Still going strong: 94-year-old John Gross Jr. keeps close watch over company

John Gross. Jr., seated, founded John Gross & Co. with his parents in 1950. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

Retirement is no closer now than it ever was for 94-year-old John Gross Jr.

He still shows up every day in his office at the Mechanicsburg-based company he founded with his father in 1950, food-service distributor John Gross & Co. Inc.

“I don’t do anything much, but I still pay customers visits. I’m still interested in what’s going on,” Gross said.

In fact, Gross reads up on all of the company’s sales, writes thank-you-notes to each new customer, heads out into the field to meet with new customers at restaurants, and gathers information for the company’s monthly newsletter, a popular staple for Gross’ customers.       

“I enjoy meeting the customers and seeing what’s going on,” Gross said. “There are a lot of new ideas coming in restaurants and we’re tagging along with some of the big ones so that’s giving us growth.”

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A growing menu

Founded in 1950 in a one-car garage in Harrisburg, John Gross & Co. began as a distributor for Maxwell House coffee. The company has come a long way, yet it continues to remain in the family. Gross’ son, Brian, has been president since 1995.

The food-service distributor operates today out of a 100,000-square-foot warehouse situated on 15 acres in Mechanicsburg. The company has expanded its services to meet customers’ needs, and now provides fresh meats, seafood, produce, beverages, laundry and maintenance/repairs to restaurants, hotels, country clubs and other hospitality businesses within a two-hour radius of Harrisburg.

“Expanding the product line helped us to become more of a primary distributor to our customers supplying the core items rather than just a few sundry items,” said Brian Gross, noting that the company offers about 8,000 food products with access to thousands more.

The company also has branched into the retail business. John Gross & Co. opened a specialty grocery store in the late 1970s where people can purchase restaurant-quality products with no membership required. The store, aptly named The Grossery, represents about 15 percent of the company’s revenue.

“The products are not always cheaper, but they’re of a food-service quality,” said Brian Gross.

Father and son alike stressed that they have no desire to sell the business.

There was a time, Brian Gross explained, when he considered forging his own path rather than following in his father’s footsteps. “I thought it limited my options for careers and what if I wanted to do something else, so I felt somewhat pigeonholed,“ he said. “But after college, I thought I would be foolish not to pursue the family business because the barriers to starting a new business are so great.”

Brian Gross is not the only third-generation leader inside the business today. His sister is one of the company’s top salespeople.

However, Gross is already thinking ahead to the next 10 years when the torch will pass to the fourth generation (his two sons are already in the business). “I’ll retire from this business for sure, “ he said.

While he may not play the leading role he once did, retirement is not even on the mind of co-founder John Gross, whose only wish is that the business remains in the family. “We all get along very well and all our relatives are workers so that’s a good thing,” he said.

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