Building a Legacy
By Anna Wolfe
The third generation is at the helm of Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia. Since taking over the family business in 1990, they've expanded from one to four locations, launched a thriving wholesale business all while working to preserve the family legacy.
Photography by I. George Bilyk
Since 1928, Suburban Square has been known as a shopping area, and over the years it has evolved to become a retail and restaurant destination that's home to a list of well-known retailers including Williams-Sonoma and Kitchen Kapers kitchenware stores, Apple and more. In 2003, Suburban Square expanded with a brand new building for the Ardmore Farmers Market. Unlike traditional farmers markets where vendors operate seasonally and out of the back of their vehicles, this market is a fully enclosed building with permanent, year-round tenants.
The market is vibrant and thriving with 16 specialty retailers that include Great Harvest Bread, Cupcakes Gourmet, Saxbys Coffees, Stoltzfus Fresh Poultry and more.
The upscale suburban location is ideal for Di Bruno Bros., notes Emilio, who is the company's vice president of culinary pioneering. "They (area residents) don't do a lot of cooking at home, so it is a great prepared foods and cheese area."
Previously, part of the space was a Downtown Cheese Shop operated by Jack Morgan, who scaled back to one location inside Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market. Morgan contacted Di Bruno Bros. in Nov. 2009 about the Ardmore space.
In the end, Di Bruno's expanded the cheese shop, and is leasing 2,600 square feet of retail space.
For Di Bruno Bros., the goal is to expand its business while coexisting with diverse vendors, explains Bill, the company president. In fact, the Ardmore location is right across the street from Trader Joe's.
When asked why they opened directly across from the value-priced retailer, Bill cites Di Bruno Bros.' customer-service focused and knowledgeable staff and their different product offering that includes specialty foods from local companies and U.S. producers, Europe, South America, North Africa and Asia.
"Danny (their grandfather) taught us it is not productive to spend a lot of time worrying about competition," Bill says. "They come to Di Bruno Bros. because they want to come. We have a brand where people say, 'I want to go there, not I have to go.'"
Still, some newcomers may experience sticker shock.
"A $30 per pound cheese is a risky purchase," Emilio states, but Di Bruno's service-oriented staff puts shoppers at ease. Customers can sample any product, and the knowledgeable staff can suggest alternatives that will meet the customer's needs. "Our stores are overwhelming. This economy is overwhelming," adding that Di Bruno Bros. is stocked with quality items in all price ranges.
During the recession, some retailers have expanded their selection of lower-priced items to pique the interest of frugal consumers. Not Di Bruno Bros. "We're not going to start selling something because it is cheaper. You've got to stand by your mission," stresses Emilio.
Case in point: The retailer sells Parmigiano Reggiano from Giorgio Cravero, who has been the stores sampling his product and meeting staff and customers. It is a few dollars more than other Parmigiano Reggianos on the market, explains Emilio, but Di Bruno Bros. is sticking with it because of the superior quality, taste and relationship with the producer.
Four Different Stores
At Ardmore, the customer mindset is focused on having the best, and customers will oftentimes gravitate to the most expensive item on the shelf because they equate, despite the staff showing them a full range of products, the most expensive item as superior. At Ninth Street location, consumers are more financially conservative. The store's diverse clientele, which includes the twenty- and thirty-something hipsters as well as a more senior demographic, is watching their spending, Emilio explains.
"Everybody from college students to the successful business man, we show the value," explains Emilio.
Cheese is the No. 1 seller, and prepared foods is a big part of the Di Bruno's retail business. Di Bruno Bros. sells prepared foods at Ardmore, Comcast and Chestnut Street locations. When The Gourmet Retailer was visiting Ardmore location in October, the prepared foods case was stocked with core items plus some seasonal specialties thrown in. Staples include chicken cutlets, chicken parmigana, homemade meatballs, spinach pie, and black bean burgers, which Emilio describes as a "monster" seller.
The wholesale division grew organically from the Italian Market location. Starting in 1993, restaurateurs would come into the Ninth Street store wanting to buy a wholesale cheese course to add to their menus. "It's a side business that has grown into something that's significant," explains Emilio.
Di Bruno Bros. imports many products direct, including olive oil, vinegar, San Marzano tomatoes, Parmigiano Reggianno, an assortment of French cheeses and more. Di Bruno Bros. also wholesales precut cheeses such as Huntsman, Jarslberg and Asiago.
Also at the warehouse, Di Bruno Bros. makes 5,000 pounds of fresh mozzarella a week, including three-pound loaves that are popular with its casinos and restaurants.
Di Bruno Bros. also wholesales a line of Di Bruno Bros. refrigerated cheeses spreads. Supermarkets including Ahold, Shoprite and Giant are among Di Bruno's list of wholesale customers; they all carry the Di Bruno Bros. line of refrigerated cheese spreads.
"We're very cautious with those requests. We selectively partner with big box retailers," Emilio explains, adding that the cheese spreads are in 300 Giant stores. "We're trying to find a balance."
The six-item line includes: Pesto; Bacon and Horseradish; Port Wine; Provolone and Chianti; Roasted Garlic and Herb; Gorgonzola; and Abbruzze, the "flagship cheese spread" that's made with aged cheddar, hot pepper garlic and herbs.
For its four locations, the retailer stocks its private-label line of sauces, vinegars, olive oils and more.
Over the years, Di Bruno Bros. firmly established its reputation as a leading purveyor of specialty cheeses, charcuterie and other specialty foods. Danny and Joe, the original product pioneers, were recognized as experts for their knowledge and specialty food finds and established the shop as a gourmet destination.
Then in August 1990, Bill and Emilio took over the business. Emilio's brother Billy, whose nicknamed Billy Money for his work in the financial area of the business, joined them in 1991. Back in those days, the country was in the middle of a recession.
Sales at the Ninth Street store, its only location at the time, were shy of $1 million annually, and the store had about 12 employees. And they maintained those numbers for nine years.
Not resting on their laurels, the entrepreneurial trio continued on in Danny and Joe's footsteps, sourcing new specialty foods. By networking and expanding relationships both locally and internationally, they expanded the family business, and in 1993, they started importing and wholesaling.
In retrospect, taking over ownership in the '90s was "great timing," explains Bill. "We rode the wave of increasing interest in specialty foods," adds Emilio.
Things have definitely changed. Years ago when bringing in 200-pound wheels of cave-aged Swiss cheese (through the front door, as there isn't a shipping dock at the Ninth Street store.) "Customers would say, 'It was in a cave? We're not going to eat that,'" Emilio says.
In 2000, Bill took classes at ZingTrain, and he says, "It changed my life." (Editor's Note: TGR Columnist Maggie Bayless is one of the principals at ZingTrain, the training arm of the award-winning specialty food retailer Zingerman's.) During those intensive seminars, Bill learned how to build a business based on values.
"My takeaway from ZingTrain was how to grow a business deeper, based on philosophy and culture, rather than bigger. That's more important," Bill says, adding that, "You've got to go to work for more than dollars and cents."
Emilio points out that the mission has sustained the business in leaner years. In 2008, sales dropped 10 to 15 percent. And instead of facing layoffs, Di Bruno's employees opted for less hours and a pay cut.
"Philadelphians are very loyal. It's a blue collar, humble city," Bill says. "There are no egos here," he says, referring to the company. "We sell great food, our employees are great people, but it's about more than food."
Creating a Gourmet Destination
"One of the best things we did not do was rush into it. We were cautious," says Bill.
Before building the flagship on Chestnut Street, they tapped a local reSource: the Wharton School of Business. It was the first time they worked with the nationally acclaimed business school, and they've worked with them three times since, doing local focus groups.
"It gave us the confidence," Bill says about building a gourmet destination store that includes a cafe, coffee bar, cheese cave, prepared foods, charcuterie counter, carving station, meat and seafood and expanded catering services. "They (Wharton) showed us that if we commit to quality and legacy, people will respond."
Before opening the flagship, "it was always in the back of our minds that Philly deserves and needs a store like that. We thought 'Let's do it. Let's give it a shot,'" Bill says. To build the store, they raised $4 million.
"The commitment wasn't just for us," Emilio stresses. "The city was a food desert. It's about giving employees a chance to have a career. It wasn't all about making money."
With the flagship's opening, Di Bruno Bros. also tweaked its name to reflect its mission.
"We introduced the rebranding of 'Culinary Pioneers since 1939' and moved away from the 'House of Cheese,'" explains Bill. "We felt for those who didn't know us, it may have given a limited perception of what we really offer."
The store and the re-branding was well received, and as a result, 2006 was an award-filled year for Di Bruno Bros. The company received a Retailer of the Year award from the National Association of the Specialty Food Trade plus accolades from the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Philadelphia Business Journal.
"It was not a stellar year financially," notes Bill. "When you take a family business to that level — $7 million annually — there are significant financial setbacks. Our spirit and the recognition carried us."
Since then, the company has grown to approximately $25 million in annual sales, but the bottom line "is burdened," Bill explains. "If you want to make a lot of money quickly, don't get into the food business.
"We're building a legacy, and we're growing. We see where we are going."
With 200 year-round employees, Bill admits, "Our big down fall is we don't have a consistent training program."
That's something the company is working to rectify. At press time, Di Bruno Bros. was working with a local writer to create a training curriculum that brings together the needed people and technical skills in a fun yet effective manner that reflects the company's culture.
"Once the commercial kitchen is open, it will help grow our business," Bill says. "We can take on more opportunities."
After the commercial kitchen is up and running, one idea is to use the Chestnut Street kitchen, which has an adjacent sit-down dining area, to host a pop-up restaurant.
Throughout the growth and evolution of the family-owned company, the leadership of the company is very much inspired by the first generation that started it all 72 years ago.
Bill says, "I know Danny would be proud of what we're doing here."
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