In 1918, Luigi Sarcone started running a bakery in the basement of a rowhouse on Ninth Street, just north of the Italian Market and next door to Ralph's restaurant, another long-running South Philadelphia business.
Sarcone eventually passed the bakery — which later moved upstairs — to his son, Peter, who then left it to his son, Louis Sr., who turned it over to his son, Louis Jr., now 54. The fifth generation, Louis 3rd, 30, runs Sarcone's Bakery with his father.
The Sarcones — like the Dispigno/Rubino family that owns Ralph's — have a long history on the block. Louis Sr., who grew up with his parents and sisters above the bakery, married Lillian Brodman, from Second Street, and they raised their son and daughter in Cherry Hill. After Lillian's death in 2014, Louis Sr. moved back, to an apartment above the bakery. His daughter, Linda, who grew tired of life in New Jersey, lives across the street and works at the bakery. Up the block, Louis Jr. helped a first cousin, Anthony Bucci, open a deli, Sarcone's, that closed last month.
Louis Jr. sat to chat last week.
What is your earliest memory?
Coming to work every weekend with my father. Whenever we were off from school, my dad would wake us up at 5:30, 6 in the morning. We'd come to work with him, my sister and I, as he did with his father. We would run around here as kids playing around, jumping up on the flour bags, and basically grew up in this building. When I was growing up, I don't remember my great-grandfather as much, as I was just born. My great-grandmother actually was in the shop, too. If we didn't do something right, she'd holler at us in Italian. She always made the tomato pie and the pizza. She would make it in the brick oven and then would put it on a tray and have it in the windows.
What did your father teach you?
I just remember him telling me: "Don't put too much food in your mouth, you can't chew." What he meant by that was, keep things simple. If you try to do too much, you'll overextend yourself and you're going to lose something. You pay attention to the person before you teaching you the business, because if you don't pay attention and you change things, something is going to get lost somewhere and you're going to get off -track. We're doing something right, so keep it right." A lot of younger generations think, "Oh, we've got to go wholesale. We've got to go hit all the restaurants and expand. Once you do that you lose something. You become a commercial business, and my grandfather always told me that it's more important for your walk-in store to be your business. You have to have the perfect balance. Some wholesale, some retail. I always paid attention. I shadowed my father. As I got older, he let me be here by myself a little bit more. He let out a little rope at a time. Before you know it, you're doing everything that your father did and you don't even realize it, but I never make a decision to this day. I'm 54 years old. I never make a decision without going to my father because as long as he's living, he's the boss. Family is more important.
What put Sarcone's on the map?
We've been offering seeded rolls as long as I've been around. Back in the '70s, Bobby Toner at [the now-closed] JR's Deli was the first person who bought a seeded loaf of Italian bread to make a hoagie, and then everybody started doing it. I give him all the credit in the world. Before you know it, every bakery in the world was calling me up, "You're killing me." Everybody wanted Sarcone's bread to make a hoagie. They all started getting rid of the flat steak bread, the plain hoagie roll. Then all these big commercial bakery shops start making bread with seeds on it. You could have called up any bakery and said, "How much is your Sarcone bread?" I had to go out and register the name Sarcone.
How has the business end changed in the last decade?
Millennials don't eat bread. Everything is no carbs, and "do you have bread without gluten?" Things changed to where restaurants had to cut back, and the cheapest thing on the table is the bread. A lot of places make their own bread. They just throw dough in the oven and put it in a basket and call it homemade bread. A lot of these commercial bakery shops, they do frozen bread, so restaurants and hoagie shops just take out what they need. Par-baking. We're a small family bakery and we make homemade bread. Once you start par-baking, it's just not the same. If my son decides to do it? When I'm 82 like my father, maybe I'll say, "Yeah. Do what you've got to do to survive," but right now I will not do par-baked bread.
By phone later, I caught up with Louis 3rd: Did you ever imagine not taking over the business?
I did have a hockey career and played overseas for a year, but I always knew I'd be falling back into the bakery. If I wasn't born into a baking family, I'm not sure I would have become a baker. It's an honor to be born into a family that has passed this along from generation to generation. It's not like I'm passionate, but I enjoy it. I like working with family.