hill. They made a good pair: Croce was a man who dreamed big and his wife helped keep him grounded and focused on his career. They had two daughters, Holly Cochran (b. 1956) and Cathy Volpone (b. 1960), and two sons, Michael (b. 1962), and John Jr. (1954-1962) who died of cancer at the age of eight.
A Career in the Food Industry
In 1964, John Croce bought a Thriftway grocery store on Empire Way (the street was later renamed Martin Luther King Way) and operated the store for several years. It was very popular with the Italian community and kids would go there after school to buy candy. He followed that first store with a second Thriftway on Yesler Way in Pioneer Square. An uptick in crime in both of those neighborhoods led him to sell the two Thriftways.
Croce continued working in the food industry. He became a produce consultant for Associated Grocers and after that started his own grocery-consulting business called Cascade Consulting. In 1971, he started selling imported Greek food items out of the back of his car, a 1968 Plymouth Valiant. Little by little he added a few more items including imported olive oil, which proved very popular. As Croce later told The Seattle Times: "I started out with 100 cases of olive oil in gallon containers ... It came on a ship from Spain. I put five cases at a time in my car and went out and peddled. By God, it sold!'' (Beason). Buoyed by the response, that same year Croce opened a wholesale business that he called Pacific Food Importers on Seattle's Beacon Hill.
Pacific Food Importers: The Early Days
After Pacific Food Importers opened Croce expanded his product line to include wholesale cured meats, specialty cheeses, and a wide range of canned and tinned imported food items from the Mediterranean basin. Soon, PFI was supplying food products wholesale to pizzerias, bakeries, restaurants, delis, grocery stores, and caterers throughout the Pacific Northwest. The warehouse changed locations several times. As of 2018, it was located in Kent in south King County where it occupied a 26,000-square-foot facility. Local residents in the know would try to shop at the warehouse. The prices were not only better but the imported products were the real deal.
"Pacific Food importers, a wholesaler of Italian and Mediterranean foods, also sells to the public. It sets a $200 minimum order. Pacific sells 3,000 items including 62 varieties of pasta, cheese, oil, roasted peppers, tomato sauce, rice, crackers and candies. The savings can be as high as 40 per cent, but since Pacific's main customers are restaurants and delis, John Croce, owner, says he discourages the public from buying. 'They do, but we don't encourage it because we've got a pretty good wholesale business going and the retailers get uptight if you let them come in and buy up all this stuff''' ("Wholesale: Buying Clubs ...").
Big John's PFI
By 1981, though, Croce had changed his mind and decided a retail store made good business sense. He called it Big John's PFI to differentiate it from the wholesale operation, poking gentle fun at his own formidable size and bigger-than-life personality. In 1990, Big John's moved to the SoDo neighborhood, south of downtown Seattle, where it remained in 2018.
The retail store is notable for its unpretentious exterior and no-frills interior. Located in an old brick building off 6th Avenue S, the store is chock-a-block with "shelves of pasta, stuffed grape leaves, cured meats, exotic pastes, vinegars, phyllo dough and roasted red peppers from the farmlands of Navarra, Spain" (Beason). Its cheese counter is legendary, carrying on average some 180 different types of cheeses.
Both businesses proved popular with the local community. In May 1984 Croce was recognized by the City of Seattle as one of 11 recipients of the mayor's Small Business Award in the first year of that award program. Some 60 businesses were nominated by their customers for the award, which was given to recognize both quality customer service and community service. A 2007 profile in The Seattle Times said:
"Big John's is itself a $15 million-a-year, family-run empire, headed by an Italian American from Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood who still greets visitors to his office with a glass of his homemade zinfandel and enough salty language to cure a pancetta" (Beason).
John Croce came into work each week until he was 89. In 2012, he turned the business over to his children. In 2018, three years after his death, daughter Holly Cochran told a reporter for KING-5 TV about the responsibility she and her siblings felt toward the business:
"We are trying to carry on our dad's legacy, he loved food, he loved people, but most of all he loved family. He loved the fact that our family was involved with PFI and he'd be so proud right now that we are carrying on in this tradition" (Erickson).
Pillar of the Italian American Community
Croce was a longtime supporter of the Seattle Italian American community. He belonged to the Sons of Italy Lodge, and served as the group's president in the early 1970s. His obituary in The Seattle Times noted that "he could be seen holding court at the events thrown by Italian-American club, the Seattle Fedele Lodge, often sipping a glass of his homemade Zinfandel" (Romano).
He loved to read, particularly history, and enjoyed learning new languages. He started to learn Greek and Arabic in addition to the Italian he had learned as a child and the Croatian he learned from his wife and in-laws.
Croce was a soccer fan and helped coach several youth squads in Seattle. In 1947, while still at Atlantic Street Grocery, Croce coached a team called the Grocers. He also coached a team sponsored by the Sons of Italy Lodge, which went on to beat Mrs. Wickman's Pies in 1948, advancing to the state semifinals.
"A garrulous man, he was 'larger than life,' said Dennis Caldirola, the director of Festa Italiana, the annual Italian festival of which Mr. Croce was a founder and frequent participant. 'His idea of a party was a roomful of strangers,' Caldirola said. 'He loved an audience'" (Romano).
Homemade Wines, Organic Produce
Croce was into organic gardening before the term was commonplace and he could often be seen at Big John's handing out gardening advice to friends and customers. He lived a self-sustaining lifestyle long before it became a fad. Holly Cochran said of her father, "He had his own garden, made his own wine, dug his own plants, looked for mushrooms. He loved being Italian more than anything" (Romano).
His homemade wines were good enough to win several local awards, and he helped start a homemade-wine festival at the Sons of Italy Lodge that was renamed in his honor after his death. He also helped launch a fava bean dinner and a ciambotta (Italian stew) dinner at the Sons of Italy. He was knighted by the Italian Consulate as a "cavaliere" for his service to the Italian Republic.
Croce made friends from all walks of life, a practice he continued right up until the end. "On his deathbed, one of the last things he said was to be sure to invite the doctors and nurses to the wine tasting. That was the kind of man he was. People who go to that wine tasting event today say they still feel his spirit there" (Cipalla interview).
John Croce died August 23, 2015, at the age of 91, leaving behind his three children and his wife of 62 years. His funeral attracted an estimated 500 people. "At the reception, cheese from Pacific Food Importers, pasta, meatballs, Italian sausages and peppers, and 12 gallons of Mr. Croce's homemade wine were served. An accordion player performed" (Romano).