They send up soup when regular customers get sick
By Matt Draper
When Antonio Gentile opened ASJ Gentile Grocer on the Upper East Side in 1927, he hoped it would become a community staple. More than 80 years later, the store is a neighborhood fixture and one of the East Side"s most-loved markets's thanks in part to Antonio"s grandsons, Anthony and Jimmy.
Gentile Grocer, a small store on Madison Avenue between 79th and 80th streets, hasn"t moved far or changed much during its eight decades in operation. The original store was located at 85th Street and Lexington Avenue, and, after moving around the neighborhood a couple of times, has operated in its current space since 1970. As far as products, it began selling meat, fruit and vegetables, and eventually incorporated a deli counter with sandwiches and take-out food.
Anthony and Jimmy started working at the store in the mid-1980s and took over operations from their father in the late "90s. While Jimmy, 48, came on board immediately after high school, Anthony, 60, worked for the State of New York after college.
â€œThe state was paying me $135 a week and my father said, â€˜Why are you doing that? I"ll double it," said Anthony, standing next to the store"s deli counter on a busy afternoon. â€œI said, â€˜Oh, I"ll help out, I"ll do that for a little while."
It"s been a labor of love ever since. Driven by a staff of about a dozen employees's many of whom have been there for more than 20 years's Gentile Grocer maintains a focus on quality products and superior customer service.
â€œSome of our customers we deliver to five or six times a day, said Anthony, noting that the store"s delivery service includes more than 300 accounts, including several famous neighbors, such as Mayor Bloomberg.
â€œIf someone comes in to pay and they"re short, we just say, â€˜Listen, pay whenever you get a chance to come back," Anthony said, adding that repeat customers make up about 90 percent of the store"s business. â€œWhat we really sell here is service and quality.
Part of the personal touch comes from Anthony and Jimmy"s mother, Maria Gentile, or â€œMrs. G, who, at 82 years old, works several days a week greeting customers, and sends handwritten cards to the store"s delivery accounts each holiday season.
Gentile Grocer has built a strong connection with its Upper East Side neighbors.
â€œThey know you and they know your name, said Susannah Bianchi, an Upper East Side resident who has been shopping at the store since 1979. â€œWhen I"m sick, they always send me soup.
Outside Gentile Grocer, the city"s grocery business has changed dramatically, said Jimmy
â€œWhat drives most people crazy? You call something and you get â€˜dial this, press this," he said. â€œYou call us up, all you do is tell us your name and we know what you buy.
The neighborhood connection goes both ways, said Anthony.
â€œYou know what the best thing is? Our clientele, he said, adding that he started taking pictures of his older customers several years ago because so many had passed on.
In terms of the future of the store, Anthony and Jimmy don"t plan to retire anytime soon, though both have college-aged sons that could potentially get into the business.
â€œPeople say, â€˜Hire a manager," said Anthony, who estimated he and Jimmy typically work 60 to 70 hours per week.
â€œBut it"s not the same soulful thing when it"s [not] your own. It wouldn"t be the same quality or the same personality.
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