8 Italian-Inspired Facts About Progresso
By Suzanne Raga
Although Progresso is now known for its selection of canned soups, the company got its start by selling canned Italian foods to Italian Americans living in New Orleans. Now, the company also produces chili, stock, beans, balsamic vinegar, breadcrumbs, and more. Read on for eight facts you might not know about Progresso.
1. Progresso's history dates back to 19th-century Italy.
In the 1890s, Giuseppe Uddo left school to sell cheese and olives to his neighbors in Sicily, Italy. He was only 9 years old, but he helped support his family by selling goods out of a horse-drawn cart. That experience would come in handy when he left Italy for the U.S. in 1907. At just 24 years old, Uddo and his wife, Eleanora—whose family, the Taorminas, were also in the food business—moved to New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Uddos already had family ties in New Orleans. Vincent Taormina, one of Eleanora's relatives, had started a business there importing foods from Italy in 1905. Eventually, Uddo and Taormina would join together to form the company that would become Progresso. But first, Uddo would strike out on his own.
2. A horse named Sal was integral to its success at the start …
In New Orleans, the Uddos lived in the French Quarter, where Giuseppe decided to start his own import business. In 1913, he bought a horse named Sal and rode him around Italian communities in Louisiana, selling tomato sauce and olives that he had imported from Italy.
3. … But the business soon outgrew Sal.
Uddo's business in Louisiana became successful enough that he ditched Sal, purchased trucks for deliveries, and opened a warehouse and grocery store in the French Quarter. Just before World War I broke out, he took a risk and purchased thousands of cans of tomato paste at once—a gamble that paid off when the war prevented U.S. merchants from importing goods from Italy, driving up prices.
After the war ended, Uddo opened a factory in Riverdale, California, to manufacture cans of tomato paste domestically, ensuring that he wouldn't have to rely entirely on the availability of imported Italian goods anymore. In doing so, he made history: His California factory was the first in the U.S. to manufacture cans of Italian food.
4. Progresso's founding families were partners in more than just business.
In 1925, Giuseppe Uddo and Vincent Taormina joined their two New Orleans-based businesses together to form the Uddo and Taormina Company. Taormina's son, Vincent Taormina, Jr., decided to get into the import business, too—he and another relative, Frank G. Taormina, set off for New York to establish their own Italian import company, selling olives, tomatoes, sardines, cheese, and peppers to New York City's large Italian population.
At that point, the Uddo and Taormina factory in California was producing more tomato products than they could sell in New Orleans, and they were searching for a new market for his goods. In 1927, the New Orleans and New York families merged to create the Progresso Italian Food Corporation in New York City. (It became Progresso Quality Foods in 1977.)
The connection between the Uddo and Taormina families was more than a business partnership, though. Besides Eleanora having been born a Taormina, in 1933, Frank Taormina married Giuseppe and Eleanora's daughter, Rose.
5. Progresso's label was based on a pastel painting.
The Progresso name came from Progressive Grocery Company, a grocery store in New Orleans's French Quarter. Uddo and Taormina bought the trademark from Progressive Grocery for $25 in order to call their new company the Progresso Italian Food Corporation. Besides the positive connotations of the term progress, the word Progresso also evoked Il Progresso, a popular Italian-language newspaper that was published in New York City from 1880 to the 1980s. The new company's label was based on a pastel painting that Uddo had purchased from Progressive Grocery years before.
6. World War II shifted Progresso's focus from importing to manufacturing.
When World War II made it again impossible to import canned food from Italy, Progresso expanded its domestic production, buying another factory in Vineland, New Jersey. Starting in 1942, Progresso's Vineland factory canned peppers, veggies, beans, and other goods, largely grown by Italian farmers in southern New Jersey. In 1949, Progresso introduced ready-to-eat canned soups—minestrone, pasta e fagioli, and lentil—as a way to make money during the winter, when vegetables weren't in season. Today, Progresso makes roughly 40 percent of the canned soup sold in the U.S.
7. Progresso is now part of General Mills.
By the 1950s, Progresso's products were on shelves in grocery stores all over the United States, helping popularize Italian favorites like canned tuna in olive oil, breadcrumbs, capers, and artichokes among American households. But the company wouldn't remain in the Uddo-Taormina families for long. Giuseppe Uddo died in 1957, and the two families feuded over control of the company. In 1969, they sold Progresso to Imperial Tobacco, a Canadian company. Progresso went through a series of acquisitions during the following decades, finally ending up in the portfolio of the Pillsbury Company in 1995. When Pillsbury was bought out by General Mills in 2001, Progresso became a General Mills brand, as it remains today.
8. Uddo's grandson honored him by opening an Italian restaurant in New Orleans.
In 1990, Giuseppe Uddo's grandson, the late chef Michael Uddo, opened a restaurant in New Orleans's French Quarter called The G&E Courtyard Grill. Named for the first initial of his grandparents' first names—Giuseppe and Eleanora—the restaurant served Italian food until it closed in 1999.