The produce industry is like a puzzle—a thousand-piece puzzle capturing every nook and cranny of our vast, beautiful business. Catania Worldwide has, since its inception, been a major player in ensuring every piece is accounted for. With three generations of leaders invested in filling in the gaps, bridging the international network, and establishing quality, taste, integrity, and traceability as produce necessities, Catania Worldwide’s storied history is a puzzle in and of itself, and one that is purposefully incomplete in order to leave room to respond to the changing needs of our industry.
From bringing commodities to new markets and taking the company abroad, to expanding from one banner to four offices, Catania Worldwide is one to keep an eye on as setting the pace for produce runs in the Catania family’s blood. Each Catania family leader, from Michael, to Paul, Sr., to Paul, Jr., has pushed the company to new heights, leaving their mark on the company’s place in produce.
I sit down to chat with Paul Catania, Jr., President of Catania Worldwide, to learn more about the history behind this expansive company.
“The idea behind Catania Worldwide has always been to be as vertically integrated as possible,” Paul tells me. “As my grandfather, father, and I added companies and different operations to the organization, the name changed from M.L. Catania to Catania Worldwide to include the expansion of all of our different branches. As the company evolved to Catania Worldwide, I am proud that our company’s main goal remains the same as when my grandfather first started the company. Our focus is to provide service and quality, food safety, packaging innovations, profitability, and organics, all of which set us apart and allow us to be a leader in the industry.”
Paul goes on to explain that Catania began in 1929 with his grandfather, Michael Leonard Catania, in Los Angeles, California. He then moved the business to Toronto, Canada, looking for work in the local produce industry.
“He was a true innovator. In 1929, all vegetables that were consumed were locally grown and, for the most part, became unavailable after the last fall crops were harvested. But my grandfather devised a plan to ship lettuce in the winter from California to Toronto by rail, and I believe that was the first lettuce ever seen in Canada in the winter months. He moved back to Toronto shortly after and established a produce brokerage firm,” Paul reveals.
While Michael began to grow his business, he married his wife and had six children. The oldest, Paul, Sr., served in the Canadian Navy overseas during World War II. Upon his return in 1945, he was entering a medical school subsidized by the government for his wartime service when his father told him that he needed help with his business. Thus, Paul, Sr.’s career in produce began.
“My dad took the produce brokerage firm international in the 70s by getting involved in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Spain, Morocco, and New Zealand, adding to what my grandfather built and laying the foundations for how the company operates today,” Paul notes.
Naturally, as someone with lineage from two produce powerhouses, Paul’s own journey began during childhood. Growing up at the Ontario Food Terminal, Paul claims this was similar to going to a produce university thanks to its vibrancy, bustling nature, and electricity. While Paul took a brief detour from the industry—after graduating from college he began studies in radio broadcasting—produce was always his destiny and never far from his path.
“As a summer job, I worked at the Ontario Food Terminal for one of M.L. Catania’s customers, as I had for many summers, to earn some extra cash. I was offered to stay on with the company for more money than I thought I could make in radio, and so I stayed on after the summer,” Paul laughs. “After two years, my father and his partner offered me a position at M.L. Catania. After growing up at the Ontario Food Terminal, I could see that the major chain stores were buying directly more and more by the early 90s, and I began to look for other avenues in the industry to make sure Catania was covering all its bases.”
From there, Paul continued to expand Catania into what it is known as today: Catania Worldwide. Over the last 25 years, Paul has added banners and facilities to the company’s operations—including Stellar Distributing, Catania New Jersey, Catania Mexico, and Maple Leaf Ranch—broadening the scope of Catania Worldwide’s specialties.
“Catania Worldwide is now growing, picking, and packing its own fruit from Mexico and California and shipping it within our own company in Toronto and the U.S via our facilities on the West Coast and Stellar Distributing in New Jersey. We then do our own distribution from each facility, which all have state-of-the-art refrigeration and packing operations, to major retailers,” Paul says. “The advantages of our expanded network are numerous. We are able to have more control, fruit traceability, and freshness through destination grading and packing.”
Specifically, in 1993, Paul began Stellar Distributing, based in Madera, California, with Kurt Cappelluti as Manager. With an extensive growing base of customers and suppliers, Stellar Distributing is now an international produce company that provides fresh figs, kiwifruit, persimmons, pomegranates, and limes.
“We are able to have more control, fruit traceability, and freshness through destination grading and packing.”
– Paul Catania, Jr., President, Catania Worldwide
Paul then opened 150-acre Maple Leaf Ranch in 2003, which has since expanded to include three ranches in California that specialize in harvesting kiwifruit, figs, pistachios, pomegranates, and persimmons. This includes 20 acres of figs and kiwis on Gulke Ranch, and an additional 760 acres of kiwis and figs, 60 of which are organic, that are farmed, picked, and shipped through the Maple Leaf Ranch banner.
The company then traveled south, establishing operations in Mexico in 2004. Catania Mexico’s ranches harvest and provide Catania Worldwide with limes grown just outside of Guadalajara and figs and avocados grown in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, as well as state-of-the-art, industry-certified packing, cooling, and shipping operations in both areas.
“Our industry deals in constant change, and there are numerous challenges presented, like water and labor issues, food safety requirements, and more that all end at the production chain. Combined with the constant need for innovation in farming, transportation, and packing, we have our hands full of challenges as we try to stay at the forefront of the industry. But these challenges are also what make our industry unique, challenging, and, ultimately, exciting,” Paul shares with me.
In addition to the company’s M.L. Catania Canada location, which has remained rooted in Toronto, Paul also recently opened a facility in New Jersey in 2018. This newer location supports the storage and shipping for Catania Worldwide as a means to supply the Eastern United States with high-quality fruit products. Catania New Jersey also includes a 40,000-square-foot facility with cold storage for 1,600 pallets, as well as ripening facilities.
“It is my opinion that we must strive to offer the freshest, healthiest, and cleanest product to the marketplace, which is why I have expanded Catania Worldwide over the years. Having control of our commodities from field-to-fork not only allows us to accomplish that goal, but also continue the legacy my father and grandfather began before me,” Paul shares. “Come visit us at PMA Fresh Summit at booth 343 to learn more about Catania Worldwide.”
While it seems like there isn’t anything Catania Worldwide can’t do, the future is still ripe with possibilities and more produce puzzle pieces to fill in.