02-25-15 Vero Beach Newsweek: Joseph Semprevivo – one smart cookie
Joseph Semprevivo – one smart cookie
How diabetes gave rise to rolling in the dough
At age 9, Joseph Semprevivo was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The doctors told his parents, Lawrence and Jo-Marie, their son would be lucky to live to 17.
That was a hard pill to swallow for the Semprevivo family whose name means “always alive” in Italian.
Little did they know that Joseph’s diagnosis would change their lives forever.
Against all odds – having experienced a lifetime of sacrifice, heartache, and pain – this Vero Beach family through love, hard work and determination is now rolling in the dough, sugar free cookie dough to be exact.
“I was a young boy and all I wanted was to eat a cookie,” said Joseph Semprevivo.
And so begins the humble story of Joseph’s Cookies, a multi-million dollar company that rolls out 12 million cookies a day to be shipped all across the U.S. and to 47 countries around the world.
“Because my son wanted a cookie so badly, I experimented with oatmeal until I got the ingredients right and surprised my son with his first cookie in six years,” said Lawrence Semprevivo. “He was so happy he cried and then asked if I could make him a chocolate chip cookie.”
Wanting to share these cookies with other diabetics, Joseph at age 15 urged his parents to help him and they began baking 160 sugar free cookies a day in their kitchen, then brought them to local markets for people to sample.
“For most people back in 1986, sugar free meant tastes bad,” said Joseph. “We did demos at local markets in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona and people loved them, and we grew bigger and bigger until it exploded.”
They brought their cookies to big chain food stores and were immediately picked up by Albertsons and Krogers because there were no sugar free cookies on the shelves. Soon after, others vied for their business.
Joseph was approached by QVC to sell his cookies on television. The first day on air Joseph sold 3.6 million cookies. It was so successful that Joseph’s Cookies became a regularly scheduled item sold on the network for six consecutive years.
At age 17, Joseph received the American Success Award from President George Bush in the Rose Garden at the White House on September 11, 1989 for his entrepreneurial success at such a young age.
By his 20th birthday, Joseph had made his first million dollars.
Lawrence Semprevivo and his wife Jo-Marie lived in Cherry Hill, N.J., with their two children Palma and Lawrence Jr. Joseph had not been born when his father almost lost his arm in a printing press machine accident at work.
Fearful of having to have his arm amputated, he did everything possible, including surgical and never-performed testing procedures to save his limb. It was a long painful process.
Because he couldn’t work, the family had quickly slipped into poverty, barely able to keep a roof over their heads or put food on the table. The parents often skipped meals to feed their children.
Through the power of prayer, hope and conviction, Lawrence regained full use of his arm and fingers, but the bitter Northeastern winters turned his arm blue with pain.
The family moved to New Mexico to start a new life in a hot, dry climate. They opened a restaurant, then another and another – for a total of four, all successful.
When Joseph was five, the family went on a week vacation to the San Diego Zoo, the first vacation Lawrence and Jo-Marie took in 30 years.
They returned home to find that their niece’s fiancé, who was in charge of the restaurants while they were away, sold all the restaurant goods and furniture and emptied their bank accounts.
The Semprevivos were forced to file bankruptcy. Lawrence vowed to pay every creditor – and he did years later, after the success of the cookie company even though the promise was not required.
The couple started over once again. Lawrence took a job as executive chef at a local Holiday Inn and his wife became a waitress in the hotel’s restaurant.
They were just starting to get back on their feet when Joseph, their youngest child, was diagnosed with diabetes.
Barely able to pay for insulin and test strips for their son, the couple knew they had to make more money. They entered into a “rent to own” restaurant deal and purchased the building a few years later.
Restaurant life was a family affair and the children often went there after school to work and help their parents with the business.
“My mother wanted the restaurant to be different from the other restaurants in town, by serving ice cream after every meal,” said Joseph. “My job was to make the ice cream, which was hard because I wanted to eat it and I couldn’t have sugar.”
The Semprevivos encouraged Joseph to make sugar-free ice cream. So one day when he was 12, Joseph came running out of the restaurant’s kitchen with pink, sugar-free ice cream smeared all over his face.
The ice cream needed improvement – when it was frozen it turned into a block of ice. So Lawrence worked on the recipe with his son until it was perfect.
The restaurant served the sugar-free ice cream with sugar-free pies and became such a hit, that the family began making and distributing Semprevivo’s Sugar-Free Ice Cream to 187 local stores in the New Mexico and Texas.
When Lawrence produced the first sugar-free cookie ever made for distribution to the world, the ice cream business was shelved.
“It is the most wonderful feeling to be successful,” said Lawrence. “To be able to go to a restaurant with your family and pay for it, or buy a car and be able to afford it – to have that security is invaluable. When you go bankrupt like we did many times, you become very conscious of a dollar. You don’t overspend because you remember the hard times. You become like a little squirrel putting a couple of nuts away every day because you are always afraid this can happen again.”
“We’ve come a long way,” said Jo-Marie. “It’s like a dream come true.”
Jo-Marie Semprevivo has quietly been the pillar of strength, the light in the storm, the inspiration behind the success of the Semprevivo family.
Her son, Joseph, took his desire to share sugar free cookies with other diabetics and has worked hard to make his dream a reality: traveling over 300 days per year from the time he graduated college until just six years ago when he opened corporate headquarters in Sebastian to be near his parents who retired in Vero Beach 16 years ago.
Their latest endeavor is a book titled, “Madness Miracles Millions,” published in 2013, inspired by Jo-Marie and written by her husband and son.
“I just felt that there have been so many people down on their luck after the recession seven years ago. And if they could put this all down in writing – our life story – it would give people hope that they, too, could come back and be successful at anything they wanted to do,” said Jo-Marie.
“It brings a lot of happiness for me to know that my parents began all of this out of love for me and I am proud to have dedicated my life to share it with the world.”
Joseph’s Cookies are sold locally at all Treasure Coast Walmart Stores, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Big Lots. The flavors include Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Walnut, Pecan Chocolate chip, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Pecan Shortbread, Almond, Lemon and Coconut.
They, also, sell bite-size Walnut Brownies and Strawberry Coconut Cakes, Joseph’s Original Sugar Free Maple Syrup and a Maltitol Sweetener.
To order online or for more information visit