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‘Little Joe’s Dinner’ Continues A Longstanding SoCal Tradition

Little Joe's Dinner 2018

In 1957, three men—Sam Guzzo of Oroweat Baking Co., Charlie Dragna of Barbara Ann Bread Co. and John Fusano of San Fernando Valley Olive Co.—started what would become an annual Christmas party. The event was held during the holiday season and hosted at Little Joe’s Italian Restaurant in Chinatown Los Angeles. The party quickly became known as “Little Joe’s Christmas Party” since everyone knew the location of the popular restaurant. The party also became a “must-attend” event for its invitees, who included grocery industry presidents, VPs, board chairs, head buyers and owners. To show their thanks, invitees even surprised the event’s three organizers one year with an all-expense paid trip to Italy.

Guzzo began with Oroweat Baking Co. when it was founded. He was the company’s sales manager and trade relations manager.

Guzzo loved Christian Brothers Brandy and Dago red wine. He always carried a bottle of each in the trunk of his car so he could have a quick drink in the parking lot with his “grocery friends.”

Dragna was the sales manager for Barbara Ann Bread Co. He knew everyone in the restaurant and grocery business in Southern California.

He befriended Carl Karcher when the latter started the Carl’s Jr. hamburger empire. When Karcher could not pay his delivery bill, Dragna stepped in until Karcher started making money. Karcher never forgot what Dragna did for him and, until the day he sold Carl’s Jr., Karcher only used Barbara Ann’s service.

Dragna never smoked but always gave out long cigars with his name on the cellophane sleeve. Dragna also would give his business cards to grocers who were going to Las Vegas so they were given preferential treatment, as the Dragna name carried quite the weight in Sin City.

Fusana, owner of San Fernando Valley Olive Co., was the “kid” of the trio. He would often provoke Guzzo and Dragna into yelling matches and sit back and laugh at how upset the two became. Fusana always said what was on his mind and folks knew where they stood with him; everyone respected his honesty.

Fusana had a special suitcase that he used to ship salami, and capicola, mortadella and provolone cheeses to conventions for groups like the California Grocers Association (CGA) and the Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC). When one of the Vegas hotels refused to let him him have the “Italian party” at its facilities, Fusana drove his mobile home to Las Vegas. The group had a party in the parking lot—though, when Fusana got rid of the suitcase, “you could smell it from a mile away,” according to reports.

As the years went by, Guzzo, Dragna and Fusana decided they needed more suppliers to help with their annual party and, thus, the “Magnificent Seven” was born. It was a name created by Oroweat’s Joe DeGruccio, one of the “Magnificent Seven” and secretary of the new group. He sent a request to each member of the group, asking them to invite their retail contacts to the Italian party.

DeGruccio attributed all his success to Oroweat. He rose from driving a truck to becoming sales manager/trade director. With guidance from Guzzo, DeGruccio was with Oroweat for more than 40 years.

In addition to DeGruccio, members of the Magnificent Seven over the years have included Angelo Guido, Harry Lowmuller and Chuck Adams, as well as Sid Borie of Anthony Macaroni, Phil Braeger of Sierra Plastics, Harry Little of Mother’s Cake & Cookie Co. and Hal Adams of Bel Brand.

Guido was the president and owner of Anthony Macaroni Co. He made macaroni, meatballs and sausage for the Magnificent Seven meetings in the kitchen of his factory on the border of Chinatown and Koreatown. Guido was a quiet, simple man with much compassion.

Lowmuller was VP-sales manager of Bell Brand Potato Chip Co., who later became director of sales for A1 Distribution Co. Lowmuller supplied all condiments and potato chips for the Italian lunches and the CGA and WAFC conventions.

Adams was a former vaudeville performer and was sales manager for Sioux Bee Honey. He weighed at least 300 pounds and loved to sing. He often played Santa Claus at industry functions.

The industry leaders who make up the Magnificent Seven have changed over the years, as has the venue. Little Joe’s Italian Restaurant closed in 1998 after more than 100 years in business. For some time now, the annual party has been held at Frantone’s Pizza & Spaghetti Villa in Cerritos.

The Magnificent Seven now are Vic Chiono, Carole Christianson, Willie Crocker (Bimbo Bakeries), Dave Dimond (Milton’s Bakery), Bob Kelly, Perry Sanders (Smithfield) and Mickie Sharp-Villaneuva (The Performance Group).

About the author

Lorrie Griffith

An observer of the grocery industry since 1988. Away from her editor job, she's a wife and mother of two grown sons and thinks cooking is (usually) relaxing.

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