East Coast Brokers and Packers
Surviving the Winds of Adversity
By Sandy Lindblad Lee
The Tomato Magazine
Through the widespread evolution of the produce industry in recent years,
the Florida tomato industry has been forced to make a number of staggering
changes. Surviving unimaginable adversity has been nearly impossible
As if the incomprehensible destruction resulting from more than their
fair share of devastating hurricanes wasn’t enough, tomato growers
have battled through instability created by volatile markets with record-breaking
prices at both the high and low ends of the spectrum. Compounding the
challenge has been amplified competition from foreign countries as well
as greenhouse-grown tomato operations.
Despite these challenges, East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. has remained
standing. As year-round growers, packers and shippers of round, roma
and grape tomatoes, East Coast’s two primary packing and shipping
facilities are located near Plant City, Fla., and Mappsville, Va.
These operations are continually upgraded to maximize fruit quality and
packaging, according to Batista Madonia Sr., company founder, president
and chief executive officer.
To accelerate its position among its competitors, two of East Coast Brokers
and Packers’ newer enterprises are the addition of the Ruskin Vegetable
Corp. packing facilities and select adjacent farmland in Ruskin, Fla.,
and a new greenhouse operation.
The long list of business decisions and other events that have shaped
this thriving, immense operation has provided rich memories involving
the entire Madonia family.
1958: A Banner Year
Reflecting back on their modest beginnings, Madonia remembers that 1958
was a banner year for two reasons: First, he married his college sweetheart,
Evelyn, and second, he began his own produce business, Madonia Produce
Exchange, based in Erie, Pa.
Immersing himself in the production, packing and shipping of locally
grown tomatoes, Madonia soon realized he could enhance service to his
growing customer base by making his product available beyond the summer
“That was when we started buying tomatoes from Florida, and we would have
them shipped up to Pennsylvania,” he remembers. In 1958, Madonia’s
first packing facility began operations.
“I remember when we unloaded the trucks by hand during a blizzard,” he
smiles. He found himself struggling to handle the 60-pound, wire-bound
containers of tomatoes. These were hand-packed, sorted and redistributed
to regional markets including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Baltimore.
From the outset, his wife, Evelyn, was an integral part of the business.
Among her earlier contributions, she created the design for the company’s
original label, “King’s Choice” tomatoes, established
in 1959. The highly recognized brand became the company’s trademark
and remains today as the East Coast’s premium label.
In 1964, Madonia bought his first packing house, adjacent to a primary
Pennsylvania growing region.
Home Schooled the Kids
As the Madonias’ passion for all aspects of the fresh tomato business
grew, so did their family. Four children were born. When Madonia began
traveling back and forth to Florida and remaining on-site during the
winter months, he brought the family with him. Again, Evelyn played an
integral role. With her teaching degree—she majored in English
and minored in French—she tutored their children during the months
they were in Florida.
“Because of our mother, we were able to go back to school after being
gone a few months, and we were not just keeping up with the rest of the
class—we were usually ahead,” recalls Stephen Madonia, a
son and now vice president in charge of all company growing operations.
One of the most unfortunate events impacting the business was a fire
that burned their packing house to the ground. It was caused from spontaneous
The family pushed forward, however, and for several years continued to
move back and forth from their Pennsylvania home to Florida during the
winter months for their tomato distribution business. This continued
until 1980, when they made the Sunshine State their permanent residence.
Madonia established his company headquarters at a locale on the Plant
City Farmers Market.
By the time the company was officially incorporated in 1985 as East Coast
Brokers and Packers Inc, the second generation of Madonias was entering
“At that point, (son) Stephen was running the packinghouse,” Madonia
says. Before his attraction to the produce business lured him back to
Florida, Stephen was a pre-med student at Gannon College in Erie, Pa.
Florida and West Virginia Operations
During the ensuing years, Stephen developed a passionate interest in
the production side of the business and discovered that hands-on monitoring
of the tomatoes during the growing process helped him to greatly improve
the quality of the end product. One of the company’s initial
ventures into growing in Florida was the addition of a 17-acre field
near the Lakeland airport.
Also in 1985, the company snapped at an opportunity to add packing and
shipping operations in West Virginia.
“We bought an old apple storage shed, which was all brick and had ammonia
refrigeration,” Madonia remembers.
Daughter Rosemary began working with the family-run business following
her graduation from Florida Southern in Lakeland, Fla., “and she’s
been doing the payroll ever since,” says Evelyn. Today, Rosemary
maintains a full administrative staff and holds the title of vice president
Batista Madonia Jr. joined the company in 1987, and began working in
sales alongside Batista Sr. He is now sales manager and a vice president
of the corporation.
A major expansion of East Coast’s summer operations occurred in
1998, when Madonia acquired a packing house from Gargiulo Inc. in Mappsville,
Va., Inc. Gargiulo had utilized the nearly new facility for only three
years prior to East Coast’s occupation.
“We’ve expanded the original building several times since then,” notes
Batista Jr., and it now includes a 250-load storage capacity.
Also in the late 1990s, the purchase of 1,200 acres of land near Mulberry,
Fla., was a major investment. The addition drew significant attention
from East Coast’s competitors and customers alike.
The immense, state-of-the-art packing facility built on that site has
one of the first computerized, precision optical tomato sorters in the
Southeast. It also has a 280-load storage capacity.
This spring, East Coast Brokers and Packers added a new growing arrangement
in Live Oak, Fla., south of Quincy. It provides a complement to the Florida
production operations near Stuart and Parrish, along with the Ruskin
Vegetable Corp. packing facility.
Added Hothouse Segment
The company’s most recent competitive, innovative step is its venture
into hothouse tomato growing in Florida. In early February, construction
began on 10 greenhouses, situated on land near the Mulberry packing facility.
This move elevates East Coast into a leadership role and enables the
company to compete, head-on, with hothouse-grown tomatoes from both domestic
and international sources.
All said and done, the road to success for East Coast Brokers and Packers
Inc. has not been without a few bumps. Family members all have vivid
recollections of times when they battled to survive.
“Every business has its ups and downs,” stresses Stephen. “You
have to have a passion for what you’re doing.
“We keep a positive attitude. We have fires to put out every day, and
each day provides a new challenge,” Batista Jr. smiles. “We’re
not smart enough to figure out how to control the weather.
“At the same time, we try to grow a premium product and pack it in a secure,
safe environment,” he adds. “Our premium quality has helped
us gain long-time, stable customers. We try to treat our people well—our
employees and our customers.”
Drawing from its established history and experience, East Coast Brokers
and Packers appears well-positioned to move ahead, the family feels.
“We’re probably one of the firms in Florida’s tomato industry
best-adapted for the future,” Batista Jr. says. “With our
parents here to guide us, my brother, my sister and I are all young enough
to keep doing this for another 20 years or so. Among all of us, we have
over 200 years of combined experience in the tomato industry.”
© 2006 Columbia
>> Return to top
Columbia Publishing & Design | 1-800-900-2452