Beaten to a Pulp

Ironbeer entrepreneur Pedro Blanco thought he had a fruitful contract to can Tropicana juice. Now all he's got is a bankrupt business.

Boling and company signed a two-year contract with Sunshine in March 1994. For the next two years, the contract stipulated, Sunshine would crank out 8000 cases of Twisters and other juices every production day -- two million cases each year.

Tropicana engineers and executives descended on Sunshine's plant, ordering changes in the assembly line. When someone requested that a brick wall be knocked down, Blanco says he happily complied. In all, Blanco claims he spent more than $400,000 to adapt the factory to Tropicana specifications. "They said put us in the front of the bus. Put everything else on hold," Blanco asserts. "So we did."

In June 1994, Boling sent Sunshine a million-dollar purchase order for cases of juice, plus the glue and stretch wrap needed to hold the filled cases together.

One month later, though, a problem arose that killed the whole deal. Every canned drink sold contains a small amount of air. The contract Sunshine signed with Tropicana stipulated that cans may contain no more than two percent air, a total Sunshine could live with. Yet in July 1994, according to the lawsuit, months after the contract had been signed, Tropicana demanded that the cans contain no more than one percent air, a figure that Blanco insists is unreasonable.

And that was that. Tropicana refused to continue with the contract or the million-dollar purchase order. Blanco filed his lawsuit against Tropicana in August 1994.

"We believe [the dispute over the air] was a ruse to end the relationship," attests Ted Bartelstone, a lawyer representing Sunshine. "Seagrams around this time was in the process of negotiating to buy Dole juices for $280 million, including Dole's Juice Bowl processing plant in Lakeland. They ultimately completed the purchase [in January 1995]. One of the things we suspect, frankly, is that they didn't believe they needed Sunshine any more."

Tropicana declined to talk to New Times about the specifics of the lawsuit. "We have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation," insists Samuel Danon, an attorney for Holland & Knight, the Miami law firm hired by Tropicana. The juice company's position, according to Bartelstone, is that it wasn't obligated to purchase anything from Sunshine.

The case, which is expected to last between one and two weeks, is scheduled to go to trial March 17. Blanco seeks $2.5 million in lost profits from the Tropicana contract and another $2 million in lost sales from the malta and other products he couldn't manufacture because of his Tropicana investment.

"If we win the lawsuit, then my pain is over today," Blanco explains. "I feel very good because I believe deeply in the U.S. system of justice. I came from a country that has no law. But even if we get zero in court, I'll still fight. Then it's working fourteen-hour days seven days a week for a few more months, but we'll get through this."

At the Sunshine plant two weeks ago, hot water was piped into a vat of cracked barley. The cooked concoction bubbled into a holding tank, where it sat a day before being poured into seven-ounce brown bottles, which were subsequently pasteurized in a giant oven. Three years after first being introduced to Tropicana, Blanco is finally making his malta. "The malta will be our Lazarus," he cries. "It will help us walk again."

The Tropicana orange juice company (now known as Tropicana Dole Beverages) recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Approximately 6000 celebrants sampled a 300-pound banana and chocolate swirl cake shaped like an orange and impaled with the signature Tropicana striped straw. Bradenton politicians shared a podium with grade school students and Sanna Rossi, Anthony's widow. The former missionary eulogized her husband's dedication to business and devotion to God as the juice-soused crowd cheered. Later, Grammy winner Juice Newton sang her old standard "Angel of the Morning."

"I saw that and I got so mad," Blanco spits, staring at a short article he clipped from the Miami Herald business section. "If you look at this it looks like we all need to say thank you very much to Tropicana for producing juice. Believe me, our nightmare was, is, and will be Tropicana, because it never even crossed our mind that we will be in Chapter 11, a company that has a history of making money.

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