It's a gray, chilly morning in the Belmont section of the Bronx, and two things are crossing my mind. First, hardly anyone's on the street, and second, they all might be inside Artuso Pastry. The line's packed with locals eager for their first sip of coffee and they keep streaming through the door.
Inside frantic staffers rush about with trays, speaking Italian-inflected New Yorkese and gesturing wildly. For a moment, I feel as if I've walked onto the set of a Scorcese film, but the all-white interior and arched windows facing the street push away any such notions.
Anthony Jr. Artuso and his brother-in-law Donny Mangano spot me standing around, then make a big show of welcoming me. Before I've even set down my purse, Uncle Joey appears from the kitchen with a large plate of handmade pastries baked from old family recipes. There is Rum Baba with vanilla custard, linzer tart, and more Italian cookies than I can count. Each one looks like a work of art and I have to restrain myself.
Once everyone's gathered at the small coffee table, I remark how all of their names end in y. They laugh. There's Anthony Sr., the jocular patriarch and president of the business, his sharply dressed son Anthony Jr., who oversees the wholesale division, Donny, who manages human resources and food safety, and Uncle Joey, perhaps the biggest character of the bunch, who simply likes hanging around. He wears a blue baseball cap that says "Jesus Loves You" and has the lean, sturdy build of a fighter.
The smiling faces belie what the family has gone through in recent weeks. On November 3, Artuso's one-story, 11,000 square foot factory in Mount Vernon--a factory that produces 10 million cannoli a year, as well as cannoli filling and other assorted pastries--was ravaged in a three-alarm fire. Its indefinite closing will put a massive dent in the business at perhaps the worst time of the year.
"I think we're both still in shock," says Anthony Jr., resting his arms on the table. "I don't know if it's completely set in. Every day it sinks a little deeper because the phone's ringing and you're still trying to make sure the customers are satisfied, because our loss shouldn't be their loss."
Still, as much as Artuso Pastry is scrambling to get its business and operations back to normal, there's the issue of how to keep cranking out those 10 million cannoli. Though the bakery has two shops, one on 187th Street near Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and another on Mamaroneck Avenue in Westchester, they comprise ".001 percent" of the overall business, says Anthony Jr. "Even though the retail space is enormous--about 5,000 square feet--[they] can't produce anything we were doing in scale."
Artuso's main source of revenue is supplying sweets to supermarkets such as A&P, Price Chopper, and Whole Foods in more than 15 states. Anthony Jr. estimates they have between 90 and 100 such customers. He declined to disclose revenue numbers, however, citing discomfort with the number of unknown variables in the aftermath of the fire. "What took 16 years for us to build, we're on the 17th or 18th day" of trying to rebuild, he says.
Damage to the building and contents alone, which Artuso's insurance through The Hartford will cover, will range between $4.5 million and $5.5 million and the interruption in business, which covers lost income, plus ongoing expenses, will cost at least as much. "It's devastating," Anthony Jr. says.
For the first time in 68 years, the popular bakery is being forced to turn business away. The phone calls keep coming and the sight of the boarded-up factory, which will soon be torn down, is enough to bring tears to the eye. ("I cried," Mangano admits.) That this happened before the holidays, compelling the family to rush to find a temporary facility before the new year, doesn't lessen the stress.
Meanwhile, questions still linger. Will the new year begin on a positive note or will the after-effects of the fire and delays in shipments further undermine the business? The loss of cash-flow is bad enough, though Anthony Jr. says insurance will cover most of it. The bigger concern for the family is if longtime customers will go elsewhere, or worse, forget Artuso Pastry altogether.
"Sometimes there's a lot of good that comes out of a bad situation," Joey says hopefully. The family silently nods in agreement.
'It Burned for Hours and Hours'
Fire officials said the boiler--the one that heats the 130-foot oil fryer that cooks the cannoli and shell-shaped sfogliatelle--was the culprit. "The guys came in the morning to fire up the boiler system and noticed something was smelling funny," says Anthony Jr. Then the boiler malfunctioned, caught on fire, and the flames, fueled by cooking oil, spread to the wooden roof before workers could douse them.
When the alarm company called around 7 a.m. that Monday, Anthony Jr. didn't believe what was happening. "I thought it was a high temp in the freezer," he says. But the voice on the other line said, "'no, no, no, this isn't a high temp, this is the whole station.'" Anthony Jr. hung up and started dialing the factory. "'Please, just drop everything, get out of the building,'" he told employees. "It burned for hours and hours."
The four employees there when the fire broke out at 6:30 a.m. managed to escape and summon the Mount Vernon Fire Deparment, which dispatched 24 firefighters, two ladder trucks, and two engines to the scene, according to the New York Times. Soon the entire ceiling collapsed and three firefighters were sent to the hospital with minor injuries.
"When I came to work, it was in the process of burning," says Dianne Campanaro, a finance manager who's been with Artuso for 13 years. "I'm here anywhere from eight to 10 hours a day, so I felt like I was watching my home burn down."
By Tuesday, lifelong friends like the Teitel Brothers, a nearly century-old deli, and La Prima, another Italian bakery in Belmont, were calling to offer condolences or use of their facilities. "Mostly it was people around here," Joey says, though some competitors were kind enough to reach out. (When asked who they were, Anthony Sr. jokes, "If we tell you, you can't leave! We have a room downstairs for information like that.")
The family is wary of taking the handout. This would be like taking over someone's house, says Anthony Jr. "You're bringing in your ingredients, your space, your 18-wheelers are lining up." This might seem at odds with the desperate position the business is in, but should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the prideful Italian family. They've been running the business for three quarters of a century. And they've experienced setbacks before.
The Birth of a Family Business
Vincent Artuso was just a child when he migrated to the U.S. from Calabria, Italy. But once he got a job as as a dishwasher at Spagnuolo's Pastry Shop in the Bronx, his destiny seemed predetermined. He learned all he could at Spagnuolo's, working his way up from dishwasher to pastry chef. Then later, after serving in World War II, he returned home to purchase the shop with help from his father. He renamed it Artuso Pastry and made his brother Jack partner. (Anna Artuso Puma, their sister, went on to open her own shop in Yonkers.)
On the week of Easter, just before Sunday, says the family, an electrical part caught on fire. It was 1957 and Vincent had just made the last payment on his renovation loan. The entire building burned to the ground, says Anthony Jr. "It was a major setback for a place that was only 10 years old or so. But a fire wasn't going to get in the way of having four kids"--or rebuilding the business, he says of his grandparents. "They did what they had to do." Within a few months, the store resumed business with the help of insurance and savings.
As the years went by and consumers' tastes changed, so too did Artuso Pastry. Vincent began purchasing neighboring bakeries and used them to build out his shop. Meanwhile, he dabbled in culinary trends, appropriating American and French food culture. By the 70s, he was selling chocolate mousse alongside pignolia cookies. (The cannoli recipe, however, has always stayed put.) The business also expanded, moving into wholesale and large-scale production.
"He was not a satisfied-with-where-he-was type of person," says Anthony Sr. of his "forward-thinking" father. When asked if he enjoyed running the business, Anthony Sr. looks at me like I'm crazy. "It was like any other immigrant that comes to America," he says by way of explanation. "Where do you wind up? You fell into it and you either love it or you don't."
Anthony Sr. doesn't strike me as the sentimental type, but he cracks a smile when I ask about hanging around the shop as a kid. He recalls eating Ma's macaroni in the back and weekday afternoons spent manning the register ("to keep you off the street"). It's the picture of an old-time experience the whole family shared.
The elder Artuso was also a fixture in Belmont. Part of 187th Street is named after him, and as Joey recalls, he was the guy you could count on to bring groceries if you couldn't get out of the house and the peacemaker "when people disagreed." When I ask what he means by the latter, Joey shrugs it off, saying, "kids on the street, transitions, nothing unique to this neighborhood." Then he cracks his knuckles. Back then, "people watched out for each other."
The firemen finally left the wreckage of the Artuso factory around 8 the next morning. Water streamed onto the sidewalk and the stale smell of smoke and ash clouded the air. Meanwhile, Anthony Jr. had started making the dreaded phone calls, his stomach a jumble of knots. "I think next to making a phone call telling them that their loved one got injured, that was the second worse set of phone calls to have to make--or take," he says of notifying wholesale customers. No business owner wants to do that.
On December 4, after determining they couldn't produce a "very limited amount of product" through a third party as quickly as hoped for, Artuso issued a statement to customers saying they wouldn't resume operations until January 1. Though most understood, "that was one of the most heart-wrenching things to do," says Anthony Jr.
Though the family is worried about losing business, some of the bakery's long-time customers are quick to emphasize their loyalty. Most of their relationships span several decades, going back to when Joey and Anthony Sr. were kids. "We're 100 years almost," says Gil Teitel of Teitel Brothers deli. "We started buying their cannoli shells and pastada and most everything that they make. It's unfortunate, but we want to go back to them and their prices are great. Their product is great, our friendship is great."
And while bakery fires aren't entirely uncommon--New Orleans' Hubig's pie plant burned to the ground over two years ago, just to name one--Artuso Pastry's reputation might be rarer than most. Later, Joey will take me on a whirlwind tour of Little Italy that includes tasting mozzarella pulled wet and fresh from the roll, visiting Teitel, where it still feels like 1915, and stopping by a host of other delis where the owners have known Joey since grade school. Out of nowhere people come up just to clap him on the back and tell him they're sorry.
In the meantime, as factory employees await further instructions--and receive pay through insurance, which lasts through next November 3, a year from the incident--Anthony Jr. is frantically trying to secure a facility that insurance will cover for 12 to 14 months. Over the phone he tells me he's viewed half a dozen places, each of which seems to fall short in one way or another. Either they lack the right machinery or demand too long of a lease term.
"We're looking for something to use for a maximum of a year, because by then we'll have a better understanding of [how we're operating]" he explains. "We can find them within a certain radius," but who would commute if they're too far away? These are handcrafted pastries that require a certain level of skill, so it would be hard to replace the employees, especially those who've been with the company for two or three decades. (For her part, Campanaro says she won't leave the company "until I retire or they let me go first.")
Fortunately, a friend has offered a space exactly one mile from the old facility that may have potential. "It has loading, plenty of power," and is nearly twice the size of the old one, Anthony Jr. says. "We should be able to match, and perhaps exceed, production because the layout [has everything] all in one building," including office space and storage. (The previous building did not.) But he's going to need to secure the necessary permits, plus four to six weeks to build out the semi-automated environment.
It won't be easy. He wants to to start construction this month, then begin producing product or finishing construction in phases in January. "Planning a move of this kind usually happens within a year, so to try to do it all within weeks defies all logic," he says. Yet he believes they might actually have some products to ship by mid-January.
First will come the cannoli cream, which is easiest to make, then the sfogliatelle and the lobster tails, a variation on the sfogliatelle pastry filled with eclair dough instead of sweetened ricotta. Third will be the cannoli shells, which Anthony Jr. says are the most labor-intensive. All products will be blast frozen, held at zero degrees, and given a one-year shelf life. "What's important is that we're outfitting the place [to work with] the time constraints," Anthony Jr. says. "These stakes are really high. We want to do more of what worked in the past and do less of the stuff that wasn't optimal."
'Bigger, Brighter, and Way Better'
Hence Joey's comment about finding a lot of good in a bad situation. Despite the massive undertaking to simply rebuild the business, the Artuso family wants to use the occasion to start over in an ambitious way. Artuso Pastry will be "bigger, brighter, and way better than ever before," Anthony Jr. says. Besides moving into a better facility, something the family had wanted for years, they want to take "more of a branded approach" so consumers and retailers ask for Artuso Pastry by name.
This means hiring a public relations firm to help spread the word--if insurance will cover it--and thinking about how the decades-old business can innovate. One way Artuso plans to do that is by adding more consumer-facing foods to the dozen they already have as opposed to more wholesale products. Cannoli Flats, an on-the-go take on the classic Italian pastry, is their newest.
Cleverly packaged in a single-serve, two-level cup, the bottom contains cannoli "flats" made for dipping in the top compartment's chocolate chip covered cream. "It's a snack food, it's quick; kids will have it in their lunch or as a treat at school," Anthony Jr. says of the flats, which were several years in the making and began shipping in mid-October.
I ask who came up with it and all eyes shift to him. "My grandfather used to sell broken cannoli with powdered sugar on them by the pound," he says, blushing. "This is just another example of adapting to customers' tastes. "Our VP of sales says music migrated from the 8-track to the CD, and now we're on MP3. This is the MP3 of cannoli."
Artuso also plans to launch more flavored cannoli creams, such as peppermint, lemon, and espresso, and sfogliatelle with various fillings like the popular treat in Italy. The consumer-facing products Artuso soft-launched this year will hopefully generate more buzz at the trade shows next year, Anthony Jr. says. "We're really looking to put some weight behind them in 2015 and the fourth quarter."
Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting firm in New York, says the strategy to expand and refine the brand is a smart one. "This will give them a chance to rebuild their store the way they really want it," he says. "It's a rebirth, it's a new chapter, and they can market the store in that way." If the business wasn't so great to begin with, it would make sense to pack it in. But "you're not going to throw away your business" if it's thrived for so long.
"This is a close-knit business, not a Fortune 100 food company, you know?" Anthony Jr. adds. "It has a soul and a personality to it." At this, there are nods of approval. The Artusos won't compromise quality, won't compromise standards, and that's largely to blame for the bottlenecks in rebuilding.
Back in 2012, they announced ambitious plans to move into a new facility, but that never happened because they'd become somewhat attached to the one they'd made do with for so many years. "We outsourced a lot of our distribution, which saved a lot of space," Anthony Jr. says, "and then we continued to add on square footage on an empty lot next to us. [The fire] just really forced us to move."
For now, Anthony Sr. wants his customers to remember one thing. "We'll be back," he says with a gleam in his eye. "We'll be back."