Nicholas D’Agostino III is the president and CEO of D’Agostino Supermarkets, a chain of New York food stores that is a cultural emblem for the city, and that embodies all the ideals of the American dream. Third generation Italian-American, Nick grew up learning and living the trade.
Did you grow up in an Italian-American neighborhood?
My mother is Irish, so I grew up with Italian and Irish relatives in the Upper West Side, but in school and at the stores there were mostly Italians. When I was a little kid, my mother would take me to the stores and I used to make a nuisance of myself, always trying to fix things, telling people what to do. Then I had birthday parties in the stores or at the warehouse, and I thought that was a great thing to do. I went to school close to the store on 80th Street, and we lived next to the store on 74th and Broadway, so I worked there all through high school and college. Actually, during college, I had a job working for a refrigeration company but I would still help in the stores. When I graduated, I made the final decision. My uncle had left the business, and my father was running it. He asked me to come in and I did, and then I spent close to 30 years working directly for the company.
Was it hard to work for your father?
I fought with my brother more than I fought with my father. Every time we attended a business function my father or my grandfather would get up to give speeches, and that was embarrassing. It was very different to see them up there when you saw them every day, a very different atmosphere. You get used to it.
You worked all your life. Did you have time to cultivate any hobbies?
I run a lot. I also like to hunt, ski, golf, but I can’t do it very often.
Secrets of the trade?
The secret is to find out what the customer wants, what problems can you solve for that customer, how can you make that customer’s life better. That’s what we are always trying to do. And then, when something works, the important thing for us is ‘how can you repeat it?’ You can always do something great one time, but can you repeat it? Can you have more than one store to do it? Also, service. We sell Carvel cakes, we have a manager who was asked for a Carvel cake that we don’t normally carry. He went out and bought it for the customer. You have got to take care of the customer. We tell our employees that if you are out of something, and the store across the street has it, you go out and buy it. Don’t say we don’t have it: go get it. We are always trying to make it easier for the customer, some things work, some don’t. We try to get out there first if we can.
We have been in the business for 100 years and it is constantly changing. Now we are on the internet and we don’t know where that is going. There is a lot more technology, and we are still trying to figure out how to fit that technology into service. Still, the most important thing is the customer.
There are a lot of supermarket chains now but they are gigantic, impersonal...
We try to be the opposite, we try to be personal, to get our message across. We try to do things different from other people, we cut our chickens in the store as an example. It’s better for the customer and we do a better job than the industrial plants.
How about marketing? D’agostino Supermarkets have become an icon also for the marketing strategies you adopted throughout the decades.
It’s much harder to market as we did in the past. We are working at new ideas, programs like the royalty card for our best customers. And we try to get our message out as often as we can: we are there, we are a family operated business. We also try to be good citizens and help as much as we can with programs like Meals on Wheels or the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Have you ever visited Italy?
I went to Venice a couple of times, to Rome a few times. We were actually in Rome when Pope John Paul II died, and we got thrown out of our hotel because it was across the street from the American Embassy, and some cardinal needed the room. I said, ‘I paid for the room already, how can you take it away?’ Finally, they moved us in a room at the Grand Hotel.
As an Italian-American, how do you feel when you go to Italy?
I love Italy. One time we came from Switzerland where my daughter was skating. It was amazing the difference in the people. When the train went from Switzerland to Italy they changed the crew and it was completely different, so much nicer. It was just very funny. We still have some relatives in Italy, but I am not in touch with them. When my grandparents were alive, they called Italy all the time, it was different. In Bugnara, Abruzzo, they named a street after my grandfather. We tried to be there for the ceremony but unfortunately it didn’t work out. The trips I have taken to Italy are mostly for business, food shows, visiting the plants, stuff like that.
Be brutally honest: what is the downside of doing business in Italy or with Italian companies?
We buy a lot of Italian products. Sometimes you have to deal with corruption. We used to be supplied by a milk company in New Jersey, and then Parmalat bought it. But Parmalat had problems with financial fraud, and in the end the local milk company had to re-buy the plant. The laws in Italy are also very difficult, and justice is slow. If you want to buy or sell real estate in Italy, for example, it is almost impossible: a friend of mine sold a property and before he signed the contract the people had already moved in. Or you buy property and squatters may go live in there. It could take years to make them move.
What advice can you give to Italian food companies who want to export their products?
They have to figure out how they are going to have their products distributed. You have to make it easy for the American retailers. Retailers are not importers, they don’t own the ships, you have to find a way to get your products here, and only then we can put it on our shelves. I have gone to food shows in Italy, and people told me ‘we have the product here, just order it’. I asked, “what do you mean just order it?’ And they answered ‘just order a container’. But a container could last me 14 years! We work with Colavita that makes olive oil in Italy, we work with Giovanni Rana, and when they came here they established distribution, did a lot of advertising with us, they kept changing the packages, and they are doing really well, customers like their products. So, we order through distributors but we get to know and work with the manufacturers. Like Garofalo pasta: we met them, know them, but we buy their products through their distributor. You can’t order directly from Italy, a distributor here has to put it on their shelves and then we can place orders for our stores as needed. When you have 100 types of olive oil, you have to prove your product is better or different from the other 99, but you also have to make it easily available, have a good broker or a good distributor. There is a new company that makes pasta, La Piana, dry stuffed pasta, and they get it here somehow. They have a family member here and he is going around selling it.
When you introduce a new product, and you want to get on our shelves, you may have to invest some money because even if you think the product is great it may not sell. What am I going to do then? My shelves are now full, and I had to take something else out to give you space. You have to work out a deal where you advertise the new product, give us free samples, do demos in our stores, work with us. Like truffles: we bought great truffles from Italy, I put them in the stores, spent thousands of dollars and they sit on the shelf. If a company wants to be really successful, they bring in people to do demonstrations, to show customers how to use the product, and you would be amazed how well it works. I remember once we had a demonstration about mussels; a chef showed how easy it was to cook them, and customers started buying them. They felt better about it, they went home thinking ‘I can do that’. Again, it’s all about the customers. You have to be able to balance their needs. Some like to try new foods, some get upset if they don’t find what they are used to.
You own 14 supermarkets, and you sell some prepared foods: how many people work for you?
About 1,000. As far as prepared food is concerned, sushi and rotisserie chicken are the products we sell the most. Now we are doing a new experiment in two stores, making grilled cheese sandwiches, panini, using a couple of different recipes.
We are always trying and it’s hard. But you never know when one is going to come up, and you have to be ready when they come up.
December 8, 2012