PROVIDENCE, RI –
Standing outside Vega Foods in western Cranston, even at a good distance from the door, you can smell peppers in the wind. Inside, the smell's even stronger. Owners Steve Christofaro and his brother Dennis are just steeped in it.
Steve Christofaro says both of their wives complain about them coming home smelling like peppers, "and they tell us that as soon as we get in the house, make sure you don't walk on my carpet with those shoes!'"
The peppers arrive here packed inside big, red, plastic barrels. Twice a month a delivery truck drops off hundreds of pounds of sweet peppers, hot cherry peppers, and long, yellow peppers with the daunting name "hot fingers."
Dozens of barrels line Vega Food's warehouse. Christofaro walks up to one of them and unscrews the lid, this is how the peppers come in, he says. The barrel is full of round, green sweet peppers with the cores cut out. The sweet peppers are usually a little lighter and a little bigger than the hot peppers. And they aren't nearly as popular as Christofaro's hot cherry peppers.
"The hot ones will out sell the sweet probably nine to one," he says. "People love their hot peppers. And people will complain that they're not hot enough!"
From the warehouse, the peppers move into an assembly room. It's a white-walled, rectangular room lined with long stainless steel tables. Back in the corner of the workroom, the peppers bob inside a waist-high container full of a vinegar brine until they're scooped up and divvied into plastic bins placed at each work station.
On this day, there are nine Hispanic women in white lab coats, wearing plastic gloves and hair nets standing quietly at their work stations. They're wrapping cheese around chunks of prosciutto and stuffing them into the cherry peppers. Machines can't do this work, so every pepper must be stuffed by hand.
"We like to stuff at least six a minute," says Christofaro. "Most of our girls can stuff ten or twelve."
It's all women stuffing these peppers, Christofaro makes a crack that no man would do the work, but really it just comes down to experience.
"There are two or three companies that do this and we try to catch the girls that have been laid off or just took some time off and they can't get a job, so they'll come here," says Christofaro.
Once stuffed, the peppers get placed into a jar that's then sent down a conveyer belt. This is where the jars are sealed and labeled.
"See that little screen right there? That puts that date stamp and the used by stamp," he says. "So the first stamp is our USDA coded stamp, the other is the "use by." That little machine right there, is sealing the aluminum foil to the top of that jar."
At Vega Foods, nothing sits around. Orders are filled as they come in and Christofaro says it takes six days from the time the truck drops off the barrels full of peppers to the time the trucks pull away with jars full of stuffed peppers.
The Christofaro brothers know the routine well. They've owned Vega for nearly seven years. It started in Smithfield back in the late 80's. It has remained in Rhode Island in most part because it's in the heart of New England's large Italian community - their customer base.
"Talk to a lot of Italian people that do their own. They come here, they look at our peppers, they try our peppers, and say you know what? For the amount of work it is to make those, I'm going to buy from you,'" says Christofaro.
Texans don't know about stuffed peppers, he says, but a growing number of grocery and specialty stores do. And they're carrying his products, exposing them to a wider audience. Vega ships to stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Florida, the list goes on. A lot of it is word of mouth. Christofaro likes it that way. It keeps his small, family-owned business from being not too small, and not too big, but just the right size.
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