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Bob Piccinini strolls down memory lane
Bill Gelderman shakes hands and shares Manteca memories with Save Mart CEO Bob Piccinini. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

One can always go home again, contrary to Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel.

Manteca High alumnus and Save Mart Supermarkets chairman and CEO Bob Piccinini proved the message of the writer’s famous work wrong Thursday night when he appeared as the featured guest at the monthly program presented by the Manteca Historical Museum.

Piccinini happily walked down memory lane, and his captive audience merrily went along with him, embracing him with welcoming arms. The memories he shared clearly resonated with his guests who smiled and laughed as they reminisced with him.

The 2005 Manteca Hall of Famer in Business cut his teeth in the grocery business at age 12, working at his father’s store, the now-defunct Mike’s Market in Manteca, pressing labels onto packaged meats for which he earned a whopping 50 cents an hour.

Piccinini said he has “lots and lots of fond memories” of Manteca. He remembered his late father’s family moving to Manteca when he was 6 or 7 years old and settling on a 20-acre farm on South Manteca Road. The house where his father grew up is still there, he recalled. He also remembered his father quitting high school at age 15 during the Depression and going to work “to help support the family.” His mother, Margaret, who was born in Scranton, Penn., lived on Murphy Road in Ripon where her family settled. His mother’s father was a shoemaker and ran his business in the small building next to the old El Rey Theater, Piccinini recalled. The theater, whose claim to fame was being destroyed in a fire while the movie, “The Towering Inferno” was showing, has metamorphosed into the present-day Kelley Brothers Brewing Company and Brickyard Oven in downtown Manteca.

Piccinini also fondly reminisced that when his parents got married in 1936, they owned and operated a service station on South Main Street.

Piccinini, who has never been inside the museum, was pleasantly surprised at what he saw.

“When I walked in, I was overwhelmed. It’s an amazing place. You should be very proud,” he said, and expressed the desire to come back and spend more time looking around at the exhibits and displays.

“This is what I consider my hometown,” Piccinini, who now lives in Modesto where Save Mart is headquartered, also said about Manteca.

During his talk, he reminisced about his early jobs while growing up in Manteca, giving a hint of the character and work ethic that catapulted him to the success that he is at  now. He recalled working for Bill Cabral at Western Motors washing cars and other odd jobs. He also worked at a service station in Manteca from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. In the evenings on weekdays, he worked at another job from 6 to 8:30 p.m. That’s on top of working at the market owned by his father and uncle located in what is now Accent Carpets.

“I was a 15-year-old kid working 70 hours a week. I had money sticking out of my pockets. I was rich!” Piccinini said with a laugh, his thrilled audience that included Bill Cabral, his old boss, laughing along.

Today, that hard-working rich kid now heads a corporation comprising of 244 stores that employ about 20,000 employees, four distribution centers located in Vacaville, Roseville, Merced and Lathrop – the one in Lathrop is called the Superstore Industries – and 250 trucks on the road. He has also expanded into the warehouse grocery market with 10 Food Maxx outlets, and was instrumental in developing a processing plant that produces the Sunnyside Farms dairy line and Sunny Select dry good and deli products, according to information contained in his Hall of Fame recognition certificate. Additionally, he is chairman of the Yosemite Express Co., a trucking company better known as SMART Refrigerated Transport, and is a board member of the Western Association of Food Chains.

Industry reports indicate that Piccinini’s company ranked 67th in Forbe’s 2008 list of America’s largest private companies with more than $5 billion in annual revenues. His stores are currently located from Vallejo to Tehachapi.