Catching Up with a Colorful Food Industry Legend
Tony Zirilli’s incredible career in the food industry spans 65 years. He’s been an entrepreneur, a problem-solver, a sales rep, a corporate exec, a bar owner, and more, working in all facets of the business.
“Tony Z.,” as he’s widely known, has built many lasting relationships, along with a reputation for being personable, energetic, knowledgeable, dependable, and fun-loving. We consider ourselves fortunate and proud to have him representing Original Philly.
To celebrate a distinguished career—which, for the record, is still going strong—Tony sat down with us to share some of his infinite wisdom and stories…
OP: When and how did you get your start in the food business?
TZ: I started in the business around 1952. My brother and I purchased bar in South Philly which became the hottest and most famous bar in the area. My brother ran it for about 10 years; I was there for 3 or 4. After we sold the business, I went to work for companies like Ogden Food, Tartan Foods, Delaware County Community College, Rotelli Corporation, and then eventually, Original Philly.
OP: When and where did you first notice Original Philly Cheesesteak Co.?
TZ: When I had my distributorship around 1986, [Original Philly founder] Mr. Nick Karamatsoukas came into my office down in Wildwood, NJ and asked me if I would sell some Original Philly cheesesteak products. At that time, Quality Steaks was the one of the biggest in the industry. I agreed to take on the Original Philly line and sell it. Not long after that, Quality went out of business, and I continued to rep Original Philly Cheesesteak.
A man of the people: Tony Z.!
OP: After so many years in the business, what made you decide you wanted to be part of the Original Philly team?
TZ: I knew they had a great reputation. I knew they had a great product. It was a company that I’d love to represent. So I had an offer from Original Philly’s [then] president, Jim Trivelis, and at the time I also had four or five other offers. I said to Mr. Trivelis that I was going to go to Florida, and when I came back I’d make up my mind. I left Florida, came back, and said I was going to work for Original Philly Cheesesteak Company. And here I am!”
OP: What has impressed you most about the Original Philly operation?
TZ: It’s a family-owned business. I can pick up the phone, talk to the president or the owners of the company, and I will get answers.
OP: Has anything surprised you about Original Philly since you joined the company?
TZ: I’m impressed by the close-knit relationship of the employees with the owners of the company. A family organization, a family team.
OP: What do you like most about getting out and meeting with Original Philly customers/operators on-site at their locations?
TZ: The face-to-face relationship—there’s nothing better than that. You can have all of the electronic devices in the world, but there’s nothing like walking in, looking a guy in the eye, and saying, “I’m from Original Philly Cheesesteak Company, and this is my product.” Customers appreciate that immensely.
Tony Z. visits with Original Philly customers at the Jersey Shore.
OP: After a day cruising the Jersey Shore and checking in with customers on the boardwalks and in the towns, where might a popular food industry veteran like yourself go to unwind?
TZ: I go to The Bocca in Margate City, NJ. I also go to a place called JoJo’s in Pleasantville, NJ. Both are excellent food operations. I know both of the owners very well, and I enjoy both locations.
OP: Is there a particular individual—a boss, mentor, colleague, family member, etc.—that had a big impact on your career?
TZ: I did work for a gentleman by the name of Bob Willoughby—the #1 buyer for Tartan Foods. He had a huge amount of experience. At that time, they would send him to Japan to buy tuna fish—that’s how knowledgeable and how good the guy was! He would travel all over the country and world to source and buy food. And Bob said to me one time, “Tony, everybody sells string beans.” So it’s not just the product, it’s the person that’s selling the product. “Everybody has string beans.” From then on, I always thought about that.
OP: If you weren’t in the food business, what profession do you think you would have pursued?
TZ: I can’t even think about not being in the food business. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. I started in my father’s grocery store when I was 12 years old. I didn’t like it at the time, but that’s what I’ve done. I don’t know anything else I’d be interested in.