Juice Wars | Varyer

Juice Wars: The local legend of a crooked cop and a Christmas Day juice factory arson

Jim Nadeau was touring an old Forest Park juice plant he was looking to buy in the 1980s when he noticed something odd.

It was unlike other industrial buildings he had seen. The front office and front doors were boarded over and out of use. Windows on the first and second floors had been bricked up and the inside of the building was dark like a photo lab.

Nadeau turned to Joe Imburgia, who ran Del Crest Juice Company out of the building with his brother for 40 years before retiring.

“Why is it so dark in here all the time?” Nadeau asked.

“The Juice Wars of the 1950s,” Imburgia responded.

Nadeau thought Imburgia was joking. But he wasn’t.

After all, Joe had good reason to fortify his property — the Juice Wars were real. In the second half of the 20th century, Chicago-area juice businesses occasionally deployed the kind of mob-style violence that’s frequently depicted in Hollywood blockbusters to eliminate their competition and corner the lucrative juice market, according to interviews with industry insiders and old news reports.

In fact, a renovation of the Del Crest building uncovered bullets that had been fired into the glass bricks that covered up the juice tanks in the rear of the business, allegedly in response to a ritzy Chicago Public Schools contract.

There was also a failed arson attempt on Del Crest, where the assailants entered the building through the second-story window, and a mysterious Christmas morning fire at a Cicero juice business, allegedly committed in retaliation by a rival juice company, that left two people dead including a Cicero police officer.

Patrick Imburgia, Joe’s son, recalled that the juice business at the time was “a pretty tough crowd.”

As long as you stayed in your own lane, nobody bothered you, when you try to take the guy’s corner away from him, that’s when there’s going to be trouble.

Patrick Imburgia

Nobody rides for free 💵  Nobody rides for free 💵 

Chicago’s Juice Wars date back to at least the age of prohibition — as grape juice can be easily fermented into wine. In November 1930, a prominent California grape juice manufacturer reported that his associates and fellow growers received more than 1,000 threats regarding the import of juice concentrate into the area, according to news reports.

“I assume the bootleggers and racketeers are after us,” said Donald D. Conn, a prominent grape grower. “Why not? The most vicious elements in the country are perhaps the bootleggers and racketeers who have lived on law violations.”

According to a dispatch from another grape grower, Al Capone’s Chicago headquarters promised to “blow the heads off” of people who marketed juice concentrate in Chicago.

Mob activity in Forest Park, a small western suburb that’s three CTA Blue Line stops away from Chicago, centered around illegal gambling, according to John J. Binder, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor who wrote books on Capone, and Chicago Outfit.

Before casinos and video poker were legal in Illinois, Forest Park was a regional destination for gamblers looking to try their luck on off-the-books slot machines and poker.

“Gambling was very much tolerated and with the bars, you gotta pay the police officers to look the other way,” Binder said. “Nobody rides for free. It was a mecca of gambling for years.”

Legendary gangster Sam Giancana, who ran an illegal gambling empire, even had a hideaway in Forest Park at the Pink Clock bar, which is now the Golden Steer Steakhouse, an old school restaurant that’s across the street from Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures, the business Jim founded.

Giancana’s exploits — who rose the ranks to become the boss of the Chicago Outfit before his own gristly murder at age 67 inside his Oak Park home — are the stuff of legend. The Juice Wars, however, are mostly forgotten.

Nadeau, in a phone call from his home in New York, remembered the rough outlines of what Joe Imburgia told him about the Juice Wars. After Joe sold him the building, the two became friends and Joe regularly stopped by until he died at 81-years-old in January 2006.

“He just said it was a horrible time,” Nadeau said. “It sounded like prohibition and gangsters were stealing each other’s territory and market share and stuff. There were two or three companies that were just trying to control the Chicago market of juice drinks.”

Max Barajas, who took over Nadeau’s business after Jim retired earlier this year, said the rumor was that the shootings swirled around the big prize – the Chicago Public School juice contracts.

“If you were brewing this juice and you worked on it for months and all your tanks are empty, you are not going to bid on a contract for an entire school year,” he said. “The hope was that you’d hit tanks or the lines running through the building and ruin a batch so that the juice company could not accept the bid or bid on the actual year of schooling.”

In the middle of the storm was Joe Imburgia, who carried on the family fruit business. His father, Dominic, immigrated from Sicily to the United States and ran a fruit cart in Chicago’s historic South Water Market district. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War 2, Joe founded Del Crest Juice Company with his brother Phil. They built the Forest Park building in 1956 and expanded operations with an addition built before the decade’s end.

Patrick Imburgia, Joe’s son, said that Del Crest specialized in juice production and delivery. They made orange juice, lemon juice, papaya juice, grape juice, and orange juice, delivering them to taverns and grocery stores throughout Chicagoland.

Altogether, they had eight or nine routes and up to 22 employees. They also sold juice, Jello, freeze pops, and for a brief period in the 1950s, perfumes. Delivering juice to crews at construction sites was a lucrative, but contentious part of business.

“We did juice for those guys and that was pretty tough at the time,” he said. “If you had the business, you wouldn’t try to sneak in there and undercut somebody. It was the way business was in those days.”

Patrick said that in the early 1970s there was an arson attempt on the building. He remembered that they poured in gasoline from the second-story window.

“We came in the next day,” he said. “There was gas inside the place. You could see there was a wick where someone didn't get the whole thing to catch. At that point, my dad and Uncle bricked up the windows.”

Everyone at Del Crest was spooked.

“You have a lot of families you’re trying to take care of,” he said. “You kind of know who it might be, but you’re not certain.”

And you’re not telling anyone. News of the arson attempt escaped the local papers, keeping the story out of the public eye.

“He didn’t say much,” said Patrick, who went on to found his own food flavoring company in California. “It was very clandestine in those days. If you knew something, you didn’t talk about it.”

However, an arson attempt in the same era at a different suburban juice business was the kind of bumbling fiasco that could not not be talked about. In fact, this spectacular failure made front page news in no less than the Chicago Tribune after it left two men dead and a third seeking hospital attention for his burn wounds 170-miles away from the fire.

The scene: the notorious suburb of Cicero, a town bordering Chicago that a former Cook County prosecutor described in 1961 as “a walled city of the syndicate" where the mob was friendly with the police force and vice reigned.

The suspected ringleader: Donald Adams, a 35-year-old Cicero cop who had bought a rival juice business, Fresh Made Juice Company, one month earlier. Business was good at Fresh Made until about three weeks before the fire. That’s when two groups of delivery drivers switched their business to Tropic Juices, causing Adams about $500 per week in losses, or about $2,780 per week in losses today with inflation.

Don W. Franko Sr., who founded his juice business in 1959, was warned that his Cicero facility would burn on Christmas, but had scoffed at the rumor, news reports say.

Firefighters rushed to the fire at the Tropic Juices building at 3:50 a.m. on Christmas Day, 1974, and did not extinguish the blaze until nearly eight hours later. Out of the wreckage, rescue workers recovered the body of Adams and his relative, a 17-year-old boy who worked for him.

The Illinois Fire Marshall said that the fuel tank plug of one of two trucks in the building had been removed, and gas-soaked paper and buckets used to carry gasoline were found at the site. The 17-year-old boy and an adjustable wrench were discovered near the second truck, whose fuel tank plug was in place.

Authorities said that a hot water heater, which did not belong to the juice company, may have been brought in as an “incendiary device” and ignited the fumes before the crew could escape. It was found near Adams’ body.

Adrianne Frederick, of Berwyn, covered the fire for the Cicero Life, a local newspaper. She remembered Adams as a “nice person” who got in too deep.

“Cicero got to him,” she said. “A lot of strange things happen in Cicero.”

Another man linked to the fire, a brother-in-law of Adams who also worked for his juice company, showed up on Christmas at a hospital in Bedford Township, Michigan seeking treatment for second-degree burns that covered 18 percent of his body. His wife, who drove him to the hospital along with their two daughters, claimed that he had been working in their garage cleaning auto parts with gasoline at 4 a.m. that morning when he accidentally lit the fire with a cigarette.

Cicero police, who were investigating a fatal fire masterminded by one of their own officers, said that there were no reports of any fires or explosions at his house that morning.

The man’s mother-in-law told a local newspaper that her daughter “was in shock” after the explosion and “could not think of where to seek help except through her parents.” They quickly hired an attorney and refused to speak with investigators.

The man could not be reached for comment.

After the fire, Tropic Juices filed a $3 million lawsuit against Adams’ company alleging that all three men were arsonists and that they had lost business to Fresh Made after the fire.

Patrick Imburgia, the son of the Del Crest Juice Company founder, said that they helped Tropic Juices stay on their feet in the week following the blaze. Later on, Del Crest sold their business to the company.

Reached for comment, Franko Sr., now 88, said he didn’t want to talk about the fire. It was so long ago and he would rather forget it happened. He said the Juice Wars sounded like “a lot of embellishment.”

“I don’t know where all that comes from,” said Franko Sr., who described himself as the “only true survivor of that era.”

“It boggles my mind. If these things were taking place, I must have been unaware of what’s going on in my industry. I always thought I was on top of things.”

It’s unclear whether anyone was ever charged for causing the fire.

Barry Grossman, a former Cook County prosecutor, handled the case. Reached by phone, he could only remember that there was a fire in a juice factory.

“Time elapses and memories fade,” he said.