What's cooking? A fifth Di Bruno's store

Di Bruno Bros. president Bill Mignucci Jr. in the 4,500-square-foot store on the ground floor of the historic Franklin apartments building.
Di Bruno Bros. president Bill Mignucci Jr. in the 4,500-square-foot store on the ground floor of the historic Franklin apartments building. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 14, 2013

With the family business thriving nearly 75 years after its debut in South Philadelphia, the planned opening of a fifth Di Bruno Bros. store next Monday in the city's Washington Square West neighborhood might strike some as a "So what?" moment.

It's anything but, say city economic-development professionals and business owners in the downtown pocket where Di Bruno's is bringing its high-end Italian foods market.

"They have amazing brand recognition," said Ivy Olesh, vice president of marketing and business development at the quasi-public Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC). "They really have the opportunity here to revitalize an area that needs a little bit more retail."

Di Bruno's co-owner Bill Mignucci Jr. said "bringing life into Ninth and Chestnut" is a primary goal of his company's newest endeavor, located in 4,500 square feet on the ground floor of another family business - the historic Franklin apartments, purchased in 2011 by Korman Communities.

The former Benjamin Franklin Hotel, designed by acclaimed architect Horace Trumbauer and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, opened in 1925. Now with 415 apartment units; 90 furnished, short-term-stay suites; and 135,000 square feet of commercial space on four floors, the 18-story Franklin is undergoing an "eight-figure" renovation by Korman and investment partner Angelo, Gordon & Co., a New York-based hedge fund, said Mark Korman, president of Korman's commercial division. Di Bruno's has signed a 10-year lease with a 10-year renewal option.

With Di Bruno's arrival, along with the recent addition of an old-school coffeehouse, Town Hall Coffee Co., just off the Franklin's lobby, "folks are going to see this is a neighborhood to watch," Korman said.

Two blocks to the south and east is Washington Square Park, ringed by towering, upscale apartment and condo buildings such as the St. James and Hopkinson House.

Forming a significant economic presence in the area are Jefferson University, Wills Eye, and Pennsylvania hospitals, whose staffs and patients Mignucci hopes will find irresistible Di Bruno's prepared foods, cheeses, baked goods, fruits, and vegetables.

"This is an up-and-coming neighborhood," Mignucci said, as he guided construction crews through finishing touches to the new store last week. "It's a . . . new community developing. We're on the forefront of it."

With that comes uncertainty, he acknowledged.

"I do think we are ahead of our time, maybe by a few years," said Mignucci, 46, noting the ongoing work at the Franklin, expected to continue through next summer, and efforts to attract a top-of-the-line restaurant to 6,000 square feet at the property's northwest corner.

Two blocks north on Market Street, a casino could rise in the next few years on what is now a parking lot between Eighth and Ninth Streets, across from the Gallery shopping mall.

In a neighborhood of "a lot of $6 lunches," as Ninth and Chestnut is, Mignucci makes no apologies for Di Bruno's "never trying to be the cheapest" where it does business.

"I'm still not sure the everyday clientele is interested in a $10 lunch," he said.

Then he remembered that Jewelers Row is around the corner, and he brightened.

"If you can afford diamonds, you can afford Di Bruno's provolone," he said with a laugh.

The half-block Di Bruno store, its floors made of ceramic hexagon - common in old butcher shops - runs from the middle of the Franklin's Ninth Street side to its end at Sansom Street. The overall locale is nothing much: mostly parking lots, a post office and low-end shops.Not that rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods have scared off Di Bruno's before. Case in point: its expansion to the 1700 block of Chestnut Street in 2005, the first Di Bruno store since Mignucci's grandfather, Danny Di Bruno, started the family cheese business in 1939 in what is the heart of the Italian Market.

Now with more than 300 employees, Di Bruno Bros. also has retail outlets in the Comcast Center and the Ardmore Farmers Market, and a commissary and catering kitchen in Northern Liberties.

Its West Chestnut Street location, a couple blocks off Rittenhouse Square, is twice as large as the one about to open, with café seating upstairs and a full-scale butcher and seafood section that will not be part of the new store. (Most seafood and meat will have to be ordered a day in advance.) Nevertheless, with no other market on the east end of Chestnut Street similar to the one Di Bruno's is about to open, it is expected to become a destination.

PIDC has provided Di Bruno's with a $400,000 low-interest loan for its $2 million Washington Square West expansion, conditioned on job creation. Mignucci said 50 jobs will be created the first year and close to 100 in the first three years.

Even though the East Chestnut Street site will include a coffee bar, its arrival at the Franklin is being welcomed by Tim Noble, the owner of Town Hall Coffee, which has been open since June.

"I think Di Bruno's will be a serious magnet for business that might otherwise go toward Walnut and Spruce," Noble said.

Whether Di Bruno's, owned by Mignucci and cousins William J. and Emilio Mignucci, will move into New Jersey is unclear. The company will not move into a strip center, Bill Mignucci said.

"As we find great destinations and great neighborhoods that believe in celebrating great food," he said, "we will always consider them."


Bill Mignucci Jr. talks about

the next Di Bruno Bros.

at www.inquirer.com/business




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