It may come as a surprise to many Tampa residents, but the yellow rice from last night’s dinner is likely made just half a mile north of Tampa International Airport’s northwestern border. Encompassing an entire city block and 400,000 square feet of space, Vigo Importing Co. manufactures around 800 Vigo and Alessi brand products at their facility in Northwest Tampa every day.
“I’m not sure how many people actually know that our products are made in Tampa,” says Fred Alessi, co-owner of Vigo Importing Co. and son of founder Antonino Alessi. “We always say we’re the best-kept secret in Tampa.”
Despite holding trademarks in 23 nations worldwide, Vigo Importing is still mainly a family company, with second-generation owners Tony and Fred Alessi steering the ship and many of their children filling roles from marketing to general counsel (for the record, this Alessi family has no relation to the family who owns Tampa’s Alessi Bakery, but the two are often confused). Though most of Vigo’s employees are not technically related, they’re still family.
“We have employees who have been with us since 1962,” Fred says, “and they’re still with us.”
From left: Anthony Alessi, Alessandra Alessi Cole, Fred Alessi, Tony Alessi Jr., Laura Alessi DeLucia, Paul Alessi
The creation of both the Vigo brand (focused on everyday Latin-influenced products) and the Alessi brand (which specializes in higher-end Italian foods) were happy accidents, to a point. Company founder Antonino Alessi immigrated to Tampa from Sicily in 1912 to work in the cigar factories, eventually landing a plum job as a salesman for meat distributors Swift & Company. After learning the company would not hire employees’ family members, Alessi, who had since built up a rapport with the primarily Latin proprietors of Tampa’s mom-and-pop shops, left to branch out on his own.
Alessi encountered a salesman distributing cans of olive oil labeled “Vigo” and bought his remaining stock of cans and oil. The name stuck, and in 1947 he began packaging the oil in his family’s West Tampa garage — the first of many products to come from Vigo Importing Company.
In the 1970s, the company received a drum of Italian olive oil that the Alessis bottled and gifted to their friends and family for Christmas.
“Everybody went crazy for the product, so we started importing Italian olive oil, and that was the first Alessi product,” Fred says.
Fred and Tony Alessi Jr. have been the de facto heads of product development since then, adding new products to both the Vigo and Alessi lines patterned on the foods they grew up eating in their mother’s kitchen. As they added new products, they continued to leverage their father’s relationship with Tampa’s Latin shop owners to get their products placed.
“During those years, at first, [we were selling to] mom-and-pop stores,” Tony says. “When we first started doing business with Publix, they only had 40 stores. Then the business transitioned, and we transitioned along with it.”
One of Vigo’s earliest and most enduring hits was its yellow rice, a formula Tony developed. The company says its mix is the best-selling yellow rice in the United States, with between 20 and 25 million pounds of rice brought into their factory each year to be seasoned, packed and shipped. Alessi’s balsamic vinegar, also a top seller, is aged in massive wooden Italian brandy barrels for six months, a requirement by Italian law to call the final product authentic “aceto balsamic”; about 50,000 gallons of balsamic are stored at the company’s facility.
Today there’s about a 60-40 split between the share of Vigo products and Alessi products made. Olive oil, the company’s original product, is one of a handful of similar foods sold under both brands. The Alessi version is extra virgin, made from the same Italian-grown crop of olives each year.
“We try to make that same flavor every year,” Fred says. “Olive oil is natural, so the challenge is making it taste the same.” Beyond the staples, the company makes it a point to stay on top of market demands with products like cilantro-lime rice, quinoa and farro. Fred Alessi says their innovation has been mostly successful, but he refuses to follow the trends if they don’t meet Vigo standards.
“There are a lot of changes we see in this industry,” he says. “Some of the products that are coming out now, we’ve tasted them and we won’t do them. Our motto has always been, if we don’t take them home to feed our kids, we won’t sell them.”
One product that never made it out of the test kitchen was microwaveable rice. “It’s very convenient, but it doesn’t taste good,” says marketing director (and Tony Alessi Jr.’s daughter) Laura Alessi DeLucia. “We don’t take it home and eat it ourselves, so why sell it?”
“We even had a hard time testing it because no one wanted to eat it,” says Anthony Alessi, Fred’s son and Vigo’s IT and finance manager.
Tampanians have shown their devotion to consuming Vigo products from the very beginning. In return, the Alessi family has always made good deeds a priority, supporting causes like Feeding Tampa Bay, the Children’s Cancer Center and the Ryan Wells Foundation. Education is a key part of their philanthropy; the Alessis are significant donors to Jesuit High School, where many family members are alumni, and have given free tours of their manufacturing plant for the past 25 years.
“Tampa has always been so supportive of us, and we feel it is important to reciprocate and give back to our hometown that we love so much,” DeLucia says.
“Coming from an area like Tampa, which is a peninsula as far from anywhere as you can get, it’s been good for us,” Fred adds. “Tampa has always been supportive of us.”
As Tony sees it, the people of Tampa are the only reason Vigo Importing has thrived in the last seven decades. “If it weren’t for the mom-and-pop stores that supported our father and supported us,” he says, “we wouldn’t be here.”