When DeCicco & Sons’ newest store opened in Somers, N.Y., in May of this year, it was met with great excitement. As with many of the company’s locations, the townspeople were clamoring for a local grocery store, and the DeCicco name has become well known as a byword for quality.
“What we offer is very specific,” says Joe DeCicco Jr., chief purchasing officer. “We’re not going to be the cheapest on X, Y and Z. We’re 100 percent quality-focused. All of our meat, whether it’s important to you or not, is all natural and antibiotic- and hormone-free. Our produce will last seven days in your fridge, and it’s first picked and super-fresh. This is what we’re offering, and a lot of people appreciate it and understand the difference. They see it, they feel it, and they taste it.”
While seven of the eight stores are in New York’s Westchester County (the eighth is just on the other side of the county line), each is tailored to fit its unique community, and the Somers store is no exception. “We try to follow the architectural style of every community that we go to as best we can to fit in with the rest of the community,” says John DeCicco Jr., CEO/CFO of the stores.
Somers is also the hometown of Hachaliah Bailey, who purchased the first elephant brought into the United States. Bailey started charging people to view the animal, which led him to create the Bailey Circus that later merged with P.T. Barnum’s traveling show to become the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The elephant is a big symbol in the town — the town hall is in what was formerly known as the Elephant Hotel, and has a statue of Bailey’s elephant, known as Old Bet, in front.
In terms of the store’s design, the family was looking to create a backwoods motif, with a lot of wood and metal elements, along with playing homage to Somers’ role in the rise of the American circus. “We tried to take those first industrial-type buildings, combined with the wilderness-lodge type of feel, and this is what we ended up with,” John Jr. adds.
Much of the store’s design was also influenced by its location adjacent to the Croton Watershed, which means that the land behind the store will remain undeveloped. The store’s brick exterior gives it an industrial vibe, which is softened by reclaimed wood elements.
The reclaimed wood, from barns in New England, also plays into the focus on sustainability that has been at the forefront of every DeCicco & Sons store; the chain’s Larchmont location is LEED certified. (That store led to DeCicco & Sons receiving an Outstanding Independent Award for Sustainability from Progressive Grocer in 2016.)
The Green Quotient
The Somers store is the first one the company has built from the ground up, which allowed the DeCiccos to implement all of the sustainable learnings from their other stores to create their greenest store to date.
“Every store, we take a step forward in terms of the design and the efficiency of the store,” John Jr. says.
The Somers store isn’t LEED certified because the process is quite arduous, but the team took the learnings from the Larchmont store and applied them to the new location, which is, however, Greenchill Platinum certified.
The store has radiant floor heat throughout that uses heat reclaimed from the refrigeration system. (The bar upstairs also has radiant heat under the cement bar top so that it remains warm to the touch.)
“That reheating does two things,” Puma says. “It reclaims the water used to heat the floor. That heat rises. Then we have fans that actually take that heat that’s expelled and push it back down, so we’re reusing that heat again.”
The radiant heat in the floor is the primary heat source for the store, with the secondary source being the HVAC system. The reclaimed heat from the refrigeration system is also used to heat the water used in the store. “It gets boosted with a secondary source, but it is our primary source of hot water,” Puma adds.
The radiant floor heat, which is a first for a grocery store in the United States, according to Puma, required coordinating with four contractors to get all of the plumbing and wiring to work in the way he wanted it to.
Investment in Smart Technology
“You can feel the store is pretty crisp,” Puma notes. “None of the cases are fogged up. That’s all being controlled by smart technology that is sensing the temperature at multiple points inside the store so we have the means to react to different situations.”
This smart technology allows Puma or John Jr. to be able to respond to what’s going on in the store and correct it from anywhere in the world. It also enables them to see that everything is running on schedule. For example, if Puma gets an alert on his phone at 9 p.m. about the seafood cooler being warm, he knows that it’s because that’s the scheduled time for it to be washed down.
The technology also helps maintain food quality and food safety.
“We have the confidence to know that everything is going to come out properly and be stored consistently,” Puma says. “It’s not reactive, it’s almost proactive.”
The initial investment in all of this top-end technology was high, but even though it’s nearly 20,000 square feet, the costs to run the Somers store are in line with the chain’s other stores, which are only 12,000 to 15,000 square feet. Other sustainable elements include LED lights — there isn’t a single halogen bulb in the entire store — and special drainage in the parking lot that allows runoff rainwater to flow into the store’s well and be used for landscaping.
Grilling It Up
While the store has only been open a short time, one of the biggest draws is the DeCicco Grill, a bar encompassing the upstairs mezzanine, an 8,500-square-foot space that can seat about 250 people.
The bar features several beers on tap, as well as a made-to-order grill station serving a variety of burgers and other typical bar fare. The area features TVs, comfortable leather sofas and a children’s play area. One whole wall is made up of windows facing a panoramic view of the Croton Wetlands, and the outdoor seating area is a popular spot for customers to enjoy a glass of beer or wine.
“The response to the bar has been huge and overwhelming,” Joe Jr. says. “We really are known for the bar concept in general, but this is a new concept for us, with the kind of pub-burger concept. It’s really a match made in heaven.” The bar grill uses the same meat that’s sold downstairs in the meat department so customers can try to replicate the bar offerings at home.
Donna Monaco Olsen, a local food writer who works with John Sr. on developing the cooking classes held at the stores in conjunction with Westchester Community College, was at the store during PG’s visit.
But it all comes back to what the store sells. As John Jr. notes, DeCicco & Sons sets itself apart, “hands-down, by the quality of the products we’re selling.”
What began as a business school assignment in the 1990s turned into DeCicco & Sons, a booming independent grocery chain with seven of its eight stores in Westchester County, N.Y., and another three stores in the works.
John DeCicco Jr., who had grown up in the grocery business working for his father and uncles in the family-owned DeCicco Family Markets, was in business school when his class decided to use his family’s business as the basis of its class project, and began hunting sites and creating a business plan for a grocery store that was unlike anything else in the market.
When John Jr. brought the idea to his father, John DeCicco Sr., father and son decided to see whether they could make the venture succeed in the real world. They signed a lease on the site that had been prospected by the class, and DeCicco & Sons was born.
By 2006, the first store was open in Ardsley, N.Y., and in 2013, the second-generation venture was spun off from the original family business, with John Jr.’s brother Chris, as well as his uncle Joe DeCicco Sr., and Joe's son Joe DeCicco Jr. on board.
(Fun family fact: John Sr. and Joe Sr. married sisters, making John Jr., Chris and Joe Jr. double cousins.)
The two seniors are in the stores every day, checking to make sure everything is running smoothly, while John Jr. oversees development projects, finance and HR; Joe Jr. is in charge of purchasing and merchandising; and Chris focuses on marketing and the beer program.
Like many independent grocers, the elder DeCiccos’ training was in butchery, so the stores are well known for their meat departments — they carry a line of natural, organic private label beef — as well as their produce, which was named the best in Westchester County, N.Y. However, where DeCicco & Sons has really begun to make a name for itself is in the craft beer department.
Chris DeCicco, the chief marketing officer, travels the world working with brewers to find the best craft beer varieties that are then sold in the store either in the beer aisle or on tap in the stores’ bars. The stores do a booming business in growlers, but the recent push has been in “crowlers,” or a can version of the growler.
In fact, Chris’s extensive knowledge of the category has led to the Knighthood of the Brewers Mash Staff in Belgium designating him an honorary knight in recognition of his “loyal services to the brewing profession.”
The junior DeCiccos became interested in craft beer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and when the new DeCicco & Sons venture began, they placed an emphasis on the department. “People would drive from different states, different parts of the country, just to check out whatever bottles we had on the shelf,” Joe Jr. says. “It really exploded when we opened our store in 2006. We had growlers and a draft system; local breweries started opening up. It just kind of blew up.”
Chris takes his beer team to breweries all over the world to help educate them on the many types and styles of beer so they can in turn educate customers. Every store, including the Somers, N.Y., location, has two to three full-time staffers in the beer department.