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

“They came in for six weeks,” he says, “did focus groups, asked what would happen if we opened up in the suburbs. They finally came to the conclusion that Center City Philadelphia was perfect. By then we were ready to test the waters. A week later we found a cheese shop on 18th Street.”

That was 1996. The Mignuccis may have stumbled into buying Di Bruno’s, but the timing of their transition into high-end food purveyors was uncanny. In the early ’90s, a nascent trend was about to burst into the mainstream. The arrival of the urban foodie was at hand. When the Food Network launched in 1993, Emilio remembers saying to his cousin, “This is going to be great for us.” It was like a strange sort of virus sweeping through the populace, ready to reach a tipping point. It seemed, suddenly, that food was important. The demand for hitherto unusual and high-quality products, price be damned, was exploding. The country was becoming what writer David Kamp has called “The United States of Arugula.”

“We were very fortunate that the food industry became really fun and trendy,” Bill says. Within a few years, Di Bruno’s opened another shop a few doors down on 18th Street to sell prepared foods.

The company stayed that way for some years. Then, as the economy recovered after 9/11 and the Center City residential real-estate market took off, the Mignuccis started looking for a downtown location to establish a large, lavish food emporium, the kind of high-end place with which Bill had become familiar in New York, where he lived for several years in the late ’90s after his wife took a job on Wall Street. There was talk around Philly that one of the best-known New York retailers, Dean & Deluca, was scouting the Philadelphia market, opening a few small coffee shops here as a precursor to landing the mothership. “When we saw that,” Emilio says, “we figured it was time to do something big and make their barrier to entry a little higher.”

The grand two-story retail and restaurant space at 1730-32 Chestnut Street cost the Mignuccis more than $7 million to buy and build out. The partners’ (and Bill’s father’s) homes are still in hock to secure the debt. After the new shop — a virtual Disneyland of food, from salumi to Nova lox to $30 estate-bottled olive oils — opened in 2005, the company’s sales tripled. Staff poured in to the point that a human resources department had to be created to handle them. Soon, product sourcing reached far beyond cheeses to include expensive computer systems for tracking and controlling inventory and items like a $30,000 robotic meat and cheese slicer to ensure uniformity and eliminate waste. Danny and Joe Di Bruno might still be spinning in their graves. These days, the original store on 9th Street comprises only 10 to 15 percent of the Di Bruno business, and 9th Street has started to seem like such a different world than Rittenhouse Square, not to mention Ardmore.