Since its inception in 1914, San Giorgio has remained one of the most trusted names in pasta, and throughout its early years of expansion, a mid-century fire, and its eventual position within The Hershey Company, it has left a lasting impact on Lebanon County.
It all began with an Italian immigrant named Girolamo Guerrisi, who came to the United States from Calabria in 1903 when he was 12 years old. Guerrisi was alone when he arrived in Ellis Island, with the exception of several acquaintances from his hometown, Cittanova, and he found a place to stay with his cousin who lived in New York. For the next several years of his life, he remained in New York while he learned English and studied business methods. He moved to Lebanon in 1912 to set up the Keystone Fruit Company.
Two years later, Guerrisi took over management of the Keystone Macaroni Company, a small pasta plant on North Sixth Street, after the previous owner, who had been anxious to retire, left Guerrisi his stock in the business. In the following years, Guerrisi had the Keystone Macaroni Company incorporated and built an additional plant at Eighth and Water Streets. And, in 1925, Guerrisi would go on to open another at Sixth and Spring Streets.
During this time, the pasta industry was experiencing an unprecedented growth throughout the world, and especially in the United States, due primarily to the mechanization of pasta production; artificial drying processes and mechanical dryers developed in the early 20th century made large-scale pasta manufacturing not only possible but also highly efficient.
Guerrisi took full advantage of these improvements. Throughout his life, he sought to propel his factories toward the industry standard, and they were frequently renovated and installed with some of the best manufacturing equipment available. During this time, Keystone Macaroni would grow to be one of the largest employers in Lebanon County.
In 1947, Guerrisi renamed the company San Giorgio, two years before he died at the age of 58 from complications of an undisclosed illness. His funeral was well-attended and floral tributes were sent from relatives and friends all across the country. By this time, Guerrisi’s dedication to San Giorgio had established the company as one of the foremost pasta manufacturers in the United States.
Many local newspapers attributed San Giorgio’s initial success to Guerrisi’s commitment to using 100% durum wheat semolina, which yields pasta superior to that which is blended with other flours; today, San Giorgio continues to produce pasta made from 100% durum wheat, although it has also expanded to include different varieties like gluten-free, organic, high-fiber, and veggie pasta.
After Guerrisi’s death, San Giorgio continued operating independently as a regional brand for many years, with his five surviving sons overseeing operations at the Lebanon plants. For the most part, production went smoothly up until 1960.
On Oct. 25 of that year, a fire broke out and destroyed the six-story San Giorgio Macaroni plant at Eighth and Water Streets. No one was killed; however, four firemen were injured, and damages were initially estimated at $2 million. While the cause was never determined, it appeared to have started in the oldest section of the plant. To this day, the fire remains one of the largest in the history of Lebanon.
After the fire, San Giorgio recovered quickly, rebuilding the plant from scratch and resuming production the following year. This transformation, though, only began a set of successive transitions in the company’s history during the last few decades of the 20th century.
In 1966, San Giorgio became the first pasta company acquired by the Hershey Foods Corporation (now The Hershey Company) in an effort to diversify its product line and secure the future of the renowned chocolate company. Because the sale of San Giorgio’s products was restricted geographically, this special division of Hershey Foods, referred to as the Hershey Pasta Group, acquired various other pasta manufacturers starting with Delmonico’s in Louisville, Kentucky, also in 1966.
Creating a national brand of pasta, though, was nearly impossible, simply because of each regional brand’s consumer loyalty, and Hershey Pasta continued distributing products with regional brand names in nearly all of the United States. As other large food companies got in on the pasta game during the 1980s, the industry underwent rapid consolidation; however, these other conglomerates faced the same problem, and none of them were successful in producing a national pasta brand.
While Hershey Pasta Group was initially successful, competition from the American Italian Pasta Group and imported Italian pasta in the ‘90s ultimately resulted in another transition. In 1999, rather than continue to invest in pasta, Hershey executives resolved to sell the pasta division while it was still profitable, and San Giorgio, along with seven different pasta manufacturers acquired during this time, was sold to New World Pasta Group.
New World got to work immediately, increasing sales in pasta, which had begun to plateau toward the end of the 20th century. For its first year of operation, former President of Hershey Pasta Group C. Mickey Skinner came out of retirement to head the company and employed new marketing strategies aimed broadly at the American public like promoting non-branded, private-label products to bypass issues with intense brand loyalty.
Throughout this time, the original San Giorgio plant remained open in Lebanon as part of New World Pasta Group. It was closed in 2001 along with several other facilities in Louisville, KY, and Omaha, NE, with the goal of increasing the company’s efficiency.
San Giorgio’s impact in Lebanon County can be traced back to its origins providing regular employment and standing as an example of dedication and hard work. The factory was also consistently active in the community, especially in the 1980s, contributing to local organizations like the Good Samaritan Hospital and Lebanon County United Way, as well as national
initiatives like the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and American Red Cross.
In 1989, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill that designated May 14-20 of that year as “Pasta Week” in Pennsylvania to recognize the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of San Giorgio Pasta. The company celebrated by giving away large cash prizes as well as free pasta certificates and cookbooks.
Today, San Giorgio continues to be a trusted brand name in pasta. Most recently, it was part of New World’s merger with Riviana Foods and American Foods, and it is still distributed primarily throughout the Northeast United States.
This story was updated Jan. 17 to include information from Girolamo Guerrisi’s immigration records, which were provided by local historian Charles Wertz.
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