That sweet, acidic smell of orange juice wafting from the Tropicana plant off U.S. 301 is an olfactory memory of Bradenton and Manatee County that lingers with natives and visitors alike.
It fills the nostrils and the memory banks and is a constant reminder of the area's close ties to Florida's orange in-dustry legacy. The company, founded in 1953, is the largest purchaser of fruit in Florida, processing 60 million boxes of fruit a season, or 1.2 million oranges each day, between November and mid-June. Huge semis loaded with the fruit are a familiar sight on Manatee County roadways during the winter season. Railcars filled with the processed juice are another familiar sight as they rumble over tracks across the Manatee River, headed for California as well as northern and midwestern states. Tropicana's footprint in Manatee County is a large one. It is the county's second-largest employer with around 1,800 workers. Visitors are always clamoring for nonexistent tours of the sprawling complex where huge metal buildings,the size of several football fields, house most of the processing operation. One out of every three oranges grown commercially in Florida ends up at Tropicana and many of the workers at the Bradenton plant are second- and third-generation employees. The first step in the processing operation is the unloading of the freshly picked fruit from the semi-tractor trailers and onto a conveyor belt system. After fruit graders cull the fruit that doesn't meet quality standards, the selected fruit is washed and de-stemmed and then juice is extracted through a series of machine-driven processes. The pulp, seed and skin is saved and reused. Finally, the juice is put inside packaging also made at the plant, with few human hands used in the process. The company came from humble beginnings. It was founded by Anthony Rossi, an ambitious Italian immigrant who sailed into New York Harbor in the 1920s at the age of 15 with $30 in his pocket. After a number of early ventures that included a cafeteria restaurant in downtown Bradenton, Rossi bought out a local Palmetto fruit shipper, and so began the germination of Tropicana. The Manatee River Packing Co., housed in a fruit packinghouse in Palmetto, had 35 employees. Rossi moved the company to Bradenton in 1949 and changed the name to Fruit Industries Inc. The orange juice concentrate part of the business began when Rossi decided to make use of oranges that were too small for gift baskets. There are several stories about Rossi's decision to rename the business Tropicana. One says he borrowed the name of a local motel Tropicana Cabins. Another says it came from a combination of the word tropical and his wife's first name, Anna. Rossi died in 1993 at the age of 92. In 1998, the company was purchased by PepsiCo. for $3.3 billion. Today, it is the largest juice plant in North America with 46 percent of the market share. Tropicana's footprint in Manatee County is a large one. It is the county's second-largest employer with around 1,800 workers.