Food Merchandising: From Art to Spectacle, Chapter One - It All Began With Dean & Deluca on Prince Street in SoHo
In September 1977, when Joel Dean, Giorgio Deluca and Jack Ceglio opened their first food store on Prince Street in SoHo they set in motion a food revolution that encompassed merchandising, taste and style transforming the way that Americans sold and bought food. At that time, SoHo was the locus of the avant-garde art world in America. A sizable colony of artists were transforming the surrounding commercial and industrial buildings, some dating back to the Civil War era, into loft living spaces. The works that SoHo artists created remain significant in 20th century art history. These artists were the Dean & Deluca clientele, so it was logical that their neighborhood food store should itself become a work of art.
For a brief period of time, SoHo served as a significant style generator in art, food, clothing and life style. In fact, SoHo became a symbol of what was new and hip. It became so commercial that Bloomingdale's opened a store on Broadway between Prince and Broome.
As I remember it, the Dean & Deluca Prince Street store was about forty feet wide and one hundred and twenty feet deep. Like the nearby galleries, it was a pristine white environment accentuated by stainless steel and glass refrigerated display cases and free-standing metal shelves. As you entered the door, you were greeted by a sculptural display of fruits and vegetables with operatic arias wafting above your head. The employees, young and attractive, were outfitted in pristine white uniforms. They were knowledgeable and passionate about the food they were selling. The breads, cheeses, olives and prepared meats looked spectacular and their taste was superb. It was a memorable aesthetic experience to enter this space and purchase food.
In 1985, I spent a weekend at Dean & Deluca providing samples of my wife Mary's Grafton Goodjams made in small batches of organically grown fruit and Vermont maple syrup. Based on this experience, I was aware of a transformed clientele. There were more women in pastel clothing than jeans. The pastels were the "bridge and tunnel crowd" from New Jersey and Long Island, as they were disdainfully described by by SoHo residents. It was these suburbanites who expanded the Dean & Deluca audience beyond SoHo.
In 1988, outside investors entered the picture and bank rolled expansion with a move to the corner of Prince and Broadway.
This was more a football field-sized space. Joel Dean and Giorgio Deluca moved their offices from the back of the Prince Street store to the back of the Broadway store. From there, they could maintain a watchful eye on every detail of the store's operation. Both were often seen roaming the aisles to be certain that their standards were maintained. Even though expansion had taken place, there was no diminution of quality.
When Giorgio Deluca saw my wife Mary's Grafton Goodjam vinegars, he ordered some and placed them prominently in the store. Exposure at Dean & Deluca served as a catalyst to expand her market nationwide.
Typical of investors, they wanted to see expansion. Stores were opened in Georgetown, Maryland; Charlotte, North Carolina and St. Helena, Napa Valley, California. Added to the mix were a number of Dean & Deluca Coffees like this one illustrated below on the ground floor of Renzo Piano's New York Times building.
Fortunately, through the years with a number of different owners and the departure of Giorgio Deluca (who now has his own restaurant in SoHo) and Joel Dean (who unfortunately died several years ago), the same level of quality has been maintained. Below is a photograph that I took recently at the Prince and Broadway store.
Fortunately for those of us who appreciate this store, the passion and sensitivity for good food that Giorgio Deluca and Joel Dean exuded remains in tact. I have never been disappointed by any purchase that
I made at a Dean & Deluca store over more than thirty years.
From its SoHo art world origins, the Dean & Deluca style has gone mainstream. As one travels around country, you see formulaic imitations, none as good, but these stores offer an enhanced food merchandising experience contributing to the lives of many of us. Whole Foods is probably the most evident example. Every major supermarket chain has its imitation of the Dean & Deluca model. Many of these beneficiaries of enhanced food merchandising might never have heard of Dean & Deluca.
Is the artful presentation of food still a valid style? My answer is yes, but ... there are new winds circulating - Eataly in New York in particular. Eataly will be examined in the next post.