2024 40 Under Forty Winner: Antonio Illiano

East Coast Grape Category Manager and Senior Sales
Coquitlam, British Columbia

Age: 39
Hometown: Bear, DE
Hobbies: Food, Sports, Travel
Family/Community: Married; 2 children
Motto in life: Life is too short to eat bad food.

Illiano joined Oppy 16 years ago as an intern on the Ocean Spray Fresh Cranberry deal after finishing a three-month internship with the Walmart produce team in Bentonville, AR. After one season, he was hired full time and given the title of sales coordinator. In the cranberry off-season, he joined the Oppy Walmart replenishment team, and started selling to small accounts of his own, while also acting in a multifaceted role as coordinator for Whole Foods Market. In 2012, he was promoted to East Coast grape category coordinator and started to sell grapes and stone fruit to Whole Foods. In 2013, he was named East Coast Employee of the Year.

Over the next 10 years, he would be promoted to the Ocean Spray cranberry deal manager. He was invited to join the Champions of Change team, on which he served for three years. In 2017, he was promoted to East Coast grape category manager, joining a team that manages and markets close to 5 million packages of grapes from over six countries of origin. In 2018, he was promoted to the key account manager for Whole Foods Market and has grown that business two-fold, taking it to Oppy’s No. 2 total customer. In 2022, he was the No. 1 salesperson in the company and, in 2023, became the first salesperson ever to eclipse $50 million in sales.

Q: How did you begin working in the produce industry?

I grew up in Hammonton, NJ, so I have always been around blueberries. For college, I attended St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and took part in its co-op program. During this program, I was able to do two internships. I enjoyed how every day presented a different challenge. The sheer speed of how things get done really attracted me to the industry.

Q: What do you know now you wish you knew when you first started your career?

For as fast as the produce industry moves, patience and persistence is the key to be truly successful. I wish I would have better understood how complex the supply chain is to get fruit to consumers’ homes.

Q: What is the one thing in your business that you are most passionate about?

I am most passionate about giving the best customer service available to both our growers and retail/wholesale customers. This business is about the relationships you build and there is a lot of trust between all parties involved.

Q: What are some ways we can increase produce consumption at the point of sale?

As an industry, we need to do a much better job in educating the consumer on what something tastes like. People buy things they like to eat, but if you don’t get people to try it, they may never know how good it tastes.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?

I have two — one is being honored with the East Coast Employee of the Year only five years after starting with the company. My second achievement is my work with Whole Foods and growing it to be Oppy’s No. 2 customer.

Q: What advice would you give someone new to the produce industry?

I tell all our new hires that it takes at least three seasons to really understand a specific item, to be patient with the process, and not be shy about asking questions. The first year, there are no stupid questions. The second season, they should be able to pick up more of the conversation. By the third season, they’ll be in a position to understand on a basic level what is going on and confidently start making decisions on their own.