Samuel F. Sorbello, 78, of Mullica Hill, a leading innovator in refrigerating and freezing food for farmers, supermarkets, and food distributors, died Wednesday, Dec. 7, of kidney and congestive heart failure.
Mr. Sorbello built his first cold-storage building in 1964, allowing him to hold on to thousands of bushels of peaches and get higher prices for them after other farms had sold their fruit.
Nine years later, he branched out, building a refrigerated warehouse for frozen food, including seafood and blueberries.
His successful business affected dinner tables across the region. "What we took away from him was his work ethic," said Mr. Sorbello's older son, Fred. "We learned how to work hard, and how to work with integrity and values."
Born in Woodbury and raised in a Mullica Hill home where no English was spoken, Mr. Sorbello attended public school through 11th grade, then worked full time on the family vegetable farm.
At age 22, he began farming on his own. He and his wife, Rose, stepped out in faith, using most of their cash wedding gifts to buy a used tractor.
Over the next eight years, Mr. Sorbello grew peppers and tomatoes on 200 acres he leased from his father and others. By 1960, he began a transition from vegetables to fruit. His sons, Fred and Samuel J., eventually worked alongside their father on the farm.
Their move to peaches changed the family business. At the time, each picking was packed and shipped to market immediately. But at the height of the harvest, with a glut of peaches, prices dropped.
Mr. Sorbello noticed the price of a bushel of peaches rose dramatically as the supply dwindled - and that realization led him to build his first modest cold-storage building in 1964.
In 1973, Mr. Sorbello built a refrigerated warehouse, and in 1978, he constructed the first USDA inspection facility in the Philadelphia area.
He and a business partner expanded, buying frozen-food facilities in Philadelphia and Camden. One Camden facility, called Dockside, was one of the largest portside frozen-foods warehouses in the world.
By 1981, Mr. Sorbello sold his interest in the Philadelphia and Camden operations and returned to his roots.
"He always stressed whether you were making a box of fruit, peppers, or vegetables, you always provided the best," Fred Sorbello said. "During tough times, people tend to shy away from inferior products and services.
"But my father believed there was always a market for quality services and products. Even if we had to accept less for them, there was always a market. We're proud of what Dad taught us."
Fred Sorbello began running the family farm in 1980. In partnership with his father, he took over 200 acres of peaches and gradually expanded the farm to 300 acres. By 1985, when Mr. Sorbello retired to Florida, Fred Sorbello assumed management of the storage business.
Fred Sorbello and his wife, Cheryl Ann, built a third frozen-storage warehouse in 1989 and expanded the business - now known as the Mullica Hill Group - a few more times.
Mr. Sorbello's son Sam and his wife, Colleen, built their first cold-storage facility in 1999 and also have expanded since then.
"We still have our father's values," Fred Sorbello said. "It's in everything we do. We always strive to be the best because we feel the superior product, in the end, wins out.
In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Sorbello is survived by a brother and two sisters.
A viewing will be held from Sunday, Dec. 11, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the McGuinness Funeral Home, 573 Egg Harbor Rd., Washington Township. Friends may call from 10 to 11 a.m. Monday, Dec. 12, at the Church of the Incarnation, 240 Main St., Mantua. A Funeral Mass will be celebrated at the church at 11 a.m. Interment will be at St. Joseph's Cemetery, Swedesboro.
Donations may be made to the Jefferson Foundation for Crohn's Disease Research, 925 Chestnut St., Suite 110, Philadelphia 19107.