Joseph A. Rigotti

Two decades after taking over the family cheese shop on 9th Street, cousins Bill and Emilio Mignucci have turned Di Bruno Bros. into a $20 million foodie empire. For their next trick: saving the Italian market

“That was Thursday,” Bill remembers. “On Monday night we brought the family together and drew up the paperwork to buy them out. And I thought in the back of my mind, ‘If I think about this any longer, I’ll talk myself out of it.’ My mother was appalled: ‘Why did I spend all that money to send you to Drexel?’ My girlfriend, who is my wife now, said, ‘You’re gonna do what? You’re gonna smell like cheese all the time.’”

“Well,” Bill told her, “at least it’s not seafood.”

THERE WAS, no doubt, the pungent scent of seafood in the air on the August day in 1990 when Bill and Emilio Mignucci joined the ranks of Italian Market proprietors and unlocked the doors of their Di Bruno’s at 930 South 9th Street to begin an inventory of the merchandise they now owned. Though they won’t reveal what they paid the various family members, Bill says store sales at the time were less than $1 million a year. But the store was profitable, and the Di Bruno name had a strong brand quality to build on. That first day, while the cousins were tallying up the hanging sausage-shaped hunks of aging provolone and the links of pepperoni, a woman knocked on the door. She’d come from Texas and wanted to buy something from Di Bruno’s.

The cousins spent the next seven years learning how the business worked and maturing both personally and as businessmen. At one of their first visits to a meeting of the South 9th Street Business Men’s Association, an interminable gripe session with little leadership and no set agenda, Bill stood up and made a suggestion.

“The last time I saw you on this street,” he was told, “you were in diapers.” “The old guys let us know real quick where we stood,” Emilio says.

Their natural interests and skills led them to an informal division of labor. Bill, a self-described “non-culinarian,” focused on the business details. Emilio, a foodie before the term became popular, devoted himself to finding and developing new products and searching out suppliers.

Emilio had become familiar with exotic and pricey cheeses from his days in the restaurant world. He began to bring them into the store alongside the provolone and locatelli. “I needed an outlet for those cheeses,” he recalls. “That’s how the wholesale business started. It just kind of happened. Then I introduced smoked salmon and pâtés after that. My cousin would say, ‘That stuff’s not gonna sell. Nobody’s gonna eat that crap.’ I’d say, ‘Just taste it — it’s like meatloaf.’ So I got my cousin and brother to eat it.

“Then we became a gourmet store. Truffled olive oils. Mushrooms. Everybody had white button mushrooms; we had chanterelles, wild mushrooms, black trumpets, morels. I’d bring them into the shop, put them in a basket, sell them right out of the store. I’d give them to good customers to try ’em. One at a time, we let people taste stuff, and we built it up just like that.”

It took the cousins five years to pay off the debt they’d assumed to buy the store. When they were almost debt-free, they allowed a group of Wharton MBA students to work up a case study of the revamped Di Bruno’s, which by then was, in Bill’s words, “a business that’s primed to grow but doesn’t know how.”