DiBruno’s – beyond the old neighborhood and back again

Depending on how die-hard the annual traditionalist or curious the newcomer, on Christmas Eve morning, Philly’s Italian Market will start seeing long lines for its specialty goods before 6 a.m.

That’s the deal. You want something? Get up early. Brave the cold.

No line, however, will be longer and louder than the one for Ninth Street’s oldest shop, Di Bruno Bros., started in 1939 by Danny and Joe Di Bruno, and specializing in imported gourmet cheese and cured meats.

 “That’s the holiday tradition, I can’t wait,” said Emilio Mignucci, one of three Mignucci cousins (with Billy Jr. and Bill) who took over Di Bruno’s from its then-retiring founders in 1990. Since then, the next gen not only moved into digital sales (dibruno.com), and branded product lines (spreadables, sauces), but additional locations across the city (Rittenhouse, Washington Square West, Comcast Center’s Market), and into the suburbs (Ardmore Farmers Market, Wayne PA’s Stratford Shopping Center in 2020).

In 1990 the ambitious new generation of Di Bruno’s owners were poised to take advantage of the dramatic growth spurt of artisanal cheese and meat sales, and escalation of culinary culture. “The cost of entry in this new world would never be that low again, so we took a shot,” said Mignucci. “We knew competition would come soon and that we were uniquely situated with a brand my grandparents had built. We needed to find a way to make Danny and Joe’s legacy last longer than the years they put in.”

Mignucci gives an example of the once-low “cost of entry” by recalling their ingress into the Rittenhouse, an out-of-their-own-pocket takeover of a one-time cheese shop (“we just had to take over the lease, inexpensive rent at that time”) and a $100,000 purchase, then gutting, of its neighboring property so to build their bourgeoning empire. “Today, you can’t build a store of our type without spending a minimum of $1 million. We got lucky.”

And so on, and so on until the present with a financial upswing that finds DiBruno’s with an 18 to 20% growth over the last three years, and ⁠—according to Mignucci ⁠—“we’ll be a $50 million business by 2020.”

During this autumn, their 80th anniversary, the Di Bruno’s enterprise not only opened a brand new bar/eatery, Alimentari – Upstairs, at its Rittenhouse location, but also its first-ever catering space, Banca, on Spring Garden.

A large part of the expansion of Di Bruno’s ⁠— from online retail to new locations – comes down to making great training programs, then creating even greater opportunities for that leadership team to build upon. “If you have good people within the company they need and deserve more opportunity. We train them on the daily contribution and profit of the businesses. They’re equipped to run businesses, not just for another ten years, but another 80 years ⁠— helping the Di Bruno brand grow is for them.”

Beyond growth, no matter how far they go, Di Bruno’s still invests in its Italian Market with a new Bottle Shop and scores of tasting events at its original location.

“It’s who we are, our home: important to us because it’s important to Philly ⁠— the Italian Market is the oldest open air market in the country and it doesn’t get the respect or notoriety it deserves. We want to be a catalyst to drive great change to Ninth Street.”

Emilio then reminds me of something his grandfather Danny once told the trio of new Di Bruno’s owners. “The customers who come here, they don’t have to come here,” said Mignucci. “They choose to, so we welcome them in as if this was our house. We teach them the way we eat, the way we celebrate.”

 

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