While a number of food stores are closing up shop, one East Coast chain has successfully paired gourmet food with exceptional customer service to withstand the test of time and a troubled economy.
At Di Bruno Bros. specialty food shops in Philadelphia you’ll find all things Italian, from the finest prosciutto to authentic imported cheese. Here, they have it all, so it’s no wonder they are nationally known as one of the best specialty stores in the country.
In 1990, Emilio Mignucci, his brother Bill and cousin Billy Jr. were handed the keys to Di Bruno Bros., founded in the City of Brotherly Love by their grandfathers Danny and Joe Di Bruno in 1939. Danny imparted the secret of the Di Bruno Bros. legacy to his grandchildren, saying,“It’s your responsibility to make customers want to come to the store. They don’t have to. They always have other choices. Give them an experience.”
“I’m not sure we really heard what he was trying to tell us that day,” admits Emilio Mignucci. “None of us had any retail experience at that point in our lives. At the time, I had graduated from culinary school and my experience had been working in restaurants. My brother was an investment banker and my cousin had a degree in business.”
When they started their business, Danny and Joe hadn’t had a lot of retail experience either. After emigrating from Italy to Philadelphia in 1939, they decided to pool their meager resources and open a small grocery store. Despite its size, the brothers packed it to the rafters with salamis, cheeses and other delicacies that Mignucci asserts, “were almost overwhelming to the customer when they entered the store. Danny and Joe had everything.”
Today, Danny and Joe Di Bruno’s first, 700-square-foot Italian market on Philadelphia’s South 9th Street still does a booming business, but there also are four other stores in the Philadelphia area that proudly carry on the Di Bruno Bros. name and tradition, in addition to an extensive e-commerce website, an import and distribution operation, private label manufacturing, and a catering business.
Despite their lack of retail experience, each of the cousins that took over the reins from Danny and Joe has been able to find his own area of expertise in building the business. Emilio’s area of expertise is the food, the travel to find the best foods, and teaching others how to talk to customers about the food. His brother Bill, the former investment banker, is the finance guy who manages the business of the five brick-and-mortar stores, and cousin Bill Jr. watches over the culture of the company and focuses on the big picture, and the strategy needed to meet the market’s needs.
And though Emilio Mignucci has a passion for all great foods, if he had to pick just one, it would be cheese.
Over the years Mignucci has tasted a lot of cheese, learned a lot about how fine cheese is made and aged, and shared a lot of stories about the very best cheeses from around the world. His in-depth knowledge earned Mignucci the James Beard Foundation’s award for Cheese Knowledge in 2007 and a place on the prestigious American Cheese Society’s Board of Directors.
As an ACS board member, Mignucci was instrumental in helping the ACS define a standard language to be used when professionals are discussing fine cheese. In addition, Mignucci also played a role in the creation of the rigorous and very competitive ACS Certified Cheese Professional Exam (CCPE). “I loved being able to empty my mind of everything I knew about cheese to help create that exam.”
These days, Mignucci takes home a wheel of Rush Creek Reserve to enjoy. This raw milk cheese from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin is bound in spruce bark, which gives the creamy, custard-like consistency a unique, woodsy flavor. It is only produced in the early autumn and available seasonally.
“I think American cheesemakers are doing surprisingly great things now, similar to American craft breweries,” says Mignucci. “They both are creating superior products in a similar way. They have a synergy in the products that are produced and paired. It’s great to see locally produced cheeses that can rival the European Gorgonzolas and Pecorinos.”
Being knowledgeable and having an exceptional selection of cheeses and other gourmet products goes hand-in-hand with providing the best customer service possible, which has fueled the expansion.
“Our customers taught us everything we needed to know and how to be nimble retailers,” says Mignucci. “We know that it’s important to listen to what customers want and then take it a step beyond. Retailing is an art, and once you understand that, you can never accept anything but the very best.”
For example, Di Bruno Bros. doesn’t just stock a wide selection of exceptionally good olive oil, according to Mignucci. “I would say that 90 percent of all the products we carry are made by people who we know personally, products that we know the story of, the history of how they’re made. We share those stories with our customers when they are making their choices.”
So the chain’s success still remains in the hands of the people, especially the store associates. “Our labor costs are higher than other retailers,” confirms Mignucci, “because our associates have more responsibility in terms of sampling and knowing and telling the story behind every product.”
And Di Bruno Bros. carries a wide selection of specialty gourmet foods, not just from Italy, but from all over Europe, Asia, South America and, of course, from the United States. Mignucci enthusiastically affirms that there is no food stocked which cannot be sampled by the customer before it is purchased.
“I’m most proud of how we have grown the business,” says Mignucci. And by saying ‘we,’ Mignucci is paying homage to everyone who works in the stores. “There are about 350 people who work at Di Bruno Bros. now, and many of them have worked for us for more than 10 years. It’s like an extended family.”
By listening to customers and making it a priority to fulfill their wants, as well as their needs, Di Bruno Bros.’ store employees contribute a lot of solid ideas that often become part of the company’s expansion plans. The associates’ feedback that comes from one-on-one interactions with customers and the stories told or traded often reveal what customers want.
“When we kept hearing that customers wish they could get our spreads, sauces, even our crostini in their area stores, we sat down and figured out how to make that happen. One solution was to manufacture our own private label products that are now carried in 120 East Coast Shop Rite stores as well as in other specialty retailers from Maine to Florida, and are currently pushing into the Midwest. ”The chain’s importing business was created during an attempt to find reasonably priced, high-quality products from other countries.
“[We discovered] importing products that we chose and negotiated ourselves was the best way to bring in the best products at the best price,” says Mignucci. “Then restaurants started coming to us to find truffles, pâtés and oils that were hard to find.”
Now Di Bruno Bros. imports about 30 shipping containers a year and distributes to almost 700 retail customers from New York City to Virginia. This part of the business was forged from the relationships that Danny and Joe had long fostered with international producers, but now it’s Emilio who travels all over the world to find the best of the best products.
For those customers who remember when Danny and Joe Di Bruno stood behind the counter and for those customers who weren’t even born when their grandsons took over the reins, Di Bruno Bros. continues to celebrate good food, good people and good business.CC
Visit Di Bruno Bros. at:
- The Italian Market – 930 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia, PA
- Rittenhouse Square – 1730 Chestnut Square, Philadelphia, PA
- For lunch, casual dining and weekend brunch – Upstairs@ Di Bruno Bros. at 1730 Chestnut Square
- The Franklin – 834 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA
- The Market at the Comcast Center – 1701 JFK Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA
- The Ardmore Farmers Market – 120 Coulter Ave., Ardmore, PA
- Online: www.dibruno.com
Danny and Joe Live Online!
For some, Philadelphia is a long way to go for even the finest cheese. But the Di Bruno Bros. website is a pretty clever alternative. The www.dibruno.com site will let you search and order specific cheeses.
If you don’t know what you want, it’s no problem. A simple click will take you to a virtual cheesemonger to guide you to a variety of cheeses for your plate or lead you to discover a new taste in cheese.
You will begin by answering a few questions, such as, “What is your price range? What type of cheese are you looking for? What is the occasion?”
Submit your answers and a variety of cheeses are displayed with complete information on country of origin, texture, milk, suggested wine and beer pairings and a personal recommendation from Emilio Mignucci or a Di Bruno Bros. cheesemonger.
If you’re looking for great cheeses to serve or an education about cheeses, the Di Bruno Bros. virtual cheesemonger site is an engaging way to build a perfect cheeseboard for any celebration. It’s all part of their exceptional customer experience which, for online customers, includes delivery to your door. CC