IT ONLY TOOK a few dimes to get the old-timers angry.
When cousins Bill and Emilio Mignucci took over the narrow and jam-packed Di Bruno Bros. cheese store on 9th Street in the heart of the Italian Market 20 years ago, one of its signature items, a grated sheep’s milk cheese called locatelli, sold for $3.49 a pound. The price hadn’t gone up in years. Bill’s grandfather Danny Di Bruno and Danny’s brother Joe had run the store since 1939. With the mortgage long paid off and a loyal following of customers, they felt comfortable drifting toward retirement buying the imported cheese from Italy for about three bucks and only marking it up 50 cents.
Bill and Emilio were both 21 years old at the time. They had scraped together enough borrowed money to buy the store from Danny and Joe, paying an amount that was acceptable to not only the old guys, but also their combined 11 children, who, until that moment, had not shown much interest in Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. The new young proprietors needed larger profit margins so they could start paying off their debt as they learned to run the business. One day, they pushed the price of locatelli up to $3.79.
“My God, the backlash!” Emilio remembers. “People wanted to kill us for raising the price 30 cents. We were thinking, ‘Are these people crazy?’ They’d come in and yell at us — ‘You’re tryin’ to get rich quick.’”
As it turned out, the Mignucci cousins (Emilio’s older brother, Billy, is also a partner these days, but stays in the background) have become kind of rich pretty quick. Two decades on, Di Bruno’s has far outgrown its Italian Market roots and is on the verge of opening its fourth retail outlet, at the Ardmore Farmers Market in Suburban Square, this month. Venturing into the Waspy and manicured suburbs, something that would have been unthinkable to the gritty, ethnic South Philly souls of the founding brothers — “Danny and Joe would be spinning in their graves,” says Bill Mignucci — is the latest expansion of a company that now includes a wholesale division, online mail order, a catering operation, an outpost in the Market & Shops at Comcast Center, and a 19,000-square-foot store not far off Rittenhouse Square that has established Di Bruno’s as this city’s answer to the great high-end food shops such as Dean & Deluca, Balducci’s and Zabar’s.
Fueled by a bred-in-the-bone work ethic, buoyed by a bubble in consumer behavior, the Mignuccis — Bill as president and Emilio taking the more fanciful title of “vice president and director of culinary pioneering” — now control one of the largest family-owned businesses in the region, with up to 175 employees during busy holiday seasons and well over $20 million in annual sales. The Mignucci boys may have created the most successful enterprise based on cheese since Lawrence Welk.
But while the Mignuccis long ago transcended the South Philly storefront culture that gave them life, something about 9th Street keeps pulling them back. In addition to striking out into the suburban market, the cousins have hatched some ambitious designs to upgrade their original stake hold in the Italian Market, a project that could help preserve — even while drastically altering — that uniquely Philadelphia landmark, whose demise has been heralded since the Mignucci boys were born.
IN THE PECULIAR ECOSYSTEM that is the Italian Market, Di Bruno Bros. could easily have died and disappeared like so many other family-run businesses whose names are now barely remembered by the shrinking population of old-timers: Giunta’s butcher shop, Pete’s Poultry, Lombardo’s Seafood. From a post-war pinnacle, when the market was a daily destination of all those stay-at-home housewives with growing families, through the quiet, slow-motion upheaval that brought the rise of two-career couples, shiny spic-and-span supermarkets and the suburban diaspora of the second- and third-generation ethnic South Philly natives, the crowded strip of 9th Street stretching from Ellsworth to Christian showed remarkable resilience in the midst of inexorable decay.
At the start of their sixth decade in the grueling, seven-days-a-week world of shop-keeping, Danny and Joe Di Bruno were both tired and ailing. They’d built a solid business and between them raised a bunch of kids. But by 1990 none of the kids wanted to take over the old store. They’d established themselves in other careers and had families. A number had moved to the suburbs, just like many of their parents’ former customers.
Bill Mignucci was well aware of this when he dropped in to visit his grandfather and grandmother one night soon after he’d graduated from Drexel with a business degree. He’d been born in the neighborhood, but his family fled for South Jersey when he was 10.
“I went over to tell them that I was moving to California,” Bill remembers. “I was going to get an apartment in Redondo Beach. My buddies were already out there. The idea was to meet girls and have fun and find myself. In Los Angeles there was this farmers market right near CBS Studios. I figured I’d go work there. They were really lacking in cheese. They had, like, Jarlsberg.
“So I go to my grandmother’s, and I’m really there hoping to get a check for a couple hundred dollars to help fund my way. And my grandfather Danny said, ‘Why are you going there? Why don’t you take over Di Bruno’s?’ Those words … you can’t imagine. He had always said, ‘When I’m done, the business is done. The business dies with me.’
“We were drinking a gallon of Carlo Rossi paisano wine. My grandmother, who was very influential in my life, she looked at me. She never liked Di Bruno’s. You know, ‘My kids don’t know what it is to have a father. He’s married to the business.’ But she turned to me and said, ‘You’d be really good at this business.’”
Bill called his cousin Emilio, who’d lived in South Philly his whole life, studied at the Restaurant School, and turned an unpaid internship at DiLullo Centro, then one of the city’s hottest restaurants, into a line-cook job. “It was, like, in my blood — something with food,” Emilio says now. “I don’t think I had a choice but to go into the food business.” He went over to Danny Di Bruno’s that night and helped polish off the bottle of Carlo Rossi.
“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.”
“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.
JUST ABOUT every Saturday morning, Emilio Mignucci gets up early and drives from his house in Havertown (where he moved when he had kids) to 9th Street to open the original Di Bruno’s store for its busiest day of the week. After pulling the various cheeses out of the ancient refrigerated walk-in, stacking the pepperoni, he’ll unlock the doors at 8 a.m. and work behind the counter in a black polo shirt monogrammed with the Di Bruno’s logo, jostling for space with whichever of the 12 employees are on that day, bantering with customers, offering samples — trying to keep the spirit of Danny and Joe Di Bruno alive.
It is late morning on a recent frigid, snowbound Saturday when Emilio slips a plaid tam over his closely cropped pate, dons a bright red yacht-racing-team jacket he’d purchased in Spain, and heads out onto 9th Street. On the sidewalk, he surveys an Italian Market that is both little changed and radically transformed from the place where Danny and Joe struck a beachhead in 1939.
To leave Di Bruno’s Chestnut Street store, or, more fittingly, their sleek, white-tiled shop in the high-tech and über-green Comcast Center — the oh-so-of-the-moment symbol of Philadelphia’s potential as a spiffy, modern city — and travel the two miles to the original store on 9th Street is like entering a time warp. Down here in the Italian Market, it might as well still be the dingy and depressed mid-’70s, when Sylvester Stallone ran down the street as Rocky, past the stacked produce and the street vendors, who, then as now, are warmed by the smoky, gritty heat of a flaming 50-gallon drum, burning bright amidst heaps of trash. Here, Frank Rizzo still presides, symbolically at least, confidently glaring from a three-story mural that covers the side of a building. This everyday eccentricity and unashamed shabbiness, this soles-of-the-shoes authenticity, helps make the market one of the few places in the city that is both ogled by tourists and patronized by locals.
The painted Rizzo looks south, over the canopies covering sidewalks squeezed with merchandise — tomatoes to toothbrushes — across the tattered awnings that protect the open-air stands, off toward Washington Avenue, where an empty lot about the size of a city block has been purchased by a New York developer. The project evokes the promise of a Big Apple-quality revitalization to some, and the specter of a yuppie and chain-store invasion to others. In that part of 9th Street, if you had a Rizzo’s-eye view, you could see the bodegas and taquerias that have filled up most of the storefronts north of the cheesesteak mecca that is the corner of Pat’s and Geno’s. It is this Spanish-speaking strip that prompts cab drivers to correct your destination request: You mean the Mexican Market; it ain’t the Italian Market anymore. A few decades ago, it would’ve been a crack about the Asians taking over.
The fact is, this place has always been a platform for new immigrants grasping for a toehold in America. And though the embarkation points have changed from Naples to Saigon to Puebla, the striving speaks the same language. There are whispers that some of the established Italians don’t like the Mexican newcomers. “That’s asinine,” says one of the younger Italian-American shop owners. “When I look at the Mexicans now, I see my Italian grandparents.”
Standing amid this street-level swirl of stasis and change, Emilio Mignucci seems right at home. He’s become the unofficial mayor of 9th Street, having been elected to the presidency of the market’s merchants’ association, which he helped revive after a period of dormancy.
Emilio was born a block away, walked to the St. Paul Catholic school through this corridor, started working at an outdoor produce stand when he was 12. That he insists on being back here at the store every Saturday sometimes frustrates his wife, who grew up here, too. “You work every damn day,” she tells him. “Can’t you take Saturday off?” “Why would I do that?” Emilio says. “All my life I’ve worked Saturday, since when I was a kid and worked in the stands. What do you mean, take off on a Saturday? What would I do?”
Today, business is slow, so Emilio can step away from the shop and give a tour. First stop, the little locked-up corner sandwich shop they called Di Bruno Bros. Pronto, for which he’s finally secured a liquor license and which he wants to turn into an osteria with a sidewalk café. He’s looking for a restaurateur to partner with, and the name Vetri pops up several times. (Marc Vetri calls the Mignucci cousins “great guys,” but says he is busy elsewhere right now.)
As Emilio talks, an old man slips on an icy sidewalk, and Emilio, in mayor mode, hustles across the street to help him up. The man is okay; Emilio pulls him upright, brushes him off and sets him on his way. Then he trades jibes with an outdoor produce vendor nearby.
“You in a good mood today?” Emilio shouts.
“Why not?” the man replies. “I don’t have any money, so there’s nothin’ to worry about.”
“I’d introduce you to him,” Emilio says, “but he’d probably say bad things about me.”
Emilio strolls into a cozy, bustling coffee shop owned by his friend Anthony Anastasio, a fourth-generation shopkeeper (this coffee shop was once his grandfather’s produce store) who was one of Emilio’s cohorts in recently waking the dormant South 9th Street Business Men’s Association. Emilio got the merchants back together again in 2005 simply to revive the annual Italian festival that he remembered so fondly from his childhood, with thousands of people cramming the streets, the statues of the saints from the local parish paraded through, and food and bands and a greased-pole-climbing contest.
The new festival has become a successful two-day event every May. Despite the fact that a number of longtime merchants balked at the $100 association fee, Emilio tried to use the merchants’ association as the basis to form a business-improvement district, a self-taxing, quasi-public entity that works to supplement city services. Emilio and others on 9th Street looked south with a certain envy at the seemingly overnight rejuvenation of East Passyunk Avenue, where “that guy in Kentucky,” Vince Fumo, used the substantial resources of the now-infamous Citizens’ Alliance for Better Neighborhoods to buy and renovate buildings, spruce up public spaces and pick new tenants with the discretion of a shopping-mall owner.
Frank DiCicco, former Fumo aide and now a councilman representing the First District, which includes both the market area and East Passyunk, spoke of introducing a business-improvement district to 9th Street more than five years ago. “It really blew up in my face,” he recalls. “My opponent in the last election used it against me: ‘You already pay enough taxes.’ People were ready to string me up by my toes.” DiCicco prevailed in that election and thinks the Italian Market area may finally be ready for an improvement district, which proponents say could help rationalize the balkanized trash-hauling system and help pay for amenities like improved lighting and collective marketing campaigns. DiCicco, who’s facing another stiff challenge in next month’s Democratic primary, has said he will introduce enabling legislation before City Council’s summer break.
“So now we’re getting some things done,” Emilio says, sitting at a table with a frothy cappuccino. “But all of a sudden we get backlash from some merchants, mostly the old guys. ‘Ah, you’re just doin’ this for your business.’
“Di Bruno’s? You think I wouldn’t survive if I wasn’t doing this? I don’t have to stay here. But our mentality is: This is where we came from. Where our grandparents started. We want the neighborhood to survive.” In recent years, he’s been thinking of bringing his wife and two sons back to South Philly, but the homes have gotten pricey. Emilio looks a little bit like a rough-hewn young Marlon Brando, and listening to him talk, it’s hard to tell whether he’s doing an impersonation of Robert De Niro, or whether De Niro has been doing him all these years.
“Some of these guys are so hardheaded you can’t even get through to them,” Emilio says. “‘Oh yeah,’ they say, ‘Di Bruno’s, Talluto’s [a popular 9th Street pasta maker] — you’re busy. But the rest of us …’
“I tell them, ‘I’m trying to make it so that more people come to this street. If you put on a nicer face. If you stop screamin’ and hollerin’ at people. If you’d be more pleasant. If you let people pick out their produce instead of telling them they can’t pick it out. People don’t mind if you charge more and let them pick it out — that’s why they go to Whole Foods. Don’t give them rotten shit! Instead of selling 10 for a dollar and three are rotten, sell seven for a dollar and let them pick their own.’” Emilio finally pauses to take a breath and sip his cappuccino. He seems a long way from his company’s Center City headquarters, where a $35,000 computer system helps “team leaders” choose the ultimate retail mark-up price.
“It’s like talking to a wall down here,” he concludes. “Really, you can’t get through to some of these guys.”
WHO KNOWS what kind of reaction the Mignucci cousins will get when they unveil their plan to stop talking to walls and start building some new ones on 9th Street. Late last year, an architect and a real-estate advisory firm hired by Di Bruno’s completed a feasibility study for a $7 million mixed-use development on an empty lot the family owns just north of its current Italian Market store. The plan for a sleek, modern five-story building right now is little more than a set of drawings and cost estimates, but Bill Mignucci has already started searching for a financing partner. As planned, the glassy new structure would house a two-story Di Bruno’s “destination store,” and apartments above that. The concept of street-level retail with living space above is not a radical notion. In its heyday, that’s what the market was — a bustling, 24/7 mash-up. But over the years, upstairs spaces emptied of people and were reserved for storage. Despite some new restaurants that have opened recently, 9th Street can seem very deserted at night.
In spirit, the new Di Bruno’s concept is quite similar to what the Passyunk Square Civic Association hopes New York-based Midwood Real Estate will build on that huge empty lot it owns below Washington Avenue. While neither building is a radical modernist architectural statement, in the context of 9th Street they will seem like spaceships dropped into a Western town — aliens meet cowboys. If both buildings are built, the look and feel of the Italian Market will be drastically altered. Whether that’s for the better will be much debated, because, of course, it’s the Italian Market. And someday, somehow, the cousins are going to have to break the news that their new building will block the view of Frank Rizzo’s mural.
Bill and Emilio Mignucci are long out of diapers. They charge nearly 13 bucks for a pound of locatelli these days, and they sell tons of it. Their next few business moves could affect the fates of all those who watched them grow up on 9th Street, and grow well beyond it. “The future of the market is up for grabs,” Bill says. “I certainly wouldn’t predict its demise, but uncertainty is not good. I think the best days are ahead. And I’m trying to get other people to believe it.”