John C. Guerriero, founder of Continental Foods and a leader in the Little Italy neighborhood, died of pneumonia Monday at Mercy Medical Center. He was 86.
Born in Kincaid, Ill., he was the son of Pete Guerriero and his wife, Mary, who left Sicily for the United States in the 1920s. His father had a Chester Street grocery store that faced the Northeast Market.
He attended City College and joined the merchant marine. He served in the Army during the Korean War and was assigned to the 38th Parallel as a medic.
Mr. Guerriero joined his father’s grocery business and expanded it by selling Italian foods on a wholesale basis to new customers. The wholesale business was named Continental Foods.
He met his future wife, Angeline Fedeli, when she was shopping at Lopresti’s market in Little Italy.
"I would flirt with her. She told me to get off. She must've heard my reputation,” Mr. Guerriero said in a 2003 article in The Baltimore Sun. They married in 1955.
Mr. Guerriero bought a station wagon and began calling on restaurants for orders. He would deliver the foods himself and take orders for the next week.
“He had a vision. He took risks and he put everything he had on the line,” said his son-in-law, Richard Pannoni, who worked alongside Mr. Guerriero. “He worked very long hours and he did everything for his family.”
He acquired a warehouse behind the Flag House and soon had 12 employees. When the site grew too small, Mr. Guerriero acquired a larger property in Southwest Baltimore off Interstate 95 at the Cross Roads Industrial Center. The company grew to 350 employees and its customers included the food service operation at the University of Maryland College Park and the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as numerous restaurants.
“He sold to any place that had a menu,” said his son-in-law.
In the mid-1980s Mr. Guerriero expanded his firm, seeking new customers and offering broader lines of frozen, fresh and dry foods, janitorial supplies and paper goods.
“Its growth spurted, helped by consumers' increasing fondness for eating out,” The Sun’s account said.
According to a 1995 Sun article, at the time Mr. Guerriero sold his business, Continental Foods was delivering ricotta and marinara, fettuccine and pepperoni to Baltimore's restaurants and pizza shops.
“The Baltimore-based company has stretched beyond its Italian roots in recent years to become a $100 million, full-service supplier to restaurants from Delaware to West Virginia,” the 1995 article said. “Its sale to Rykoff-Sexton Inc. ... is part of a trend of consolidation among restaurant wholesalers.”
“John had a big heart and was the most generous man I have ever met,” said Douglas Biales, a friend and former Baltimore resident who lives in St. Louis. “When some of his customers were having hard times and couldn’t pay, he would extend credit. He took care of people. And he had a sense of humor. He was always joking about something.”
In the 1980s Mr. Guerriero and his wife, who had been living in Towson, returned to the city in a 20th-floor condominium at Harbor Court.
“Gradually their gaze shifted back to Little Italy. Not only was it once home to Angie, but they had other ties, such as St. Leo's Church,” said the 2003 Sun article.
In the article, Mr. Guerriero recalled: “We said if we spot something in the Little Italy area, we'll look at it and give it consideration. Then it happened. We saw the garage."
He bought a garage and an adjoining property and constructed what became the most expensive residence in Baltimore City at that time.
“The most opulent home for sale in Baltimore disobeys one of the most revered rules in the real estate book,” said a 2003 Washington Post article. “Its location, location, location is two doors up from Pepino's Bar, two doors down from St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church and just around the corner from the Little Italy Bocce Rollers Association. …”
The story noted that the home had “13 skylights, indoor pool, full-sized gym complete with massage table, tanning bed and gymnastic hoops, plus the patch of grass on the roof — so the dog doesn't have to be walked.” It also noted the $3.5 million price.
"It sticks out like a sore thumb," said Mr. Guerriero in the article. When the home never attracted a buyer, he and his wife lived in it.
“John was outgoing and friendly and was always welcoming new parishioners to St. Leo’s,” said the church’s former pastor, the Rev. Salvatore Furnari, who now directs the St. Jude Shrine on Paca Street.
John Pica, another friend, said Mr. Guerriero “recognized that St. Leo’s was the real heart of Little Italy and he was a true benefactor to the church.”
He had been president of the St. Leo’s Parish Council, and was also a member of the Associated Italian-American Charities.
A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church, Stiles and Exeter streets.
In addition to his wife of 63 years and son-in-law, survivors include his daughter, Diana Pannoni of Lutherville; a brother, Charles Guerriero of Pylesville; and two grandchildren.