These enduring mom-and-pop stores defy the odds
A short stroll down Court Street, between Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, is like walking down memory lane. You can’t help but notice the signs: Staubitz Markets, est. 1917; D’Amico Coffee, est. 1948; G. Esposito & Sons Pork Store, est. 1922; Sam’s Restaurant, est. 1930; Marietta, est. 1940. It’s an unusual cluster: some fifteen mom-and-pop stores that have survived more than fifty years.
If you walk into G. Esposito & Sons, you’ll see family photos with curled edges plastered on one wall behind a wooden chopping block, where the shop kept its minimalist meat display counter. In Marietta, you may feel overwhelmed at the boxes of bras, socks, and underwear stacked up in several disheveled piles, with many more in view on the shelves hung above. D’Amico Coffee, however, has completely overhauled the store in a renovation, yet kept its memories through framed black and white photos of its first storeowners. The whiff of nostalgia is strong.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the odds of businesses surviving ten years after its establishment is one in three. This statistic has not changed much over the decades. For a group of such businesses to be concentrated in a half-mile stretch, the chances of longevity altogether are even slimmer, which makes you wonder—What is in the air in this South Brooklyn neighborhood that keeps them going?
Each of these businesses evolved to adapt to changing demands and demographics unique to the type of product or service they provide. They each have their own story.
Still, they do have one thing in common: most of the business owners also own their building. “With the way this neighborhood has grown, expanded, boomed, and rents are ridiculous. If you own the building, that’s half your battle,” said Joan D’Amico, who runs D’Amico Coffee with her husband, Francis D’Amico. D’Amico Coffee was established in 1948 by Francis’ grandfather as a grocery store, and has evolved into a coffee shop that roasts more than 100 blends of coffee and ships worldwide.
In Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, most of these old-time shops were established by Italian-American families, who have since passed it down to the second, third, and even fourth generation, with many tales to tell from the neighborhood.
“The Gallo brothers used to have a club there. There was a lion in the basement, I’m not sure of its name. The Gallo brother, they used to call him Joe, Crazy Joe,” mused Vincent Mazzone, recalling the old days. “They never bothered us much. It was just between the gangs.”
Mazzone is the second-generation owner of Mazzone Hardware, founded by his father, Salvatore Mazzone in 1950. He has seen the neighborhood demographics change over the years: it was predominantly Italian until the ‘70s: “All the workers we hired have to be Italian… people who came in did not speak English.” Mazzone said the neighborhood evolved with an influx of single professionals where he did not see children. “Even that changed. Now Carroll Gardens is loaded with families!”
For George Esposito, the third-generation owner of G. Esposito & Sons Pork store, established in 1922, the shrinking size of the families in the area mattered. Smaller families have a direct impact on the amount of meat he could sell because it meant that there are fewer mouths to feed. “My father was one of twelve. That’s how the families were then… well today it’s about who has one kid, two kids, three the most; you don’t really hear about any more than that.” Fortunately, on the other end, demand rose for cooked food, which made up for the declining meat sales. Esposito is proud of his family recipes from Italy, passed down from his parents. “It’s a slamming hit.”
According to the Family Business Alliance, twelve percent of the family businesses continue to survive down into the third generation, while only three percent of all family businesses made it through to the fourth-generation level and beyond. And according to John A. Davis, a Harvard Business School lecturer, family businesses must continue to grow six-percent in order to be sustainable through generations. According to Davis’ article published in May 2014, well-timed bets and a modern competitive approach are keys to success.
The Mazzone family is an example of this entrepreneurial spirit, when Vincent Mazzone passed the business down to his son, Matt Mazzone. Renovations and expansions took place under Matt’s management, as did taking a bet on changing the business to become part of the ACE hardware franchise. Vincent Mazzone smiled when asked about family feuds in the business. “It’s his business now. I will put my two cents in, sometimes we disagree, but I will always defer to what he decides.”
Davis’s article also called for family unity as a recipe for success. And there is no shortage of family within the businesses in this neighborhood.
“You know, it can’t be a family business if the family is not in the business,” quipped Esposito.
When Joan D’Amico thinks of the family spirit, she thinks of her husband’s grandfather, Emanuele D’Amico, who came to America without a word of English and fought to establish and maintain the business. “There is such a deep-rooted connection to Emanuele, the first owner, my husband’s grandfather. It’s like his legacy.” She continued with how her father-in-law instilled in his children that family is everything.
For the three businesses, succession remains a question mark. The D’Amicos do not have children but hope that a close employee may want to keep the business alive; while Esposito is not sure if his sons, who are now in college, will want to take over.
For Vincent Mazzone, his son Matt is already at the helm of the business so there is continuity. As for the generation after, Vincent joked that his 10-year-old granddaughter would prefer to be in the spotlight on Broadway than to takeover the business. But on a more serious note, Vincent confessed that he would be upset if the business was to leave the family.
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