Every year on Christmas Eve, people start lining up in the middle of the night in South Philadelphia, standing under heat lamps and awaiting 6 a.m., the moment when Vincent Termini Sr. swings open the doors of his namesake bakery. Workers start slinging cannoli and biscotti and trays of Italian cookies to the dozens of people snaking through the Eighth Street bakery.
The Christmas Eve line at Termini Bros. has been a tradition for generations — a wintertime meeting place for neighbors and friends who drink coffee and try to keep warm in the wee hours of the morning, then order their treats while being serenaded inside by a Christmas band. Last year, the first customer arrived at 12:45 a.m.
Thursday will be the 99th Christmas that Termini is celebrating in Philadelphia. This year, though, as coronavirus cases surge and the holidays are marked by warnings to stay away from others as much as possible, masses of people huddled together and chit-chatting inside the bakery just won’t do.
So Termini, like so many other small businesses impacted by the pandemic, has pivoted and modernized. Customers can place an order online or on the Termini Bros. app — newly developed this year as a result of the pandemic — then pick up their items curbside.
Joe Termini, Vincent Sr.’s son, said the family wants their longtime customers to know: They don’t have to come in person this year. It’s OK if they feel uncomfortable and want to send someone to pick up their baked goods, or just hold off until next year altogether.
But there will still be many who want to shop in the store on Christmas Eve. Instead of being let in at 6 a.m., they’ll be greeted at the door by a Termini associate, who will take their name and phone number and enter them into a queuing system. Each customer, Joe said, will receive a text message with a link that keeps their place in a virtual line.
They’re free to wait in their cars, at home, run errands; when it’s their turn to be served, they will get a text to return to the store, where just a handful of customers are allowed inside at a time. Everyone is required to wear a mask.
And still, there will be those for whom this is not enough. Even though forecasters are calling for rain on Thursday, some families, the Terminis anticipate, will still want to hang around outside the bakery and socialize the same way they always do.
So they have transformed their parking lot into a tented, heated space where people can hang out outside — in the early-morning hours, if they so choose — while wearing masks and keeping a social distance. Workers will hand out pre-bagged samples, and the Quaker City String Band will perform outside.
It’s all part of the bakery’s effort this year to keep a holiday tradition alive, even as everything else feels uncertain.
“That’s one of the roles that we feel is what Termini Bros. is supposed to be,” Joe said. “Providing for people some sense of normalcy.”
One major tradition won’t be the same this year. Vincent Sr. is 82, and won’t be there to fling open the front doors to a mass of friends and neighbors.
His family, Joe said, is keeping him healthy for next year: the 100th Termini Christmas.