On May 10, 1984, John Croce (1924-2015) is one of 11 small-business owners chosen by Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) to receive the city's first Small Business Awards, inaugurated that year. Croce is honored for his wholesale and retail food businesses as well as his long history of community service. Born in Seattle to parents who emigrated from Italy, Croce began his career helping his parents run their grocery. In 1971, after operating two Thriftway stores and working as produce consultant, he opened Pacific Food Importers supplying imported food to stores and restaurants. The wholesale operation was followed 10 years later by a retail outlet that he called Big John's PFI, the "big" a reference to both his ample size and his exuberant personality.
Wholesale Business Leads to Retail Store
John Croce grew up in the food industry. After years working in, managing, and owning grocery stores, he starting selling imported food items from Greece and Italy from the back of his 1968 Plymouth Valiant to Seattle's restaurant and food industry. Encouraged by the response, Croce began a wholesale business that he called Pacific Food Importers. PFI opened in 1971 in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood and later moved to Kent, in King County south of Seattle. It proved an enduring success -- his 2015 obituary noted:
"Restaurants such as Canlis, That's Amore! and Volterra, as well as grocers, have long procured imported vinegar, olive oil, pasta, meats, olives and Italian cheese from the store" (Romano).
Residents, particularly those from the Italian and Greek communities, soon got wind of the wholesale business and also flocked to PFI. In 1980 the warehouse was selling about 3,000 imported food items, everything from pasta and tomato sauce to crackers and cheese. Wanting to keep the wholesale operation for his larger customers, Croce set a $200 minimum order, but that did not discourage determined shoppers who were hungry for authentic, hard-to-find, and reasonably priced specialty food items. Finally, in 1981, Croce opened a retail location that he called Big John's PFI. It moved to the SoDo neighborhood south of downtown Seattle in 1990.
Seattle's First Small Business Awardees
When Croce received the Mayor's Small Business Award in 1984, it was the first year that the award was given. He and the 10 other awardees were chosen from about 60 businesspeople nominated by the public for their customer service and community spirit. The awards were presented by Mayor Charles Royer at a gathering held on May 10, 1984, at the Seattle Trade Center.
In addition to Croce, other small-business owners honored included Ron Lewis, Gowan Greenwood Hardware; Gerald Baldwin (b. 1942), Starbucks Coffee & Tea (yes, that Starbucks, before Howard Schultz acquired the company); Tomio Moriguchi (b. 1936), Uwajimaya; Ken Olsen, Olsen's Thrifty Drug Store; and David Brewster (b. 1939), Sasquatch Publishing. Two women were among the business owners honored: Assunta Ng, founder of The Seattle Chinese Post newspaper, and Mary Johnson, who owned the Dial-A-Mop residential cleaning service that helped women re-enter the workforce.
Gustatory Treasure Trove
When Big John's PFI relocated to SoDo in 1990, it was to a small, nondescript brick building whose no-frills ambience belied its hidden treasures. The retail store was located in an industrial area just south of downtown Seattle, then under the shadow of the Kingdome stadium and down the street from several auto-repair shops.
First and foremost, Big John's was a food lover's paradise, short on style but big on old-world charm. The floor was concrete, the lighting was fluorescent, and handmade signs were posted everywhere -- hanging from the ceiling, displayed on the walls, and taped to the front door. The primary décor was provided by hundreds of colorful cans, bottles, jars, and packages of food items arrayed on metal shelving.
Capers to cannellini beans, polenta to almond paste, torrone to flatbread: Area cooks looking for specialty food items were likely to find them at Big John's. Shoppers were encouraged to use a plastic shopping basket or grab one of the store's recycled 5-gallon white plastic buckets previously used to hold olives in brine. Shipments would come and go, so the inventory changed frequently. What stayed constant were the low prices, modest surroundings, knowledgeable staff, and unparalleled excitement of finding delectable treasures tucked into every nook and cranny.
Green and black olives were available in bulk as were spices and herbs. There were hard salamis, olive oils and vinegars, stuffed grape leaves, phyllo dough, mustards, jams, and honey. Looking for pesto? At Big John's, you might find green pesto and red, truffle pesto, lemon pesto, and pesto made with pistachios.
"One entire aisle is devoted to imported tomatoes that can't be found anywhere else. The olive oils selection gets another aisle ... The store also has bulk exotic spices, Middle Eastern food, canned fish ... and case upon case of Italian wine coming in at under $10 a bottle" (Erickson).
Legendary Cheese Counter
Big John's cheese counter became famous among local foodies. It measured about 30 feet long and was crammed with, on average, about 180 different types of cheese from Italy and Spain, France and Bulgaria. There were pecorinos and bleus, goudas and bries. Small signs proclaimed the country of origin and delineated the special features of select cheeses.
When the store first opened, Croce set a one-pound minimum for a cheese purchase, which irked several of his customers. When they complained about the minimum purchase, Croce's advice was simple: Can't eat it all? Have a party!
Despite the minimum purchase, which was subsequently dropped to one-half pound, cheese continued to be a top seller. The extensive bulk section, with its well-priced assortment of flours, grains, herbs, and spices, was also a popular feature.
"Big John takes a lot of pleasure in being able to bring such delicacies from across the globe. His store exudes this pleasure, from its physical appearance to its unpretentious staff, and his approach to food is beautifully Old World, which explains his enduring success. Many people stereotype certain foods because they cost a lot of money, they're 'exotic,' they're difficult to find, or merely because they aren't part of our everyday diet. A lot of food vendors have played this to their advantage, and trained the public to think that spending your whole paycheck on some good cheese and olives is just the way it has to be" (Steiner).
"A Bazillion Cans of Tomatoes"
Most regular shoppers who frequented Big John's agreed it was impossible to arrive with a list and stick to it. There was too much temptation hiding around each corner. Shoppers turned almost giddy when confronted by the array of hard-to-find imported food items.
"Mind you folks -- this is not some hidden away slick operation like DeLaurenti's in Pike Place Market with all its frills and fanciness (and high prices). It is as basic as can be inside -- concrete floors, little decoration, no piped in music -- just an amazing selection of fine foodstuffs from all over the world. It is a treasure trove of exotic culinaria, a pot of golden pasta at the end of the rainbow, and a cache of spices that is nearly unrivaled in this town" (Price).
Blogger Jason Price shared his three-step strategy for shopping at Big John's. First, walk around the store to see if any new items are on the shelves. Second, consider what delectable dishes you can make with ingredients like pomegranate syrup or roasted red peppers from Spain. Third, stock up on the items that Big John's is best known for: cured meats, cheese, and olives.
"I always get excited coming home with my score from Big John's PFI. I want to try some of the new things I found. I want to share the delicious discoveries like the canned cherry tomatoes that work so well in bucatini all'Amatriciana ... I want to eat the olives right out of the bag on my drive home -- unable to curb my enthusiasm. Welcome to the land of a bazillion cans of tomatoes" (Price).
Enthusiasm for Food and Wine
The local Italian American community benefited from Big John's community spirit and even bigger heart. His enthusiasm for food and wine led to his founding a homemade wine festival, fava bean dinner, and ciambotta (Italian stew) dinner. He was a founder and staunch supporter of local Italian heritage events such as Festa Italiana and the San Gennaro Festival.
Croce worked regularly until he was 89 years old. "'He didn't want to retire ever,' said his son Michael Croce. 'He didn't have any hobbies other than food. He was going to come in as long as he could'" (Romano). In 2012, John Croce turned the business over to his three children: Michael (b. 1962) and daughters Holly Cochran (b. 1956) and Cathy Volpone (b. 1960).
John Croce died on August 23, 2015, surrounded by his family. He left behind his wife of 62 years, Rose Corak Croce (b. 1928), and his three children.