If you’ve watched TV in the last 25 years, you’ve undoubtedly caught “Produce Pete” Napolitano lighting up the airwaves during his weekly segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York every Saturday morning or his appearances on such national programs as The Dr. Oz Show or The View. You’ve also no doubt come to memorize any of his famed Pete-isms, like the fact that produce should be “heavy in the hand for its size” when you select it or that it’s often at its best quality when it’s most plentiful, least expensive, and locally and seasonally sourced.
Though Napolitano admits that he himself is among the most surprised by his success and staying power in the media and public consciousness after all these years, it’s his industry knowledge, upbeat and affable personality, and realness that have rendered him a local force of nature and one of the Garden State’s greatest treasures. A current resident of Oakland, Napolitano grew up in post-WWII Bergen County, the son of Italian immigrants. His father peddled produce. From the age of five, Napolitano helped his father sell produce—as well as anything else that could help boost the family income—door-to-door, including Christmas trees, Easter flowers, and phone books. After selling produce from vacant lots and corner stands in Tenafly and other area towns, his father bought a lot on Washington Avenue in Bergenfield and ultimately opened Napolitano’s Produce in 1959, a business that inspired many of Napolitano’s best childhood memories, which he and wife Bette bought from his father ten years later. Napolitano would ultimately devote the next 25 years to running the operation, a “hard business” that he said typically involved 20-hour days and no holidays off.
His big media break came in 1988, when a producer from WOR-TV happened to stop into the store to buy an apple and remarked that Pete “would make a good segment” on her show, People Are Talking. Napolitano reluctantly accepted the producer’s continued invitations to appear. “Bette convinced me to do it because she thought it would be good for business,” he laughs. He ultimately remained on the show for nearly three years, during which time he received hundreds of fan letters a week and was known as “Pete, Your Produce Pal.” His friend Matt Lauer, then a young broadcaster at WOR, soon moved to an anchor position at NBC’s Weekend Today in New York and recommended that Napolitano join their team, an invitation that led to his ongoing segment on NBC—one that’s been 25 years running and which consistently rates as the show’s #1 segment, attracting some eight million viewers weekly.
Now 71, Napolitano remains busier than ever, appearing on weekly TV and cable spots, speaking at a variety of food, farm, and health-related events year round, and continually educating people on the value and importance of fresh produce and the farmers who provide it in his appealing, all-natural, Jersey-boy style. “I encourage people to support their local farmers markets as well as restaurants that feature the best of the Garden State, from Jersey squash and tomatoes to corn, peaches, and blueberries,” he says. “It’s great to see more and more restaurants sourcing their produce locally or even growing it themselves in their own kitchen gardens, because this ensures the best and freshest products.”
Napolitano also praises the millennial generation for its dedication to the ideals of local, seasonal fare and sustainability. “My segments on NBC used to appeal primarily to an audience in the 60-to-75-year-old age range, but our 19-to-30-year-old demographic is growing rapidly because they have a strong desire to eat healthy and promote environmental responsibility and community initiatives,” he says of this proactive group.
Showing no signs of slowing down, the humble Napolitano is grateful for the opportunities he’s been given to advocate on behalf of the produce industry and to share all that he’s learned from his over six decades in the field. “Working at the store involved long hours and hard work and if you’d asked me years ago, I would have thought that I’d be retired from the business and living in Florida by now, but that didn’t happen,” he says with a laugh. Thanks to his quarter century of celebrity status, “I get thousands of emails a week and enjoy meeting people at events, answering their questions, and talking to kids at school,” he confirms. “I truly love educating people and also appreciate that people like and are interested in what I have to say—that’s the most rewarding part.”
For more information, visit Produce Pete’s website.
Check out Produce Pete’s monthly column (usually appearing on the first Sunday of each month) in the Asbury Park Press, Courier News, Home News Tribune, and Daily Record.
Pictured at top: Produce Pete on the set at NBC’s Weekend Today in New York” (image courtesy of Produce Pete).
Susan Bloom is a multiple New Jersey Press Association and JSPRAA award-winning writer who regularly covers health, food, human interest, and business topics for such well-known publications as The Star-Ledger, The Asbury Park Press, The Courier News, The Home News Tribune, The Daily Record, New Jersey Monthly Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, USA Today, the New York Daily News, Natural Awakenings, and Jersey Bites.