For the last seven years or so, Iannelli’s Bakery in South Philadelphia opens only about 15 days a year — a veritable Brigadoon, selling Italian specialties such as tomato pie, stromboli, and crab gravy from a cramped Passyunk Avenue shop with an enormous brick oven.
Folks complain, so Vincent Iannelli, the third-generation owner, started shipping his tomato pies, along with his gravy (aka sauce).
Why not just keep a regular schedule? He has his reasons.
“We don’t even have to be open,” said Iannelli, 34, a wiry, dashing guy with a fine haircut and a rock-solid South Philly bloodline. (His paternal grandparents bought the 112-year-old bakery from an uncle in 1965, while his maternal grandparents ran Claudio’s, the specialty shop and cheese destination a few blocks away in the Italian Market.)
“I know that sounds arrogant, but I do like being here,” Iannelli said. “And the 15 days, that’s nice. That’s enough. It’s not because I don’t want to open. It’s just, my hands are in 30 different things.... I’m always moving. I’m here, I’m there. I make sure [stuff] gets done.”
Iannelli won’t trust anyone else to make the food — the luscious crab-filled gravy, the saucy tomato pies with the curled-up edges — from scratch. “Nobody touches anything here but me,” he said. His retail customers learn about store hours through Instagram (where he has a private account) and pay $50 for an 18x24-inch tomato pie. (The sauce contains cheese, but can be made vegan upon request.)
The shipping solution suits his schedule. Iannelli says he has allotted time to bake, freeze, and ship only 150 pies a month ($60 each, plus shipping), sold through his website; they ship Mondays and Tuesdays so they don’t get trapped in a shipping warehouse over the weekend.
Speaking of which: Dozens of local restaurants and food businesses that keep regular hours have gotten into shipping perishable foods. Doing so focuses labor and production into a schedule, minimizes waste, and helps keep brands top of mind.
It’s rare for a small independent food company to handle its own shipping business, as Iannelli is. Corropolese, a suburban Philadelphia bakery that specializes in tomato pies, uses Goldbelly, a national marketing company that handles transactions and marketing, to oversee orders. Goldbelly also represents Zahav (hummus and salatim); Joe’s Steaks, Campo’s, and Jim’s Philly (steak sandwiches); Tommy DiNic’s (roast pork sandwiches); Center City Pretzel, and Federal Donuts.
Frank Olivieri, owner of Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia, said his Goldbelly affiliation “filled in the gaps” in sales during the pandemic. He said he was skeptical about quality when his now-wife, Nancy, suggested packing up and shipping sandwiches.
But Philadelphia has became a ghost town after 9 p.m., he said, as nightlife and sports shut down — not a good development for his 24-hour business. His night crew now packs and ships the sandwiches. Business leaped from 400 sandwiches a week to a peak of 10,500 last year.
Back to Iannelli, who despite his varied professional interests enjoys the in-person experience of visiting a bakery. “I want it to be fun,” he said. “When people came in pre-Covid days, it was like, ‘How are you doing? How you been?’ It’s an experience. When you come in here, I don’t treat you like, ‘Oh, give me a couple of dollars, get out.’ When people come in here, I want to have fun. You want to get that old-school customer service.”
That’s still available — but only 15 days a year. You walk in, Iannelli will take you in the back to show you the oven, maybe offer you some wine. But if you can’t, you can at least get the tomato pie in the mail.