Tillie Lewis

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Tillie Ehrlich Lewis (July 13, 1901–1977) was an American businesswoman who introduced the Italian pomodoro tomato to the Stockton, California area and established a tomato cannery there. She grew her company to become the fifth largest canning business in the United States by 1950.

Born Myrtle Ehrlich, she grew up in Brooklyn, New York and started worked in the garment district at the age of twelve.[1]

Her first husband, a wholesale grocer, imported pomodoro tomatoes from Italy. After their marriage broke up, Ehrlich looked into growing the pomodoro in America. In 1934, the federal government raised the tariff on imported tomato products by 50%. Florindo del Gaizo, the part-owner of a Naples cannery, who was worried about losing his American customers, became her primary investor. She settled on Stockton, California to grow the tomatoes. After persuading farmers in area to experiment raising the tomatoes, she talked Pacific Can Company into building a plant at Stockton, with an option for her to buy it.[2] By 1940, she had made San Joaquin County the top tomato-producing county in the United States.[3]

Ehrlich and del Gaszio formed the Flotill Foods Corporation. When del Gaszio died in 1937, Ehrlich borrowed money and became the sole owner of Flotill Foods. Over the next decade, Ehrlich began canning spinach and asparagus and built more canning plants. Flotill also canned fruits, baby food and juices. During the Korean War, Flotill was the largest supplier of Army C-Rations in the nation.

Ehrlich met Meyer Lewis, an American Federation of Labor organizer, in 1940 as workers tried to unionize her factories. Ehrlich married Lewis seven years later and established Tasti-Diet Foods in 1952. Tasti-Diet Foods became one of the earliest marketers of artificially sweetened fruits and soft drinks.

In 1951, Ehrlich was named "businesswoman of the year" by the Associated Press.[3] Ehrlich changed the name of her company to Tillie Lewis Foods and began selling shares on the American Stock Exchange in 1961. Tillie Lewis Foods merged with Ogden Foods (now part of Pet, Inc.) of New York in 1966 and Ehrlich was elected Ogden Foods first woman director.[1] By 1971, Tillie Lewis Foods had sales of over $90 million per year.


  1. ^ a b Jeanne E. Abrams. Jewish women pioneering the frontier trail: a history in the American West. NYU Press, 2006. p 115.
  2. ^ "CORPORATIONS: Tillie's Unpunctured Romance" TIME, Nov. 19, 1951.
  3. ^ a b "Tillie Lewis opens cannery for American-grown Italian tomatoes" Jewish Women's Archive