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Galveston Monthly

Del Papa Distributing

Oct 02, 2019 01:23PM

The fertile sands of Galveston cultivate not wheat, soy, or cotton, but success. The 19th century pioneers who transformed a tiny island into a powerhouse of creative entrepreneurship and international commerce set a standard of excellence for Galveston that has magnificently shapeshifted into myriad forms over the 20th century and today, yet always remained constant. At times, this remarkable evolution has taken place not only collectively, but also within a single family. Nourished by a legacy deeply rooted in a city that honors innovation and forward thinking, some families have recognized like Galveston their enduring ability to adapt, overcome, and modernize, all while paying homage to their history. One such family name is literally on the lips of people across Texas, thousand of times every day - Del Papa.  

 Omero Del Papa was only 21 years old in 1903 when he opened his first grocery store at 2728 Avenue L, but he was already long acquainted with ambition. As a child in Lucca, Italy, he was enraptured by the promise of America, where a solid work ethic was practically currency, where honesty and integrity were considered investments, and where a good name was one’s most valuable asset.

  Omero arrived in Galveston with his family in 1892, when it was the largest, most important city in Texas with opportunity on every doorstep. He worked in a cotton press and a bagging company before taking a job at his uncle’s grocery store at 15th and Avenue K, where he started out cleaning spittoons for a dime per day. A dedicated employee who was keenly in tune with the operations, Omero was steadily given more and more responsibility and eventually decided to venture out on his own.

  But first he would witness the other side of Galveston’s precarious coin in 1900, as he clung to a tree in the middle of an ocean where once stood a city. The vicious wind and unrelenting rain pelted Omero’s skin and stung his eyes, making him unable to see the deadliest storm in American history as it drowned Galveston’s golden shore and undulating economy.

  However, like so many others who survived, the Great Storm did nothing to diminish Omero’s resolve. He and other like-minded individuals vowed to resurrect their island home and did so, much to the benefit of future generations.

  As the seawall was constructed and the grade-raising commenced, Omero’s young business thrived. While many of his family members found themselves longing for their native land and eventually returned, Omero knew that Galveston was his home now. And somehow, as he looked around his quaint little store with every item meticulously placed and planned, he also knew this was only the beginning.

  However, Omero was prompted to at least visit his hometown of Lucca, and this fortuitous decision led to his introduction to Giorgina Celli. They were immediately smitten with one another.

  The pair made a quick study of Cupid’s arrow and married in the village parish by the time Omero’s vacation was ended. When Celli arrived in Galveston, she was reunited with her brother Frank who had lived there since 1902 and was familiar with the town.

  Omero soon discovered that his marriage included the unexpected bonus of an astute business partner in Frank, and the combination of their individual experiences inspired him to see a larger potential in his Galveston enterprise. Reaching more customers meant making the precarious transition from established retailer to unknown wholesaler, but having a partner mitigated the risk. In 1910, Celli & Del Papa Distributing, Wholesale Dealers opened their warehouse at 2401 Strand Street.

  Celli & Del Papa focused on high-quality imports such as olive oil, ice cream, and other delicacies, but the largest driver of profit was beer. They acquired several accounts from popular brands of the era, but the coveted Anheuser-Busch distributorship belonged to a man named Moritz Brock.

  Unfortunately, businesses small and large were in the same boat when the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in January 1920. Federal Prohibition only made the bootleggers and rumrunners rich, law-abiding men such as Omero resisted the temptation to profit from the black-market created in its wake. He made the difficult decision to liquidate his commercial assets, dissolve the partnership with Celli, and return to Lucca with his wife and four children: Omero, Jr., Velma, Ivaldo, and Jenny.

  Georgina gave birth to her fifth and final child Lawrence while in Italy, but despite the joys, Omero never ceased pining for Galveston nor the future it promised him. For ten years, he patiently bided his time while maintaining his U.S. citizenship, keeping a close eye on island commerce, and planning his eventual return.

  Finally, in 1930, Omero sensed that public support of Prohibition was rapidly waning, especially since the onset of an international economic recession. Undaunted by the decade-long interruption of his business plan, he packed up his family and returned to Galveston to start over - again. But this time, he had experience.

  Omero’s perseverance was rewarded with spectacular timing. Immediately upon his return, he was able to purchase an established wholesale dealership called the P. Romano Company with an office and warehouse advantageously located between 20th and 21st Streets in the heart of the Strand commercial district. Knowing innately that motivation drives sales, Omero decided that his employees would work on commission and renamed the firm to reflect this philosophy.   

  Three of the earliest employees at the O. Del Papa Commission Company were siblings Omero, Jr., Ivaldo, and Jenny who worked in the office. Also put to work were the intangible assets that had propelled Omero’s previous success.

  “[My name] was all I had,” he recalled later in life. “But it was all I needed. People remembered. My friends remembered. And I started back - and succeeded.”

  This time around, Omero accomplished in months what had once taken him years. His reputation was so well-established, and so quickly, that he was soon poised to acquire the deal that would cement his legacy well into the 21st century. When Moritz Brock passed away in the summer of 1930, mere months after Omero’s arrival in Galveston, Del Papa emerged as the front-runner to take over the Galveston-area distribution for Anheuser Busch helped in part by a glowing recommendation from restaurateur Mike Gaido.  

 Anheuser Busch officially named the O. Del Papa Commission Company its Galveston distributor on August 17. While Omero was in Lucca, AB had been doing its best to navigate unknown waters, subsidizing the beer business with alternative products like baker’s yeast, ice cream, malt, and a non-alcoholic beer called “Bevo.” At the time they made the now-historic deal with Del Papa, both companies were still reeling from the vice grip of temperance, and the odds of their success were further stagnated by the fact that the country’s economy was being cannibalized by the Great Depression.

  But each company was bolstered by the other’s similar vision and faith in the future of the industry, as well as their common threads of family, hard work, and integrity, and it only took three years for the most doomed deal in history to rebrand itself as a stroke of genius. 

  On September 15, 1933, the front page of the Galveston Daily News announced the repeal of Prohibition with a headline that read, “Happy Days are Here Again,” a sentiment never more accurate than it was for Del Papa and Anheuser Busch. The brewing company amplified their rebirth with the advent of canned beer, and Omero’s efficient and immaculately organized business operation had no problem growing and innovating its model to keep up with the demand while simultaneously expanding its own reach.

   A single-truck operation in 1930 ballooned into a fleet of delivery vehicles by 1937 that serviced fourteen routes and covered territory from Rosenberg to Winnie. That same year, Omero renamed the company O. Del Papa & Sons, moved his base to an even larger building at 2101 Strand, and diversified his offerings by obtaining a wine bottler’s permit.

  When the ravages of World War II reached the American shores of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Omero found himself floundering personally and professionally once again. His two oldest sons and trusted business associates were drafted into the army, and Omero was unable to maintain the diversity of his distribution portfolio. However, this trial would yet again give way to a rousing victory.

 The absence of his sons compelled Omero to divest from wholesale grocery items and focus solely on beer and wine, but the transition to exclusivity proved only to fortify his business. By limiting Del Papa’s horizontal output, all the company’s resources were diverted to improving and enlarging their most profitable enterprise, which in turn made it even more profitable. 

  Omero’s legacy of faith, family, and endless innovation continued even after his retirement in 1950, as his sons Ivaldo, Omero, Jr., and Lawrence each brought their own unique talents to the fore. And they continue today, 109 years later, as the company is still operated by direct descendants of Omero who know firsthand the value of their patriarch’s emphasis on hard work and a good name. Now known as Del Papa Distributing, the company maintains its relationship with Anheuser Busch and is consistently awarded their top honors in distribution.

   Locally, their three distribution centers in Texas City, Victoria, and Beaumont already lead with the largest market share in each of their territories, but consistent growth continues to accelerate these claims and annually widens the gap between Del Papa and its competitors even further. Del Papa is also a leader in technological advancements, recently implementing the Pick-to-Light™ system in their warehouses which increases both productivity and the quality of life of their workers.

  The company also strives to stay in tune with their consumer base and their communities. At their new warehouse located in Texas City, which replaced the former Galveston headquarters, they host free monthly tasting events on the third Thursday of every month.

  “The beer industry is changing so much,” says Caylin Wiebe of Del Papa Distributing, “There is such a diversity of selection now, our tastings are a fun way to learn about all the different kinds of beer now available.”

  Most importantly, the modern incarnation of Del Papa seeks to give back to the people who have given it so much as they continue another of Omero’s Galveston traditions - philanthropy. In 2016, Del Papa donated $1 million to the University of Texas Medical Branch to establish the Lawrence J. Del Papa Chair in Neurodegenerative Research.

  Del Papa is no longer located on Galveston Island, but its legacy of success, persistence, and community will never be separate from the city that launched a thousand trucks.

 

For more information on Del Papa’s brands or the free monthly tastings, visit www.DelPapaDistributing.com.