The Survival Of Italian American Businesses

Introduction
When most people want to donate something, they go to the Salvation Army because Salvation Army has spent years branding themselves as the place to go if you want to donate something. There are thousands of charities out there. Some are arguably more charitable than the Salvation Army. So why do we go to the Salvation Army? Because no one sees any advertising from the other charities. It’s that simple.

Since I created Italian Enclaves, I noticed that there are thousands of Italian American-owned businesses in the United States. Some of these businesses have been opened for over one-hundred years. If a business has lasted over one-hundred years in The United States, we should all know about it just by default, yet we do not. When a hot tech company goes public, we all know its name whether we watch the financial news channels or not. There is a cultural disconnect where our media celebrates new fly-by-night companies and yet no one at all knows about third or fourth-generation businesses that have weathered a century of storms in some obscure town. In the context of Italian neighborhoods, I try to bridge that huge gap by shedding light on countless Italian-owned businesses to hopefully keep them going.

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A storefront for rent in the Bronx Little Italy. Notice the name of the former proprietor over the entrance.

Despite the massive number of Italian businesses that exist, I wouldn’t have known about many of them unless I traveled to the neighborhoods in which they are located. I wouldn’t have heard about them on Facebook or Instagram, I wouldn’t have seen them pop up in an e-mail or banner ad on a website, and I certainly wouldn’t have heard about them on social media pages and Italian-themed publications. Why? The answer is at least three-pronged: adaptability, popularity contests, and mentality.

Adaptability
PR, or public relations, is the cornerstone of any company’s advertising. As we know, advertising has been something that has changed dramatically within the last several years with the onset of social media taking over the way businesses engage one another and consumers. Essentially, businesses must stay relevant when it comes to remaining in-touch with consumers. This means that businesses must advertise in a way that is lockstep with technology such as using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Influencer Marketing, etc. Naturally, mom-and-pop businesses must also adapt to capitalize on the major growth opportunity that exists digitally in order to remain relevant to younger consumers. This evolution is simply not happening for most Italian American businesses. The result is that these businesses are closing at a rapid pace.
Technological illiteracy is certainly another chief reason why most Italian American businesses are unknown. Most old Italian businesses are run by the same people who have been running them for decades or their children. These people are set in their ways and unfortunately, being in technologically unsophisticated businesses, there’s a false assumption that technology is irrelevant to their success when the exact opposite is true.

Mentality
Not only are many Italian American business owners mostly averse to technology, they are averse to anyone trying to help them just because many of the people who own multi-decades old businesses are from an era when publicity wasn’t always a good thing and staying under the radar was in everyone’s best interest. Well, we respect privacy and we certainly respect old-fashioned ideals, but what Italian Enclaves tries to do is shed light on these businesses so that although they are unwilling or incapable of using technology and social media, we can still help them by threading them into our newsfeeds.
You would be surprised at how many businesses are unwilling to let me photograph their establishments and promote their business. As a matter of fact, in one particularly interesting instance, I went into a business in Downtown Brooklyn to photograph and promote the business. The owner scowled at me right when I walked in the door. My limited Italian conversation wasn’t enough to disarm this gentleman and he proceeded to serve me dirty looks and held the niceties. I even explained the concept of Italian Enclaves and translated to him that I was there to be a paying customer who would also like to promote his business. Nothing. Not a thank you nor a curiosity as to how I would accomplish this. I might as well have been any other customer and that’s fine because I do not seek special treatment for what I do. It’s a zero-paying job that I conduct for a greater good so it’s all good.
Nevertheless, something funny happened. I never wound up posting about this business, but I did share my concern for the businesses’ lack of warmth on another social media thread. Low and behold, I received an inbox message from a concerned relative who was outraged by my lack of support for this business. I explained everything to this relative as to how the business owner could improve and I even offered to return on another day to try their product again and give them another chance to be positively featured on Italian Enclaves. Nothing ensued. I generously offered more of my time and an opportunity to shed a favorable light on this business because hey, everyone has a bad day now and then! If that family member is reading this, I am still here, and I am more than happy to give them another shot because that is only fair.
Popularity Contests
Without naming the multitude of Italian-themed social media accounts one-by-one, we’ll just refer to them in aggregate as “Italian Social Media (ISM).” ISM has many faces. There are cooking and chef accounts, there are “lifestyle” accounts, comedy accounts, etc. Some Italian-owned businesses have done a wonderful job of remaining relevant by connecting to other ISM accounts through influencer marketing and by offering online shipping. Naturally, as “influencers” see other influencers posting about their favorite bakery, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon. This somewhat viralness positively affects the one or two businesses grabbing the attention such as Villabate in Bensonhurst, for example, and winds up hurting the competition. The argument can of course be made that this is a function of competition and survival of the fittest and for the most part that’s true; however, if the vast majority of social media followers falsely assume (because of what they’re told) that one business is the best and only show in town, then this notion of only shopping at that one business feeds on itself which winds up with that one business accumulating more followers, more likes, more hashtags, and eventually most of the business.
Being in the financial industry for fifteen years means that I have unwillingly watched a lot of CNBC and Fox Business. One would assume by just watching these media outlets that there are only twenty-or-so stocks in the entire equity market and the entire world’s economy revolves around those companies. Anyone who tunes in will agree that the companies we consistently hear about are: Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Tesla, Home Depot, and some other marquee names. Meanwhile, there are over 60,000 publicly traded companies out there. The analogy that I am making is that Social Media, like any media source, can be very deceiving when it comes to the way in which Italian American businesses are represented and presented.
Unlike the two main financial networks, there are many sources for information in the media and on social media regarding Italian American-themed news. Despite this fact, a similar phenomenon that occurs on CNBC and Fox News with regards to stocks is occurring with regards to Italian American businesses; only a few are mentioned.
Herd Mentality
The same way Apple and Facebook are constantly discussed on CNBC and Fox News, the same Italian-owned businesses are discussed on social media and online publications over-and-over. This is a function of a few things including favors but chiefly, the herd mentality is to blame. The herd mentality dictates that if everyone else does something or goes somewhere, then it is expected for us to do that same thing or go to that same place too.
So, in the context of stocks, if everyone is buying or selling Apple, then you should too. Apple may or may not pay CNBC or Fox Business a lot of money to keep their stock in the news. There’s a lot of fine print in layers of disclaimers when it comes to stock news. Nevertheless, even if Apple didn’t incentivize the talking heads to discuss their company, they’re still discussed ad nauseum and this leads to a very predictable outcome which is that more people wind up buying and selling Apple stock more than other stocks. This inherently gives traders of Apple stock and market makers of Apple stock a clear financial boon. You get the picture. The same functions occur in Italian-themed media outlets when it comes to Italian-owned businesses. We only hear about the “biggest” and the “best” and then everyone wonders why the other businesses in their neighborhood wind up closing which cascades into residents leaving and eventually an exodus from the neighborhood occurs except those one or two businesses that remain to absorb the market share in their respective industry.
Here’s an example, and there are many others. Circo’s is a phenomenal Sicilian Bakery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Circo’s has been around for decades. Bushwick, along Knickerbocker Avenue, was a Sicilian enclave until the 1970’s. A series of convoluted events occurred which pressured the Italians in that community to leave. Granted, as a community dwindles, regardless of the reason, businesses close. What determines which businesses stay or go would generally be left to a simple Darwinian concept: survival of the fittest. Such is the case with Circo’s. Circo’s has a massive social media presence. They’re on Facebook and Instagram. They’re constantly being reviewed on food blogs and there are even tons of YouTube videos that acknowledge Circo’s. To boot, Circo’s adopted an e-commerce model to couple with their brick and mortar location.
Clearly, Circo’s survived the storm that claimed every other business in “Italian Bushwick.” One would be remiss if they didn’t ask about the other Italian businesses that once thrived in this neighborhood, especially the bakeries. Their failure was not directly brought forth by Circo’s success but rather, indirectly. Maybe other factors can be considered, such as whether Circo’s owns its building. This could give them an edge because by owning their property they’ll maintain a hedge against inflationary trends in the area’s rental market. Whatever the case may be, there’s one simple fact, which is that Circo’s has gotten with the times by remaining relevant and therefore, Circo’s continues to exist.

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Circo’s on Hart Street and Knickerbocker Avenue, the heart of the former Italian Enclave in Bushwick

To apply the Circo’s case study to another Italian enclave, we will compare Circo’s to Villabate in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Unquestionably, they are both amazing Sicilian bakeries. Both bakeries, although competitive in the e-commerce shipping market, are mutually exclusive from one another by virtue of being located so far apart and are not necessarily in direct competition because people who live in a certain radius of Circo’s won’t go all the way to Bensonhurst for pastries and vice-versa.
Villabate sits lonely amongst Chinese storefronts on eighteenth avenue. Eighteenth avenue is Bushwick twenty years ago. Italians are leaving. Other ethnicities are moving in. Businesses are consolidating and closing their doors or relocating. Villabate, for each bakery that closes, gains more strength.

 

 

 


A huge part of Villabate’s success is its quality. However, there are tons of other bakeries in Bensonhurst that all have amazing pastry. For example, Cristoforo Colombo bakery, was a block away but could not survive. Why? There are always more than one factor, but in this case, the culprit we mentioned before rears its ugly head again, the herd mentality. That favorite social media influencer goes to XYZ all the time and so should you. Hence, when people discuss where they’re getting their holiday pastry online or in person, it becomes almost a status symbol to keep up with the other Italians who have the herd mentality. This results in long lines at Villabate and shorter lines, and eventually no lines, elsewhere.

 
Conclusion
In order to preserve our Italian neighborhoods, we must preserve the businesses that are the character of those neighborhoods. To accomplish this, we must patronize these businesses and promote them on social media even if they do not have social media accounts. Many do not, unfortunately. However, we can geotag these places and create hashtags for them. Of course, it would not hurt at all to encourage these businesses to go online somehow and create a web presence. In addition, if you would like to help, please use the #SupportItalianAmericanBusinesses hashtag by inserting it along with photos and other posts that depict an Italian-owned business of any type.
Although we can never stop the hands of time and we certainly can not stop survival of the fittest from taking hold, there are ways we can prolong the existence of businesses that are so much a part of our families. Support these businesses. Support them on social media. Recommend them. Tag them. It is the only way we wind up with a level playing field and it is also the way we can preserve our Italian Enclaves in their totality.

By: Raymond Guarini

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