Undoubtedly, the most famous family in Milton’s industrial history was the Boiardis — brothers Hector, Paul and Mario.
The Chef Boiardi Food Products Company was established in Milton in 1938. Company president, Hector, became the world renowned “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.”
The three Italian immigrants were from Piacenza, Italy. Paul Boiardi, the oldest of the brothers, was a very good friend to many famous people. The Italian opera star Caruso inspired him to come to America. He was a close friend to King George V of Great Britain and frequently, on special occasions, served as head chef for President Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet. The youngest of the three brothers, Mario, was head chef in several well-known restaurants in Italy and France and worked with Paul as metier d’hotel at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
Hector Boiardi came to America at the age of 17. He conceived the idea of the commercial food-packing business in his restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, which he opened in 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio. There he served his famous Italian dishes with recipes he mastered after many years experience in renowned New York City dining spots as Rector’s, Claridge’s, the Ritz Plaza, as well as in Cleveland at the Union Club and Hotel Winston. He developed superb sauces and spaghetti dinners that won him fame.
In 1929, when patrons began taking his savory spaghetti sauce home with them in paper cartons, the chef conceived a brilliant idea to manufacture his spaghetti dinner on a large scale, so that a greater number of lovers of good food could enjoy it. He rented a tiny room above his restaurant and with a small supply of raw materials and packaging supplies, a three-gallon kettle, funnel, a few bottles, 100 pounds of spaghetti, cheese, meat, vegetables and other ingredients, the chef began his spaghetti business.
About a year and a half later it became necessary to move to a larger kitchen and hire several assistants to fill an overwhelming number of orders from around Cleveland and surrounding areas. After four years in this location, the demands for the chef’s products grew and a new block-long factory was built outside the city limits. By this time he had a large kitchen staff which he personally supervised while his business manager oversaw the shipping and accounting departments. The plant boasted a complete line of modern automatic machinery; its interior was shining and spotless with tile, nickel plate and stainless steel.
The Cleveland plant was only a stepping stone to better things to come. With business booming, Boiardi needed to relocate to a central base of operation. His plant had to be closer to the sales markets while being able to receive his most important raw ingredient, tomatoes, as well as an adequate water supply and capable work force.
The Milton Chamber of Commerce and the Milton Borough Council were instrumental in working with Boiardi to bring his operations here. When Hector and other company officials arrived in Milton for the first time, they were greeted at the Reading Railroad station by banker Walter Wilson, Milton Evening Standard Publisher Penn Hastings and borough officials. Purchase negotiations moved quickly and after acquiring the former Susquehanna Silk Mill, it became established in Milton six months later. During that time 30 train carloads of equipment from the Cleveland plant and 15 carloads of new equipment were moved into the building and set-up in preparation for the 1938 tomato season. Part of the staff from his Cleveland operation, some that were with the chef since the beginning of his venture, were brought here.
Meanwhile the entire valley was canvassed for large-scale growers. Mass meetings were held in school buildings and community halls throughout the area, resulting in full agreement between growers and Boiardi representatives. Contracts for over 1,000 acres of tomato land were signed.
Hector Boiardi was president of the Chef Boiardi Food Products Company. His brother Paul was vice president and brother Mario became Hector’s assistant in charge of kitchens. Carl Colombi was secretary-treasurer.
The Boiardis stressed quality in their process and finished product. The new plant was a shining statement of his quality policy. With a total of 120,000 square feet of space over three floors, the operation had its own power plant. By 1940, the company employed 100 during its peek season producing 250,000 finished products daily. Within a few short years, business skyrocketed when, during World War II, the company was awarded contracts with the federal government to produce rations for the armed forces. They were given the Army-Navy E award for production efforts. After only eight years of business in Milton, in early 1946, the Boairdis announced the famous Chef Boy-Ar-Dee plant was sold to American Home Foods, a division of American Home Products. ConAgra now owns the Milton operation.
The Italian immigrant chefs, Hector, Paul and Mario became millionaires from the sale of the business and went on to other ventures. Hector purchased a portion of Milton Manufacturing and for four years was president of Boiardi Steel, which he sold in 1951. He was instrumental in bringing to fruition the Evangelical Community Hospital as fundraising chairman and major contributor. Mario’s son, Paul, resides in Milton on Boairdi Lane along with his wife, Marilyn.
Milton native George S. Venios is author of “Chronicles and Legends of Milton”. He was born and raised in Milton and is currently project manager for The Improved Milton Experience (T.I.M.E.). The column will appear weekly in an effort to raise awareness of Milton’s rich history dating back to its founding. It will focus on interesting people, places and events featuring photographs taken from his book. The column is also crafted to promote Project 2017, TIME’s and Milton’s downtown streetscapes master plan.