Vincenzo Passanisi immigrated to the United States in 1921 at 18 years old, moving from Sicily to Buffalo, New York, where he opened a market. Chasing the weather of his childhood and to be near relatives, he moved his family of eight across the country in a small car—mostly along Route 66—to Long Beach, where he opened a deli, Santa Fe Importers, in 1947.
For 75 years and under three generations of the Passanisi family, the deli and market at 1401 Santa Fe Ave. has thrived and expanded in what is now Long Beach’s Westside.
“We’re just continuing to try to serve our customers as best we can,” current President Vincent Passanisi, who is named after his grandfather, said. “Give them good value, good food and large portions.”
In the early days of the business, Vincent said the area was residential, as opposed to its industrial and commercial state of today. The neighborhood was home to many immigrants, he said, including Poles, Greeks and Italians.
This was the customer base that helped shape the business and its focus on imported pastas, cheeses, olives and meats.
“Over time, as the neighborhood changed, we evolved,” he said. “We started making sandwiches and meals to go.”
Customer favorites include the meatball sandwich (discounted on Meatball Mondays) and manicotti, which are traditionally stuffed pasta tubes, but Santa Fe Importers makes an old Passanisi recipe that is more crepe-like.
As the city grew, the deli and market continued to sell a large variety of Italian groceries, but the business also expanded in the early 1950s to include a manufacturing facility that produces meatballs, salamis and sausages. Santa Fe Importers sells its meats to distributors nationwide, meaning many people are enjoying the Long Beach product without even knowing it.
Today, for example, Trader Joe’s lasagna features Santa Fe Importers’ Italian sausage.
But the Westside staple also deals directly with local businesses, including Domenico’s in Belmont Shore and Modica’s Deli in Downtown, among others.
Vincenzo operated the business until he died in 1968. His son John took the helm and steered the ship for three decades. During his time as owner, John’s kids, including the young Vincent, helped around the shop during summer and other school breaks.
When it came time for John to retire in the late 1990s, he reached out to his four kids to see who, if any, wanted to take over the family business as the third-generation owner. A high school English teacher in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the time, the younger Vincent answered the call and moved his family of five back to the West Coast.
“I think my wife’s still unhappy that I moved us back,” Vincent joked. “No, Long Beach is cool, it’s a great city. My whole family loves it.”
He now lives just over the San Gabriel River in Seal Beach but said he is always finding new things in Long Beach to enjoy, including a recent Gondola Getaway ride he and his wife took for their 30th wedding anniversary.
Vincent’s sister, Marisa, also joined the company around the same time as vice president of sales and marketing.
Santa Fe Importers further diversified its business in 2006 when it acquired XLNT Foods, one of the oldest Mexican food companies in Southern California, this year celebrating 128 years. The brand’s beef tamales and chili con carne—in their iconic red, white and blue packaging—are sold at grocery stores throughout the region and across the country via an online store.
The year after the acquisition, Santa Fe Importers expanded again, opening a second deli.
“We opened up the Seal Beach location in 2007 as the economy crashed,” Vincent said. “I’m shocked that we made it through that, but somehow we did.”
For all businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic also was a challenging time, and Santa Fe Importers was no different. The company’s manufacturing business dried up as distributors stopped placing orders and restaurants shuttered for months on end. The deli business also slowed down, though takeout business remained fairly steady in large part due to nearby port operations.
The XNLT arm of the business was Santa Fe Importers’ saving grace, increasing almost fourfold and picking up the slack for the other two areas, Vincent said.
After years of expansion and weathering numerous economic downturns, Santa Fe Importers is thriving once again, Passanisi said, with about 70 employees.
To celebrate its 75th year, the old-school company launched a new website in February and expects to offer online ordering before the end of the year. Santa Fe Importers has anniversary merchandise, including T-shirts, a coffee mug and a hat, for sale on its website and in store. The company also will have giveaways and contests in the coming months.
Adding to a year of celebration, on Aug. 7, the company was honored by the nonprofit Long Beach Heritage as one of the organization’s first 10 Long Beach Legacy Businesses, an honor reserved for long-standing local businesses.
The company’s success has less to do with the family than its loyal customers, Vincent said. Because of that, he said the Santa Fe Importers is dedicated to being an active member of the community through sponsoring sports teams, organizations and events.
Vincent’s favorite tie to the community, however, is hearing personal stories about how someone’s parents brought them to the deli when they were young and now, as adults themselves, bring their own kids to share in that childhood experience.
“Food binds people together, it’s communal. It’s those experiences that keep bringing people back,” Vincent said. “I’d love it to keep going for another 75 years.”
“It depends on my family and what my kids want to do,” he added. “But I’d definitely love to keep this tradition going.”