Growing Italian food company expands Manatee warehouse space

mjohnson@bradenton.comJune 5, 2014 

MANATEE -- An Italian food importer and wholesaler is building its profile this week as it adds the capacity it needs to compete for a place on the shelves at big chain grocery stores.

R & V Imports, a four-year-old Chicago-area company that has had a presence in Florida since 2012, started moving into an 8,000-square-foot warehouse and office space at 7246 16th St. E. in the Whitfield Avenue industrial area Wednesday. The company previously operated out of a 1,500-square-foot space in Sarasota County, which it used to service clients throughout Florida and in other southeast states.

The expansion is part of R & V's plan to get into the state's high-volume grocery store market. Presently selling products in local delis and food stores, including Morton's Gourmet Market and Piccolos Italian Market & Deli in Sarasota, and Angelos Italian Market & Bistro in Venice, R & V is now aiming for shelf space in Publix supermarkets.

Frank Visconti, a co-chief executive officer of the business, said he has gone through Publix's vendor application process, but has yet to secure a position supplying food to the grocer. Publix operates 1,077 stores in six states, including 753 stores in Florida, according to the company's website. R & V currently has its products in 8,200 stores around the nation.

"Our goal is to get in with Publix," Visconti said. "I'm ready for them."

Visconti knows the Bradenton-Sarasota area well. In 1999, he opened an Italian restaurant in Sarasota called Little Italy. He closed the restaurant a few years later when his daughter became ill with seizures. He put all his money into her treatment, he said. The treatment was successful.

He established his food import business out of his father's Chicago garage a few years ago. He vowed to eventually bring R & V to the Sunshine State.

"I made a promise to myself that I was going to succeed in Florida," he said.

R & V's import brand portfolio includes Castellino, Galvanina, Basso, Mastro'Olivio and Visconti's eponymous brand of pastas, olive oil and vegetables. The food products the company sells span the range of Italian cuisine from pasta and sauce to cheeses, vegetables and olives. Visconti visits Italy monthly to meet with producers and to select import products for R & V.

The company employs five sales and warehouse workers locally and 20 overall. Company co-CEO Lisa Roberti said the company sells its products throughout the Midwest and states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The company has increased its Florida staff by two and has plans to hire more employees as its business expands.

"We're getting there," Roberti said. "We're a small company and we're expanding."

The new warehouse will

be fully operational within two weeks. Future plans include producing pasta sauces and bruschetta at the new warehouse, Visconti said.

All of R & V's product comes out of three warehouses in Manatee County, Arizona and Lake Forest, Ill. In addition to its grocery store business, R & V also supplies restaurants.

R & V's warehouse space is owned by the Benderson family of companies, according to Manatee County records. Visconti said Benderson was instrumental in bringing his company to lease the property.

Whether R & V gets into Publix is a function of the grocery chain's vendor screening process. Brian West, a spokesman for Publix, said companies looking to sell products with the grocer apply through a proprietary online application. Publix has a team of people who evaluate specific categories of products to determine whether they fit the needs of store customers.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter

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