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My Grandfather’s Multi-Million Dollar Idea (Think Ragú)

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Peter Cantisano – my grandfather from Pisticci, Italy who I never met – moved to the state of New York around 1930. A successful farmer in the lush hills of Pisticci in Southern Italy (the “arch” of the Italian boot), Peter Cantisano naturally took up farming when he moved to the United States.

Peter Cantisano bought a 50-acre farm in Penn Field, outside of Rochester, New York, and started growing mainly tomatoes, his favorite crop. He had the most advanced farming equipment in the area, investing the money that he had earned from his successful farming business in Italy.

They say timing is everything but for my grandfather, it was bad timing. Right about the time Peter Cantisano was establishing his farming business in a new country, the Great Depression roared in and devastated the U.S. economy, with a peak of some 25 percent of Americans becoming unemployed in the early 1930s. Needless to say, Peter Cantisano’s farming business took a turn for the worst. He couldn’t sell his tomatoes on the market and it got so bad, at one point, he didn’t even bother to pick his prized tomatoes, letting them rot on the vine. This must have been a great humiliation for a proud farmer who had built a successful farming business and legacy in Italy. There are streets and monuments named after the Cantisano family of farmers in Pisticci that still exist today.

So, what to do with these tomatoes rotting in the field? After some soul searching, Peter Cantisano then came up with a brilliant idea (it was actually a multi-million dollar idea as it turned out).

Peter Cantisano – my grandfather who surely had the fighting spirit of our family today – came up with this idea: instead of letting the tomatoes rot in the field, why not can the best prized tomatoes as a tomato Sause, so it could be sold and consumed when convenient.

This sounds like a simple idea today, after TV dinners and fast food became the norm later on. But, believe it or not, canned tomato sauce (also called spaghetti sauce) on a production scale was not known in the 1930s, and it certainly was not a profitable business in the United State. Few non-Italians enjoyed pasta before World War II and even fewer bought canned sauce. As you might be guessing now from the headline on this article, this story is about the origin of the world-famous Ragú spaghetti sauce. Ragú means “sauce” in Italian.

Fast forward and Ragú eventually became the most popular spaghetti sauce sold in the United States. In 1970, the Cantisano family sold Ragú to Chesebrough-Pond Inc. for $43.8 million. The newly rich Ralph Cantisano gave a reported $1.1 million from the sale to the employees of the company.

How Ragú Spaghetti Sauce Was Born

Like I said at the beginning of this story, I never met my grandfather Peter Cantisano who had the idea for Ragú spaghetti sauce. Unfortunately, he passed away during middle age from either a heart attack or depression, depending on who you ask, before I was born.

My grandfather Peter Cantisano could have been the founding father of Ragu and gone onto make a fortune. Instead, he generously gave the idea to his relatives (and also gave most of his hard-earned savings to help the unfortunate during the Great Depression – this is also a great legacy of his).

The benefactor of my grandfather Peter Cantisano’s idea for Ragú was a cousin of his named John (“Giovanni” in Italian) Cantisano, who Peter suggested the idea to during the throes of the Great Depression.

While this backstory has not been previously documented, I must commend my relative John Cantisano and his family on their incredible work ethic to get the future Ragú business off the ground. The Ragú founder John Cantisano started canning the tomatoes in his two-car garage in Rochester, and my father would sometimes visit and help put labels on the tomato sauce jars.

The official Ragú founding story is portrayed by the Rochester Democrat & Chronical news site as follows:

John and wife Susan (Assunta) Cantisano started Ragú in their Avery Street home (in Rochester) in 1937 (still during the Great Depression). The parents would cook the sauce and their children, including Ralph, delivered it to neighborhood stores (and sold it door-to- door and from their porch as well). The idea "started in desperation – how to put food in six kids' mouths," Ralph Cantisano was quoted as saying.

Ragú literally was a mom-and-pop-and-kids operation in those early days. Ralph Cantisano recalled how as a teenager he operated a home canning machine, turning the handle to close the can. "It took 22 turns," he said. "You don't forget things like that."

John Cantisano’s wife Susan is credited with the original recipe for Ragú. However, some credit my grandmother Josie with creating the Ragú recipe, although my father is skeptical because “she wasn’t a very good cook,” he says.

So the real hero of the Ragu empire is Ralph Cantisano, the son of previously mentioned Ragu founders John and wife Susan Cantisano (all my relatives!)

The family opened a factory on Lyell Avenue in Rochester in 1946, employing more than 300 people at peak, and Ralph Cantisano (which ironically was the same name as my father then) became company president of Ragú in 1953. The company website stated that he "even added the image of a Venetian gondola to the packaging after gaining a little inspiration on the wall of one of his favorite Philadelphia restaurants."

According to the Democrat & Chronical, sales of Ragu skyrocketed, from $150,000 in 1953 to $22 million in 1969. That was the year the Cantisano family sold the company to Chesebrough-Pond's, a Connecticut conglomerate that took Ragú to even greater riches. Sales quickly topped $100 million annually. Ragú was the first pasta sauce in a jar available in the United Kingdom, according to the company website. Ragú eventually reached a 60 percent share of the spaghetti-sauce business in America.

The real hero Ralph Cantisano remained with the business after the sale to Chesebrough-Pond's and stepped down as president in 1975. Ralph Cantisano would go on to form Cantisano Foods in 1978, selling a fairly popular Francesco Rinaldi pasta sauce. The Cantisano family later sold its share of Cantisano Foods to LiDestri Foods. Also of note, Ralph Cantisano was a veteran of World War II and a 2004 inductee into the Rochester Business Hall of Fame. Ralph Cantisano passed away in 2007 at age 84, a very wealthy man I assume.

In conclusion, I must admit it is a great feeling knowing that your family’s history traces back to the founding of a most famous and successful product as Ragú. My only wish is that my grandfather Peter Cantisano had followed through with his amazing idea, not for my personal benefit, but for his. He should have stayed the course and followed his dream, no matter what the naysayers said. I today can’t image what living in the Great Depression was like, so I can’t image what my grandfather when through. But I can try to keep alive his innovative spirit that lives on with our entire immediate and extended family (wherever you are!).

Courtesy of Rochester Museum

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