When Peter Colonna wants to hold a business strategy session at his Italian food shipping business, he doesn’t have to call a corporate conglomerate meeting in some fancy boardroom.
Colonna just calls his family together.
“My brother Mark handles the sales and marketing,” said Colonna, the president of Colonna Brothers, Inc., which has made Italian foods like world-famous bread crumbs and grated cheeses in their North Bergen headquarters for 75 years. “My sister, Diane Maniscalco, also works here. My daughters Jaime and Janelle handle the shipping and the spice division. I make sure the factory runs and do the importing of the cheese. Everyone has a different job. It’s all about our family. Things are easier when it’s family.”
In fact, the company has always been about the Colonna family ever since Peter Colonna’s grandfather, Dominic, started the Colonna food company in 1918 in Jersey City. He had arrived from southern Italy a few years earlier. “The company originally started with my grandfather,” Peter Colonna said. “He started during World War I, when food items were being rationed. He went to different stores, gathering hard cheese, grating it and then packaging it along with other goods.”
The Colonna family first owned a store in West New York, then decided to move to North Bergen when the company expanded after a few years.
Dominic Colonna had some tough times keeping the business afloat during the Great Depression, but the family trudged on. Eventually, Peter Colonna’s father, Leonard, and his uncle, Joseph, took over the company from Dominic.
“They ran it from World War II through the 1970s,” Peter Colonna said. “Eventually, my cousin Roger and I took it over from them. But then, I bought out my cousin and my sister and brother came aboard. I had to be the president because I am the oldest. But I grew up in the business. I had other opportunities to find work in other places, but in a way, I didn’t have to go out and look for a job, because the business was always here.”
The Colonna family name has graced supermarkets for ages, especially with the famed bread crumbs and grated cheeses, which remain the staples of the company’s success.
The first supermarket to carry the Colonna grated cheese line was A&P, but now, Colonna products are found from Maine to Florida and as far west as Chicago.
Not only do Colonna Brothers, Inc. manufacture, pack and distribute their own goods out of their humble North Bergen location, but they also distribute their products under the supermarket brand names as well.
“Seventy-five percent of what we do is for the private labels for supermarkets,” Colonna said. “Everything we do is made to order. The cheeses are packed fresh. The bread crumbs don’t stay in our warehouse for more than two days.”
Peter Colonna said that when he took over the family business a few years ago, they only produced three items – bread crumbs, cheeses and spaghetti sauces.
He believes that his father, Leonard Colonna, was the first to create a low-calorie spaghetti sauce.
“He was ahead of his time,” Peter Colonna said. “Back in the 1960s, when he invented the low-calorie sauces, no one wanted it. Now, we can’t make enough of it.”
But Mark Colonna wanted to expand the company’s horizons.
“Mark believed that we had to do different things to stay in business,” Peter Colonna said. “So we expanded to soups and Italian specialties, like marinated mushrooms, roasted peppers and olive oil. To compete with the big companies, we had to offer a host of different items.”
It’s also forced the Colonnas to look worldwide to procure the goods that now bear the family name.
“Everything we have is imported,” Peter Colonna said. “We go to Spain and Italy to get our artichoke hearts and marinated mushrooms. We get some of our balsamic vinegar from Italy. We’ve grown quite a bit over the last few years. There is only so much room on the supermarket shelves. At one time, there were only three or four companies. Now, there are 20. Everyone knows each other’s business. It’s very competitive. We have to keep moving to keep our name up there and we can’t supply an inferior product. I grew up with that idea.”
Another item that Colonna is very proud of is the new “Spice Farms” line of spices.
“I think we’ve always had a good product,” Colonna said. “I guess we’re doing something right.”
Colonna said that the holidays always tend to be his busiest time. The family has been working 60-to-70-hour weeks in order to get out orders before the holidays.
“People want to get a little bit of everything for the holidays,” Colonna said. “It’s a festive time of year and no one wants to have one kind of food. We also make a stuffing. It really works out good.”
Colonna said that he likes calling North Bergen home.
“We made up our minds to stay here,” Colonna said. “We’ve expanded like five times and bought other buildings in the town. Basically, we feel North Bergen is like the melting pot of the whole area. It’s strategically located and close to all the highways and tunnels. Our trucks go out every day, so we need to be near the roads. I think we’re in the right spot. If it wasn’t, we’d be out of here.”
Colonna said that he has been trying to work with the neighbors, who have complained about trucks operating at early hours in the morning.
It’s all about family
Colonna said that he’s proud that a fourth generation of Colonnas, namely his daughters, has decided to join the family business.
“They’re both starting to gel and getting to know the business well,” Peter Colonna said. “It’s just a matter of maturity. I think they’re ready to grab the reins. We have to see what happens.”
There might be only one problem.
“There are no more boys,” Colonna said. “They might have to become the Colonna Sisters instead of Colonna Brothers.”