“We’ve had seven marriages that came from this store, including me and my wife,” says Joseph Asaro, of Florence Food Center, referring to the youth who have worked at the store over the years. “My wife was my best worker, and I said ‘either I have to give her a big raise, or I’m going to have to marry her.'”
Joseph’s mother Faythe Asaro chimes in, “One of the couples got married at St. Athanasius, and the priest said ‘a young man comes to me and says where can I find a nice religious girl?’ and I tell them ‘go get a job at Florence Food Center.'”
The owners of Florence Food Center and Bakery (6121 20th Avenue), which is closing for good in two weeks, could tell thousands stories like these. For the last 75 years, three generations of Asaros bore witness to history and neighborhood changes from their perch on 20th Avenue.
Rain or shine, the store never closed. During the Northeast blackout of 2003, Florence Food Center was open, giving away rapidly melting ice cream for free. (“My father sat on the curb all night with a shotgun,” says Joseph.)
There was that one time, when Joe Columbo supporters smashed the supermarket’s windows because Richard Asaro refused to support the mob boss by closing the store the day of a Columbo rally and displaying an “Italians are #1” sign in the window. (“My husband said, ‘If I put Italians are #1 in the window, what about my Jewish customers? Are they #2?'” says Faithe.)
The Asaros often found themselves looking out for the neighborhood kids, offering them jobs, intervening when they caused a ruckus on the corner. Once, when race riots broke out FDR High School in the 1960s, Faythe says she and her husband let black high school girls who were fleeing a throng of white boys hide out in the store (“We let them in, and locked the door,” she says.)
The Asaros also recalled a dramatic turning point for the neighborhood, when Yusef Hawkins was killed in 1989 and Reverend Al Sharpton lead a march down 20th Avenue.
The business started out as a bakery in 1941, when the late Joseph Sr. and Anna Asaro — both immigrants of Sicily — rented the back section of a Kosher bakery on 20th Avenue. By the 1950s, everyone recognized Joe’s bread truck driving around Bensonhurst, delivering his delicious loaves and pizzas to Italian neighbors.
In 1963, Joseph Sr.’s son Richard and his wife Faythe got married and took over the store, turning it into a full service grocery. Business flourished and the store kept expanding until the Asaros were able to purchase the building in the 1980s.
“We sold 500 loaves on Christmas Eve, 500 loaves on Christmas Day,” says Faythe. “Before Thanksgiving, there would be a line down the block for our meat pies.”
Florence Food Center and the Asaros have put up with a lot over the years, but the recent demographic shifts — Italians and Jews moving to Staten Island and the suburbs and Asians, Russians, Central Americans, and Middle Easterners moving in — proved too difficult to difficult for the Italian-focused food store to weather.
By the 1990s, many of Florence’s customers had moved away and business began to wane.
Citing the changing demographics, Faythe says, “It’s something we should have done five years ago.”
In two weeks, the store, the Asaros, and nearly a century worth of stories will be gone. Florence Food Center building has been sold for just under $1 million, according to this website, and a “For Rent” sign has appeared outside. All non-perishable food items have been marked down by 40 percent.
Long-time customers we spoke to were devastated. “It’s terrible, my husband broke down the other day,” said Jackie, who has been coming to the store since the 1960s.
As for Faythe, with grandchildren to spoil, she says she’s ready to retire. “Fishing, going to the gym. It’s time to move on to a new life.”
As a token of our gratitude to the Asaros, we now turn to our readers to help us memorialize this neighborhood institution. Did you grow up going to Florence Food Center? Share your favorite stories in the comments below.