The Sofo family runs three companies that employ hundreds and have customers in multiple states, but Tony Sofo said none of those would be possible without its fourth operation.
"The retail store is what started it all," said Mr. Sofo, chairman of Antonio Sofo & Son Importing Co., a distribution firm that is one of the four companies.
The family is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sofo Foods Il Mercato with a party tomorrow at the store at 5400 Monroe St.
"We want to say thank you to Toledo," said Mr. Sofo.
His grandfather, Antonio, was an Italian immigrant living in Toledo in 1946 when he got the idea to drive to Detroit each weekend and bring back a truck full of salamis, cheeses, and pasta to sell to his fellow Italians in northwest Ohio.
"He was like a huckster, driving all over and knocking on doors," said Mr. Sofo.
Antonio's son, Joe, returned from the Korean War in the early 1950s and after a brief stint in a factory, joined his father in business. To move the products from the grandfather's basement, the two opened a small store in 1952 and moved it to a larger location on Monroe Street, near Milburn Avenue, in 1955, the year the company uses as its starting point.
The Sofos' distribution business started when the family began filling orders from Italian restaurants in the area, including such well-known pizzerias as Jo Jo's and Gino's. Antonio died in 1959, but Joe continued to enlarge the business with the help of his mother, wife, sister, and five children.
"The store just flourished during that time all of us kids worked there on the weekends," said Tony Sofo, a son.
Tony and his brother, Michael, took over the distribution business in the early 1980s, allowing Joe Sofo to concentrate on the store. He moved it to its present location in 1985.
"He loved being out there, meeting and greeting," said Tony Sofo. "That was his true love."
The store has 7,800 square feet and its customers are no longer mainly Italian immigrants.
But its offerings are similar to what was sold years ago, Mr. Sofo said. It has 120 varieties of meats and cheeses, freshly cut meat, sausage made daily, and Italian pastas, olive oils, and tomatoes.
"We've been working with some of our manufacturers since the 1940s," said Mr. Sofo. "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"
Tony Sofo said he and his brother, Michael, run their companies: the Antonio Sofo & Son distribution arm, Sofo Foods of Kentucky, and A&M Cheese Co.
Finding enough employees to ensure good customer service, Mr. Sofo said, is one reason the company has yet to open a second store.
"There's always a possibility of having one in the south end of Toledo and we've explored that, but it takes people and it takes time," he said.
Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at