Call it a coming-out party for a more than 60-year-old Italian and Spanish food manufacturer often confused for a bakery of the same name.
Alessi Foods this week opened a test kitchen, La Cucina, at its production facilities near Town 'N Country to try new products and recipes and host chefs and culinary students. The idea is to promote cooking with its olive oil, sauces and other grocery items, and raise awareness of its manufacturing center, one of the area's largest.
The numbers tell a story of three generations of hard work. The campus has 380,000 square feet of manufacturing space spread out over 14 buildings encompassing two city blocks straddling Comanche Avenue between Hesperides Street and Anderson Avenue. The company makes more than 600 products under the Alessi and Vigo brands available in 24 countries. At any given time, nearly 500,000 gallons of olive oil are stored on site — enough to fill about 25 large swimming pools.
Alessi created La Cucina by updating its existing test kitchen with new appliances, a viewing window and video cameras for shooting chefs in action — much like what you'd see on a set of a food TV show.
"We used to test products here, but it wasn't anything special," said Alessandra Alessi, community relations manager, whose grandfather Tony Alessi Sr. founded the business in 1947. "We wanted to create the feel of a bistro."
To sprinkle in celebrity flavor, Alessi invited chef Eric LeVine, former winner of the Food Network's Chopped, to make Alessi-inspired hors d'oeuvres and desserts for La Cucina's opening Wednesday. Alessi is sponsoring LeVine's book Small Bites, Big Flavor due out Nov. 5.
Alessi and Vigo products are sold at most local grocery stores and used in many restaurants. The company employs 180 and distributes mostly to states east of the Mississippi River but has customers in Texas, California, Canada and South America. Vigo's yellow rice and vinegar are top sellers nationwide. Its White Balsamic Vinegar was patented in 1996.
Tony Alessi Sr., a Sicilian immigrant, started the company out of a backyard garage along Armenia Avenue. He bought out a small distribution company named Vigo Importing and gradually added products under the Vigo and Alessi labels.
The bread crumb, pesto and spice business has nothing to do with the century-old Alessi Bakery, which has a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on nearby Eagle Trail Drive and a store on Cypress Street in Tampa.
But plenty of people confuse the two, hence the new marketing campaign led by Schifino Lee Advertising. When Alessi Bakery filed for bankruptcy protection last year, Alessi Foods got a lot of calls from people asking if it was closing.
Quite the contrary. The factory runs from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays but has the potential to add a second shift or run the lines faster. Its sales force is aggressively pursuing new business in the United States and Latin America. La Cucina represents one step forward.
"We want to make the name well-known and educate people in Tampa that this is going on under their noses," said general manager Sam Ciccarello, a nearly 30-year employee. "We're pretty unique in what we do."
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.