Were there ever a notable growth story, it's Roma Foods'.

Louis G. Piancone founded the distributorship out of a simple New Jersey delicatessen in 1955. Over the next five decades, the Italian immigrant grew the company to eight distribution centers generating more than $300 million in annual sales servicing the needs of independent pizza and Italian operators.

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But last December, the growth story got even bigger when the legendary distributor merged with Vistar Corp., a Denver-based $2.5 billion specialty foodservice distributor. Each party had exactly what the other wanted and needed; Roma would gain access to Vistar's extensive national distribution network, while Vistar could capitalize on Roma's highly regarded proprietary brands, including Roma, Piancone, Assoluti and Luigi.

Piancone said Vistar was the right match for his company because it is dedicated to the same principles Roma was built on: focus on its employees, its products "and our passion to help our customers grow using our superior products and service — this is what it's all about."

Piancone will remain as chairman of Roma Food Enterprises and said he is "personally committed to see our two companies work together to accelerate each other's growth."

The full blending of the two firms is expected to be completed by October 2005 and will result in a $3 billion entity servicing restaurants out of 25 foodservice distribution facilities across America.

Importantly, Vistar plans to rebrand and rename its own food companies using the Roma name, while continuing to operate its 19 specialty vending distribution companies under the Vistar/VSA name.

Quality and service, said Piancone, is what made his company one of the most respected distributors in the nation. That reputation, said Vistar chief executive and president George Holm, made Roma his top choice as a partner.

"In my 25 years in this business, I've not met anyone as committed to his customers, his employees and his product line as Lou," Holm said. "He and his Roma team, and Vistar and its foodservice professionals, will fit together hand in glove."

Purchasing power

The Vistar-Roma merger — which combines the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 foodservice distributors serving independent operators in the pizza and Italian market segments — reflects an ongoing consolidation trend in foodservice distribution. Such moves are aimed at lowering product costs through volume purchasing and widening distribution networks by gaining points of access. In the end, pizza operators enjoy better pricing and broadened offerings.

"There is great purchasing power between the two companies, and (Roma's) brand is something we want to push out through our local operating facilities," said Tom McGonagle, Vistar senior vice president and chief financial officer. "They bring a lot of product into the country we haven't had access to, and that will help grow our customer base."

Holm added that Vistar had considered for years how it could boost its presence among independent pizza operators, and he knew joining forces with Roma would be the answer. "With the merger with Roma, have achieved five to six years of progress in one year."

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