Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Joe Nucci of Mann Packing Company.
Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Joe Nucci, who died unexpectedly in July 2005 at age 40, left an indelible mark on the produce industry through his ingenuity, integrity and passion for life.
Born and raised in Salinas, CA, Nucci was the third generation of his family to work in the local agriculture industry, joining Mann Packing Company in 1991 and rising through the ranks to become president and chief executive at the time of his death.
Widely regarded as the “father of broccoli cole slaw,” Nucci created a value-added product from something that had previously been hauled away and fed to livestock. Mann Packing Company — then the world’s largest grower and shipper of fresh broccoli — had a track record of introducing new broccoli products, including the first precut broccoli florets for the foodservice market. After graduating from college, Nucci started working for Mann and was charged to create a product using the stalks of broccoli left when the florets were cut. Working with chef consultants, he created the “Hearts of Broccoli” line, which sounded a lot better than “the stalk,” and, ultimately, Mann’s Broccoli Cole Slaw.
Nucci’s vision influenced the entire slaw category and paved the way for other vegetable-based or more nutrient dense salad blends. And it was Joe’s wife, Debbie, who came up with the name “Broccolini,” now a registered trademark of Mann Packing.
Lorri Koster started her career in the produce industry around the same time as her brother Joe. Beyond developing the concept for broccoli slaw, Joe Nucci was also instrumental in developing food safety standards and operating procedures for this new segment of the industry, Koster says. At the time, no one was developing equipment to specifically process fresh produce, so Nucci actively helped design scales and washing systems for the fragile veggies. He helped found the National Association of Fresh Cut Processors, which morphed into the International Fresh Cut Produce Association, which eventually merged with United Fresh Produce Association.
“He helped establish shelf-life standards, convinced buyers to let us put expiration dates on our products and encouraged retailers to invest in stand-up refrigerated merchandising cases in the stores to better handle and merchandise the new bagged produce items,” she recalls. “It’s funny to look back at those times now, since value-added produce is such a staple category in the produce department, but back in the day, we had to convince retailers that consumers would pay for the convenience — but also needed to convince the industry if we didn’t invest in supplying safe, quality fresh-cut produce, the segment would not succeed. Joe was a key leader in making that happen.”
“It really was a revolution,” Koster says. “Many field-packed, commodity-based shippers got into fresh-cut, which brought us more into a consumer packaged goods selling and marketing mentality. Now we could brand our products, trace their sales and tell our story. We were also able to sell these value-added products at a stable, contracted price year-round versus the fluctuating commodity markets.”
Jim Prevor, founder and editor-in-chief of Produce Business, and his family were with the Nucci family at the time of Joe’s death. In a tribute to Nucci published in the July 2005 Produce Business,, Prevor writes, “Joe had such an open, generous nature that everyone couldn’t help but like him. He was without conceit; he was straightforward and frank, and he contributed so much to whatever organization he was involved with because he was willing to share his honest opinions.”
That courage to ask the difficult questions is something about Joe Nucci that stuck with Gene Harris, senior purchasing manager for Denny’s Inc., who served with Nucci on the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) foodservice board and PMA executive committee. (Joe was slated to become chairman of PMA in 2006.)
“He wasn’t bashful about speaking his mind if he didn’t agree with something or was adamant something should be done,” Harris says, “but he was very polite about it.” Nucci wasn’t content with the status quo, Harris adds, always asking, “‘is there a better way to do it or a better product we can come up with?’ — change for the sake of improvement, not for the sake of change. Joe was a visionary.”
Nucci also challenged the status quo within his own company, says Koster, and convinced his elders to evolve the family-owned business into more of a professionally run corporation. “He brought in an outside CFO, established a more formal board of directors and brought in family business consultants that helped us create a family council to work through family-based issues and challenges.
“We didn’t want to be that third generation that ruined the family business,” she adds. “Joe saw that we needed outside advice and influence and, luckily for us, it worked. He deserves full credit for making that happen.”
Koster says her brother “was never a big ‘rah rah’ type of guy — even when he played sports. He led with a quiet confidence and it was contagious.”
But, like most siblings, they didn’t always agree. Koster often shares a favorite story about Mann’s stringless sugar snap peas. Nucci had found a grower in Idaho who raised sweet, stringless snap pea varieties that Mann’s started buying for its stir fry packages. “Often during meetings, someone would open up a bag of product and start snacking. Whenever a stir fry was opened, people would immediately grab for the sugar snap peas,” Koster recalls. “Joe noticed this one day and suggested we start selling bags of just sugar snap peas. I said to the group, ‘I don’t know. Who would want to buy a whole bag of just snap peas?’ Boy, was I wrong! Mann became a sugar snap pea empire, selling them in 8-, 12-, 16- and 32-ounce bags. Sugar snap peas are one of the top selling items in the category, so I have to give my brother kudos on that one — he was right; I was wrong.”
Nucci not only innovated in product lines, but also in marketing and packaging. “He was one of the early adopters of packaging,” says Frank Padilla, vice president, GMM produce and meat at Costco Wholesale, who connected with Nucci both personally and professionally early in their careers. “He helped us tremendously and was one of the guys in the early days who said ‘yes.’ Just an amazing, amazing guy.”
Selling commodity products is something that’s very lean, Padilla says, but Nucci understood “getting into cut-up, value-added products was something that really added a lot of profit and potential for profitability. And that’s where we were — in value-added products. We were right in lockstep with each other because he understood the concept of what we were going for.”
“Joe was one who definitely believed in Costco and believed in me,” Padilla says.
Honoring Nucci’s entrepreneurship and ingenuity, Produce Business, provides a perpetual living memorial to Joe through The Joe Nucci Award for Product Innovation, presented each year at The New York Produce Show and Conference.