Monday, May 13, 2013

Joe's Dairy


As we shared here last week, Joe's Dairy closed this weekend to retail customers. They served their last sandwiches on Friday evening. On Saturday, with lines out the door and the tip jar overflowing, it was all about the mozzarella. News photographers and reporters went in and out, aiming to capture something vanishing before their eyes.

As it often happens on these last days, the staff was surprised by the sudden outpouring of love. Vincent Campanelli told WPIX 11, "You think you’re selling cheese, and you start going up layers, it’s a whole of a lot more than you thought."

Customers gave their condolences, along with last-minute advice, "You should've put up a website, got on Facebook," and some dire predictions, "Marc Jacobs will probably move into this space next." Even with mom and pops vanishing all over town, it's hard to understand how, in a time and place where faux "artisanal" food is all the rage, actual artisanal food can't succeed.

But this wasn't the usual case of hiked rent. Some at Joe's said it was due to a shrinking customer base. One reader reported that owner Anthony Campanelli drove in to work on Wednesday and "it just struck him--'I can't do this anymore.' He was going to just close up and not tell anyone. He wanted to leave quietly. But then word got out and all the hoopla ensued... He, his wife and his daughter all told me that today is a happy day."

Mr. Campanelli told James and Karla Murray in 2008, "When I’m ready to retire, it will probably be a lost art in my family because I have a daughter but I won’t allow her to do this. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s not that a woman couldn’t do it, but you have to get up really early and work long hours. I feel like I do this because I chose to. Nobody asked me to do it. This is what I wanted to do but I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone."

Why don't we have more people like the Campanellis to keep our longstanding mom and pops going when Mom and Pop can't do it anymore? In 1977, they took Joe's over from Joe Aiello and they didn't glamorize it, they just kept doing what had been done. Why don't we have more people who want to keep traditions alive without twisting them into something exclusive?

If someone new took it over today, chances are it wouldn't be Joe's Dairy anymore. It would be Faux Joe's, some upscale reproduction with luxury prices and the clientele to match. They'd reproduce the sign to look like the old sign, only spiffed up. They'd serve "The Campanelli," a mozzarella and prosciutto panini drizzled with truffle oil and slapped with a $35 price tag. They'd have lines out the door every day. In their interview for New York magazine, they'd defend themselves to their critics, "We saved this place. A lot of banks and Starbucks were looking to move in here. No, it's not the same as before. What we're doing is an homage."

Here's a true homage, a documentary about Joe's directed by Piero Iberti and produced with Jeremy Zalben, due out this summer--online and (hopefully) in theaters:

Joe's Dairy (Teaser) from 10Block Productions on Vimeo.

I asked the filmmakers some questions about Joe's Dairy and their film. Here are their answers:

Piero Iberti: My parents first discovered Joe’s when they were going to Soho gallery openings in the early 1980s. As I grew up nearby, I began to frequent Joe’s on a regular basis. I'm a native New Yorker and, at the heart of it, I wanted to capture a New York story that was important and resonant to me. On a basic level, I wanted to know how they made the cheese. I was interested in finding out the story of the people, the shop, and who this Joe was.

Jeremy Zalben: We both grew up in the East Village, 10 blocks away from each other. I never personally experienced Joe’s growing up, but when Piero told me about it, I knew it was an important story that needed to be shared with people.

Piero: I found out about the closing the night before and couldn't believe it when I heard. I frantically called Jeremy to tell him, and scrambled to phone those close to me who knew the store as well. I knew I had to be there the next day.

Jeremy: When Piero called me and told me, I didn’t believe him. I told him to call Vincent at the shop to see if this was actually true. I was truly surprised. When we first started out making the film two years ago, no part of me thought that the end of Joe’s would come before we could put our film out.

Piero: The city has lost a tremendous cultural force with the closing of Joe’s. It has also lost a piece of its identity and what makes New York, New York. One of the main motivations we had in making this movie was to capture that old New York feel that still existed because of shops like Joe’s. Now that feeling is on the verge of extinction. With less and less "mom and pop" stores around to provide that character, I’m not sure it's possible to retain it anymore.

Jeremy: For me, the city has lost another piece of what made New York such a special place. Stores like Joe’s are what made people want to live in New York. Joe’s provided a place where you could go, not just for a piece of smoked mozzarella, but to see your neighbors while waiting in line, to have a conversation with Ro behind the counter, or say hi to Vincent and Anthony while they worked on the cheese in the back. Unfortunately, people don’t want that anymore. They would rather go into a store, buy what they want, and go. I don’t think it’s possible for New York to ever be what it used to be.


ggypolska said...

When I was in college, I'd go to Joe and snag a loaf of their bread thinking it would last me a week. It was gone in two days...

Missing these guys more than ever now that I'm stuck in Texas. :(

Thanks for the bread and memories, Joe's.

Anonymous said...

Old school businesses have to adapt to their surroundings in order to survive. I understand tradition but there are some changes needed in order to keep afloat. John's of 12th St. is a perfect example of catering to the new neighbors while keeping tradition.

Dave - everywhere said...

I think we're getting a tad over-wrought on this topic. Joe's retail business is closing because the walk-in business has dried up. It's hard to keep a store open 12 or 14 hours a day for a sales volume that doesnt cover the overhead. The wholesale business is apparently doing well but as an owner it makes no sense to suck the profits out of the money making business to prop up a loser. My guess is that the damily works pretty hard to make their money and they can see it's not worth the effort to keep the store open.

And despite some of the comments I saw in the two posts on this topic, you can't blame this on Bloomberg, Marc Jacobs, Starbucks, 7-11 or greedy landlords. The customer base that kept the retail business afloat is gone. When my grandparents made the decision to move from Mulberry Street (north of Spring in whatever chi-chi name the neighborhood has now) to the 'burbs, that was another nail in the coffin for all these little shops. The old time Italians would go to stores like this three or four times a week for staples - cheese, bread, Italian specialties - because they lived in tiny apartments with small refrigerators and they especially liked their food fresh. All gone now -grandma had to learn to shop at an Acme with a parking lot bigger than Washington Square, where most Italian stuff came wrapped in shrink wrap. Most of the locals that live in the 'hood these days wouldnt eat any of the stuff these stores sold (too much fat, salt - ugh! organ meats)and they can't exist to satisfy your once a month jonesing for a slice of real bread and a sliver of cheese.

Ken Mac said...

Dave, ever been to Murray's? Less than a five minute walk away from Joe's Dairy and a cheese store thrives. In fact, Americans eat more cheese then ever before. But because Joe's didn't dress up the storefront or overcharge for their cheese or make $15 sandwiches drizzled in snake oil, the fashionable locals (who attend S'Nice next door in droves) couldn't be bothered.

Fedora, Roccos, Joes. Anybody seen New York City?

Dave - everywhere said...

Ken - I've been to Murray's and I agree, it's doing OK without having to sell out to the new hipster vibe. My point with my comments about Joe's is that the customer base that this and other stores of its type catered to is gone. Murray's isnt the same now as it was years ago when my mother took me there to get the exotic stuff you didnt find at the Italian stores (basically, anything that didnt come from ITaly was exotic). When I lived upstate, the little Italian store down the street went through the same decline and eventually closed because all of the old regulars died or moved away and the new neighbors just "didnt get it?>

Anonymous said...

Italian-Americans left that neighborhood over 30 years ago for nicer neighborhoods in the outer boroughs or the burbs. That's called progress.

Joe's lasted a long time and I wish them luck in their future ventures.

laura said...

i always thought it was a "nice" neigborhood. people could have just rented 2 apts, gutted them. this would be after making on offer to the landlord to buy the units. i guess a big home in the suburbs was more preferable.

mch said...

What I see as crucial in Jeremiah's post: he recognizes that change happens, that Mr. Campanelli was ready to retire and doesn't want for his daughter the grueling work-life he led precisely so she wouldn't have to. But what usually replaces a Joe's Dairy these days? All too often not another mom and pop that doesn't just provide food (sometimes food that's special, like Joe's, sometimes food that's just there) but contributes to making a neighborhood. NYC, like any city worth its salt, is a city of neighborhoods, with their core(s) and with their transient fringes. The loss of that vitality....

Anonymous said...

It will for sure become another hair or nail salon. Sullivan st. is full of them already...what is one more?

Anonymous said...

I think you fail to make connections. Joe's customer base has been driven out of the neighborhood by developers driving up rents. In addition, the whole Soho Malling of the South Village has made an experience like Joe's and Pino' across the street a little too authentic for the new condo dweller. Luxury in the Village is destroying the Village and once it's gone, it won't come back. Joe's is a poster child for the Bloomberg vision for NY.

Anonymous said...

I hate to see this place go, but to be honest the mozzarella was rubbery and not worth the hike, you can find much better elsewhere in Little Italy, but I assume no posters will be heading down to Little Italy till after another closure is announced.

Same for Manganaro's, I stopped whenever I was in the area but the food was poor, it could have been a goldmine if they managed it better.

Brian Dubé said...

Regardless of whatever anyone thought about the mozzarella, and although I support progress for the greater good, I'm honestly saddened over this loss. These kinds of places are disappearing all over NY, but who would really want to follow in those footsteps and continue that grueling mozzarella-making process? They prided themselves on not modernizing anything. Not realistic in today's world. But either way, it's a sad day in NYC.

Ken Mac said...

to all the posters who just see this as progress, or a case of bad mozz, or perhaps Joe's own fault, we are seeing the END of an NYC that existed for decades, and when it's gone, the City will have lost its charm, its soul, its heart, replaced with all the same suburban shit you see everywhere else, A dead place, full of the moneyed class. Manhattan the Mall

laura said...

there was a little cheese shop on 1st ave in the e.50s. this was in the mid 70s. it was kind of chic in a way. they didnt make their own cheese but it was a nice neigborhood place. i can see something like this in he so vill. but the prices should not be crazy. it can be an old fashioned feeling, you buy cheese or a cheese sandwich, a coffee, coke, etc. better than a nail place or cell place.

bonnie said...

Oh my. I decided to treat myself to one of their wonderful sandwiches for lunch today. What a shock. I will miss having them in the neighborhood.

Any chance you could do a follow-up on where their cheese might be available? The sign on their window did say they'd still be supplying local businesses.

I wish I'd stumbled across them earlier, but I'm glad I found them when I did. A tribute from last summer.

Berlinbound said...

People get old and tired and their children may or may not want to carry on the family business - if they even have children.

The family store goes the way of the family farm. Corporations don't grow old and die.

Anonymous said...

I am so sad to see Joe's dairy retail go the way of everything else in the south village. I lived there for 40 years. Joe's was a staple. I am glad to live in south Florida now for many reasons. But Joe's - a village staple gone. How sad.