We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Each year at 6 a.m. Dec. 24, when Vincent Termini Sr. unlocks the door to the bakery his father founded in 1921, there are hundreds of people queued up outside 1523 S. Eighth St. Many are shivering from the winter chill, but all are giddy with anticipation of participating in a decades-old tradition: picking up Christmas Eve pastries from Termini Bros. In a world where convenience and modernization infiltrate nearly every facet of life, these patrons relish the chance to buy cookies and cannoli that have been made with the exact same techniques, tools and recipes for nearly a century.
Giuseppe Termini learned to bake in the old country. He began apprenticing with master bakers in his native Sicily when he was just 6 years old, eventually developing enough skill that he was recognized with a national gold medal. His brother Gaetano, already in the U.S. via a job with the Stetson hat company, scraped up enough money to bring him across the Atlantic to realize his dream of opening a bakery of his own.
Cobbling together a collection of used equipment, much of it made in the late 1800s, the brothers began selling pastries out of a storefront at 1514 S. Eighth St. (it's now Mr. Joe's Cafe). The sweets were an immediate hit in the Italian immigrant neighborhood, and though they were very young, in their early 20s, the Terminis reinvested every dime. By 1938, they had enough capital to expand, and moved their operation across the street to Termini Bros.' current home.
Both Giuseppe (Joe) and Gaetano moved into apartments above the bakery, and raised their families amid the flour-strewn rooms. Joe's son Vincent began working there when he was 18 years old, rolling dough on the wooden pastry counters and whipping ricotta cheese in giant mixers. In 1976, he officially assumed control of the business, although his father continued to work in the kitchen all the way up to his death in 1994 at age 95.
After taking over, Vincent Sr. spent nearly every waking hour at Termini Bros. He focused on maintaining the quality of his products while continuing to reinvest and expand. He launched a mail-order business, hand-delivering packages to the post office to satisfy the cannoli cravings of Philadelphia ex-pats, and opened a second location on Oregon Avenue (it has since moved to 1538 Packer Ave.). In 1985, he launched a stand in Reading Terminal Market.
Vincent Sr.'s dedication was something his wife, Barbara, impressed upon her two sons, Joseph and Vincent Jr. In 2003, after earning degrees in food marketing from St. Joseph's University and culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America, respectively, the brothers took over as third-generation owners.
For the last dozen years, Joey, 42, and Vinny, 36, have run the pasticceria with the same devotion and pride as their predecessors. They redoubled their commitment to quality, opting to pay more for prime ingredients instead of settling for substitutes, and concentrated on improving customer service.
There have been expansions - a dedicated packaging room to serve the online mail-order business, a shop in the market below the Comcast Center - and retractions, like the shuttering of a location across the river in Washington Township, N.J. Though plans are a topic of constant debate, with Vinny often pushing for more development and Joey arguing for a more measured pace, the brothers agree: There's nothing they'd rather be doing than carrying on the Termini Bros. name.
What's your first memory of the bakery?
Standing on milk crates next to our grandfather so he could teach us how to fill cream puffs and cannolis. We still make them on the same tables - all the woodwork in here is original. The tin ceiling out front; that's the same. It still looks shiny and new; that's partly because as kids we spent many hours up there on a ladder cleaning it.
Did either of you ever consider a different career?
It never really crossed our mind; neither of us. From the time we were little kids, coming in here and seeing the guys working hard, all dressed in their whites - we were in awe. A lot of the credit goes to our mom. She really instilled in us what our dad was doing, why he was always here. The bakery wasn't just some magic place where tuitions came from; it was always my mom saying, "Your father is working hard." That level of commitment and dedication - it inspired us to want to take over ourselves.
Did you make changes when you took over?
We've never changed the original recipes, but we refined a lot of things. It used to be that workers would just come into the bakery and do what they thought needed to be done. But now we write out a production schedule every day, detailing what each person needs to do, step by step. (We can do that because at some point or another, we've done them all.)
Also, we're a lot more focused on customer service. Training for new employees is very detailed. We're in a world of touch-screens and everything's-gotta-be-scanners and quick, quick, quick [snaps fingers]. That's not what we want. It needs to be just like 1921. You need to walk around the store with the customers. It's not just coming to get cannolis; customers should feel like they're part of our family. Our service level is just as important, if not more important, than the quality level.
But you've got the quality part on lock already, right?
Well, you'd be surprised. It's a constant battle. Right now, there's a huge massive egg shortage. We invested into buying the eggs we'll need over the next month or so - paying 300 or 400 [percent] what we'd usually pay. But the other option was to use powdered eggs. We're not doing it. We don't care what it takes - we will never compromise the integrity of our products. We'd rather stop selling something for a short time, rather than have it not be right.
Did production ever stop? Since your grandfather opened, we've had the Depression, World War II...
The bakery never closed. My grandfather always made sure he could provide for the business. He fought in the first World War, so he learned how to deal with troubled times. He used to say, "As long as I have my hands, I'll be fine, I'll do whatever it takes." That's something we've carried on. We'll do whatever it takes.
Most memorable day or night here?
The one that comes to mind is the 36-hour shift we pulled around 10 years ago. There were a couple mishaps with production, and we had a choice. We could either not have the holiday pies and pastry for the customers - we could just run out - or we could stay and make it happen. We came in early, worked all day, then stayed through the night. When the first baker came in, he was like, "Man, you guys are here early." We didn't say anything and then he realized the ovens weren't cold. "You guys must've been here all night!" People might think something like that was about the money, but it wasn't. It was about the customers. We couldn't disappoint them.
Has this neighborhood changed a lot?
Oh, yeah. We're getting a lot of young couples moving here, yuppies. It goes all the way down to Eighth and Snyder. The houses down there used to be, like, the bottom. Now they're going for $300,000. You look around and see lots of New York license plates. And West Philly is coming up big time - around Drexel and Penn they've got all these new 20-story properties planned.
Do you feel like Philly's reputation is changing, overall?
Philly is definitely on the rise. It always was a first-class city, and people are just starting to notice it. New Yorkers are looking at us now and saying, "I think maybe they're onto something."
Will it change Philly's character?
Not worried about that, 'cause Philly people are Philly people. This is a blue-collar town. It might have a lot more white-collar people in it now, but it's still a blue-collar town, built on tradition and pride. There's something special about that.
Doing anything special for Pope Francis' visit this September?
That depends on if the city's going to be open or not. We do have a plan. Each month, we make a different seasonal product - March it's St. Joseph's Day cakes (zeppole), April it's Easter bread, there are several items for Christmas - and for the pope's visit, we wanted to offer all of them at once. Our customers would go crazy.
But here's the problem. If roads are closed, how are we gonna get here? We could sleep here, but who's gonna make all the stuff - we can't have 20 guys sleeping here. And how will our trucks get to our Center City shops?
Do you ever introduce new items?
Sure, but we never forget the hallmark items. The cookies - we make 13 kinds of cookies, all from scratch - the sfogliatelle, the Italian cream cake, the cannolis. Those are the standards. We remember when cannolis were $1.25 each. Our dad remembers when they were 50 cents. Now they're $4.
Does cannoli sell the most, volume-wise?
Absolutely. Probably 99% of the people who come in here don't leave without a cannoli. Lots of other bakeries have tried to imitate us. You can't fear competition - just use competition to make yourself stronger. But the most frustrating thing is when people bastardize stuff. Like, this guy in New York devises a product called a Cronut, great. It's really cool, an original idea. But then you get people around here trying to sell a cannoli-Cronut something or other...it gives cannoli a bad name.
People ask us, "Do you make tiramisu cannolis? Strawberry cannolis?" No. That's not something we do. That's bastardizing a product. We make cheese, vanilla, chocolate. We make all the fillings from scratch, here. We make all the cannoli shells from scratch, here. You'll never see us deviate from that.
Do you have a favorite pastry?
Joey: Cannoli, hands down. I could eat them every day and twice on Sundays.
Vinny: No, not for me. I like the sfogliatelle, or maybe the baba cake.
Joey: He can say what he wants; it's the cannoli. When he was 5, he used to get a chocolate cannoli every single night. His favorite is the cannoli.
Best part about working with family? Hardest part?
Best part is the trust level, dependability. We'd jump in front of a car for each other, without question. When there's work to be done, like at Christmastime, we never have to question if we're going to be here.
The most challenging part is we both have passionate opinions, so if we don't agree, one of us has to give in. And we're both Sicilian, so that's hard to do. We've had some animated debates. But people try all the time to play us against one another, and there's no way that'd happen. We share a dream. We have a common dream, and a common goal.
Plans for the future? What's your next project?
Well, we're redoing our Comcast store right now. And they're building Comcast II ... and we'll probably have first right of refusal. There's so many options. We are pursued constantly. They people doing this thing on Market Street, with the Gallery, came to us around two years ago. They were like, "Are you interested?" Yes, we're interested, but...
The problem is our own quality standard is so high. In order for us to grow any more with the Termini brand, it would require us to either somehow generate another one of us, or sacrifice that standard, which we're never going to do.
Listen - something big is going to happen within the next year or two. There's a couple things on the table. Something is going to happen. But it's not going to impact our quality standards. We both feel very strongly about that.
Flagship Store: 1523 S. Eighth St., 215-334-1816
Packer Park Shopping Center: 1538 Packer Ave., 215-336-1001
Reading Terminal Market: 12th & Filbert Streets, 215-629-1790