The only thing cheesy about Joseph Pollio, Jr., is his passion for the Polly-O family business he helmed for a quarter-century before selling the brand to Kraft and eventually moving to Key Biscayne to enjoy another white-yellow staple of life: The sun.
Text by Luisana Suegart Photos by Antonio Eli | July 12, 2018 | People

As the Chief Operating Officer of Polly-O Cheese Products, Joseph Pollio, Jr., spent decades overseeing the maneuvers of one of the biggest names in cheese. Even so, just call him Joe. Today, the 66-year-old retiree is looking back to his family’s legacy from his Key Biscayne home, while dedicating himself to fulfilling his entrepreneurial spirit. Even in this day and age, you can expect no less from a man who has lived and breathed business since he was old enough to know it.
“Growing up, I was very interested in the Polly-O business and before I graducated college, I would do all kinds of jobs that involved selling and manufacturing in order to prepare me,” he says. “When I graduated, I realized my dream of going into the family business.”
Eventually, the family sold the company to Kraft, a testament to the success of his 25-year tenure. Pollio — and the two generations prior — worked diligently to make Polly-O into a brand that continues to shine.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Pollio majored in business and minored in political science at CW Post College, which is now part of Long Island University. Meanwhile, it was his grandfather, Albert, who was continuing with the business that was founded in 1899 by Giuseppe Pollio, who arrived from Italy and started manufacturing Italian cheese.
“When one of my grandfather’s sons was killed in the Air Force during World War II, my father Joseph and aunt Rose entered the business,” Pollio explains. “It was very hectic, but it was always fun.”
When the Polio disease came into effect in the late ‘30s, the heads behind the company became concerned with its negative connotation and the name was changed to Polly-O Cheese Products. “A marketing agency came up with the bird logo and made Polly-O the trade name,” he says. “I imagine the trademark will always be there, and people will always recognize it by the bird on the packaging.”
Right he is. As COO of the company, part of Pollio’s responsibility was to visit manufacturing plants on a regular basis to check the quality of the products. “My grandfather Albert was an excellent businessman and he decided that they were going to make the best cheese available,” he says. “There were many other competitors who started the business at the same time but they never had the quality to match ours.”
Part of the job was to keep up with the competitors who did make it big, which led to the company’s own take on the very celebrated string cheese. It remains Pollio’s favorite Polly-O product for more than the taste. “I love to eat string cheese as a snack, but one of the reasons it’s my favorite is that I was one of the principals responsible for introducing it to the company, although we weren’t the original creator.”
When Polly-O wanted to introduce the stringy stuff into its product line, Pollio spent over six months in Italy where they developed a machine that made string cheese mechanically, rather than by hand. “It was an exciting project, and being in Italy for six months wasn’t so bad, either!”
And while the company continued to grow, Pollio acknowledges that running the family business wasn’t always smooth sailing. “There were a lot of good times and a lot of trying times,” he says. “Like any other family, we had our squabbles, but we always reconciled and moved on.”
There was also a lot of hard — and overwhelming — work. “The business got so big, and the family started to shrink, and it became too hard for my father and I to manage, so we decided to sell it to a larger enterprise.”
And that’s how the company was sold to Kraft in 1982, when Pollio decided to place his energy toward other business ventures, moving to Vermont where he started an apple orchard and a mail-order business. He and his father, however, were not ready to leave the business completely. “I was a consultant for five years, and my dad continued as a spokesman for the brand for over 15 years,” he explains. “It was great…we had all the glory, but none of the responsibility!”
But sooner than later, enough was enough. “I got sick and tired of the cold, and in 2001, we came to visit my parents in Key Biscayne and fell in love with the island all over again,” says Pollio, who now lives on the Key with his wife, Terry.
While Pollio is technically retired, he hardly spends his days watching the sun rise and set. “I really enjoy going out to the local restaurants and the local shops. I enjoy hiking and walking around the Key, Crandon Park, and playing tennis,” says Pollio, who is a member of the Key Biscayne Historical Society. “I also spend a lot of time taking care of my mother, Ruth, who at 93, doesn’t like to stay home for longer than five minutes!”
It sounds like a handful, but it’s really only a pair of passions that drive Pollio. “My days are predominantly spent on my two major hobbies — model trains and antique cars,” he smiles. “I have a train layout set up at the house and I also have a little business in which I collect small trains, restore them, and sell them on Ebay.”
As is the case with most business owners, Pollio is keeping a close eye on the economy. “I just try to do the best I can with the economy and with my hobbies, while my wife and I live our life,” he says. “We like to cook and travel as we try to weather the storm, so to speak.”
On sunnier days, make sure to keep an eye out for Pollio and his wife, who can be spotted around the Key with the top down in their ‘62 Chevy Impala, ‘64 Ford Galaxy 500 or ’34 Ford Phaygon. “Those keep us very busy!” he laughs. And we’re sure that’s just the way he wants it!