Century-old pizzelle makers and chitarra pasta cutters hang from the ceiling over shelves of modern pressure cookers and Cuisinart air fryers. In a back corner, behind a wall decorated with family and employee photos and containers of coffee beans, Liana Ottaviani flips through the store’s 1962 mail-order catalog.
“Look, we still have these,” Ottaviani, 34, says to her mother, pointing to a gallon-size fermentation crock, which sold for $1.39. “Yes, and made by the same company,” responded Mariella Esposito, 67. It now sells for $29.99, and isn’t sold online because shipping would cost too much.
“There’s a lot of stuff we still sell in here,” she said. “It’s amazing how much.”
Fante’s, an Italian Market staple, has been around for more than 100 years, lasting three generations in its founding family. Its newer family owners have their own second generation readying to take over.
Most family businesses don’t make it past the third generation, according to the Family Business Alliance, and 3 percent enter the fourth generation and onward. But on South Ninth Street, Fante’s is among other generations-long businesses still operating at one of the country’s oldest open-air markets.
Fante’s has weathered recessions and drastic inventory changes, but now faces one of its greatest challenges. Every week, Esposito said, it seems another small independent cookware store closes.
People do seem to be buying more houseware items, with a $364.2 billion global market in 2017, up 2.5 percent from the previous year, the International Housewares Association reported. Even so, Esposito said, it is difficult for small, independent stores to compete with Amazon and big-box retailers like Walmart.
Instead of battling giant retailers online, Esposito and Ottaviani said Fante’s focuses on its cookware expertise and in-store experience.
Eight to 10 people are working on the sales floor in the 5,000-square-foot retail space at any given time and can explain the difference between a $9.99 frying pan and the $199.99 option.
Esposito and Ottaviani streamline overhead costs by stocking 7,500 items at a time, compared to 10,000 as recently at 2012. And they are grouping products like vegetable peelers, server aprons, and cheese cloths in an easy “grab and go” section by the registers to accommodate the way people shop today.
On a recent Saturday, they showed customers how to use a vegetable chopper to make salsa and supplied chips from Tortilleria San Roman, a shop diagonally across the street.
“They are really operating on a good in-store customer experience that can’t be duplicated online. That is one of the ways to compete in today’s world,” said Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the Wharton School.
Fewer than 10 percent of the store’s sales are e-commerce, Ottaviani said. If Fante’s tried to push more of their business online. Kahn said, “they probably wouldn’t survive.”
This year’s number of retail store closings, like those selling groceries, furniture, and consumer electronics, already exceeded the number of closures for all of last year, according to an April report from Coresight Research.
Esposito declined to share revenue numbers, but said this is the first year in generally the last decade that Fante’s is seeing positive in-store sales growth. Online sales have been declining, she said, but it looks like overall positive growth for the year.
“I don’t think at this point it’s impacting our future,” Ottaviani said.
Esposito and Ottaviani said being in the historic Italian Market helps them stand out. The locals know them, and seek out their advice. Fante’s relies on word of mouth, not paid advertisements.
“It’s like a small town in Philadelphia,” Esposito said, referring to the Italian Market. Her husband, Lee, owns Esposito’s Meats across the street.
The items sold inside Fante’s throughout its 113 years have changed to reflect trends in the economy and how people shop.
Italian immigrants Domenico Fante and his son, Luigi L. Fante, Sr., a carpenter, founded Fante’s in 1906 and sold handmade furniture, Esposito said. Over the next several decades, they focused on importing china and crystal goods from Europe and added smaller sections for cookware, pastry, and cake decorating.
When third-generation owner Dominic Fante was ready to retire and did not have his own children to take over, Esposito bought the retailer in 1981 with her brothers. She had started working at Fante’s in February 1970 as a high school student and worked her way up to general manager and then owner.
During the early 1980s recession, the china and crystal lamps and tables were not selling well, so the store pivoted to focus on cookware. It took five years to transform the store’s inventory across aisles. They also added an espresso bar that is still there.
At one time, Fante’s had locations in a few local malls, including King of Prussia in the early 2000s, Esposito said.
Esposito said Dominic Fante inspired her to become a business owner by the way he mentored her and was a father figure for the neighborhood.
“The business is ours because he was an inspiration to me and my brothers of what you can do as a boss,” she said, “and the power that you can have over people around you.”
“Power in a good way,” her daughter said.
There are about 20 employees at Fante’s who are paid “way above” minimum wage, Esposito said, declining to share exact figures.
They don’t reduce people’s hours, Esposito said. Everyone has a steady schedule and can expect the same paycheck each week — unusual for retail.
When they took over, Esposito and her brothers unloaded trucks, swept floors, and did whatever they could to avoid failure. Today, ensuring a successful transition to the next generation is part of that goal.
In an aisle on the other side of the store, there’s a Fante’s-branded cheese grater with a childhood photo of Ottaviani, who will one day take over the business, holding onion rings over her eyes.
But Ottaviani never thought she would end up running the brick-and-mortar cookware store she grew up in.
“The day before I turned 18, I was like, I’m going to go get a real job,” Ottaviani said. She went to the University of Pennsylvania, earned a bachelor’s of science in chemical and biomolecular engineering, and worked as a cosmetics chemist at L’Oréal.
“I was completely committed to never being anywhere around business at all," she said, “let alone my parents’ business.”
When her mother spoke about retirement in 2010 and mentioned she may need to sell Fante’s, Ottaviani struggled to think about her life without the store.
“For it to not exist anymore," she said, “I couldn’t tolerate it as an idea.”
Some customers today walk through the door with their noses pointed down toward their phones, Esposito said.
These shoppers avoid eye contact or brush off the offers to help. Instead, she sees them scrolling through Amazon prices and reviews on their phones while looking at the products lining the store’s shelves.
Industry experts call this practice “showrooming,” and a business like Fante’s can’t do much to combat it.
Someone walked in the store recently, Ottaviani said, and said they hadn’t been there in two decades. Ottaviani said she told them Fante’s will be around another 20 years.
"Constantly, people are coming in and telling you they used to come in here when they were a kid, or their grandmother’s pizzelle iron is from here,” Ottaviani said. “We’re constantly hearing other people’s memories of the store.”