Dean & Deluca and the gourmet conquest of New York



In September of 1977, Joel Dean and Giorgio Deluca opened a small, high-end grocery store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood and instigated a minor revolution in the culinary abyss of the ‘70s. Today, Dean & Deluca is the address for gourmets and famed far beyond the city limits of New York. The Brander met with co-founder Giorgio Deluca in his SoHo loft.

The scene is set in New York, 1977, where the SoHo district is becoming increasingly popular as it fills up with a new generation of young, ambitious artists and intellectuals intent on creating their own microcosm. It is the era of creativity, of wine and cheese parties, and the burgeoning downtown bohemian scene celebrates itself with French gourmet food.

Giorgio Deluca, the son of Italian immigrants, quits his job as a history teacher after only a few months and decides to wash his hands of the sordid educational system. Having grown up in an extraordinarily rich culinary environment courtesy of his father, a grocer, who specialized in importing European food products, young Deluca decides that the family business may have potential and opens a small cheese shop in SoHo. Within a couple of months, Giorgio has become “Mr. Cheese” to the neighborhood artists. Shortly after, in September of 1977, he broadens his range of products and reopens at a new location close by, taking his friend Joel Dean on board: Dean & Deluca are born.

The alternative to freezer foods

From day one, Dean & Deluca targeted a discerning clientele with a keen taste both for gourmet food and aesthetics. And this in an era when food in America came predominantly out of the freezer and stores were almost exclusively decorated with plastic trimmings. Quick and convenient were the marketing slogans of the day and food products were judged by price not quality.

“Most people did not have a clue about all the superb food out there – they were so fixed on their own freezer they completely forgot that freshly prepared food has a different flavor altogether. Nobody seemed to know what quality was anymore. So we made it our mission to reintroduce excellence into the food sector. And to create an understanding of what is good and what is very good. We wanted to show people that they had more options than they realized,” is how Deluca describes the vision he had.

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Dean & Deluca did not just want to become a name on a can of exotic spices. The brand was supposed to stand for a way of life, for quality and aesthetics. At the same time, Deluca was careful not to become too chic, too offbeat, too trendy. At all costs he wanted to avoid being labeled a snob, knowing that would have had short-lived potential at best. “We wanted to offer products we were convinced were the very best. And display them in surroundings that did them and their provenance justice.”

Intuitively ahead of their time

But that alone does not explain their success. It was more than just the right products in the right venue. Everything felt honest and authentic at Dean & Deluca: the products and the men who sold them. Both business partners vouched for the quality of their goods and lived by their convictions. This sent a powerful message.

Another thing they understood was that most people are grateful for advice when it comes to trying something new. Luckily, Deluca is the archetypal forward thinker, a critical observer who prides himself in catching trends early.

It was my task to offer customers a choice. To display a selection of the best products, so they would dare to try something new, allow themselves to be tempted into experiencing something extraordinary, something excellent and one-of-a-kind.

It would appear that Deluca has remained true to type over the years. Maybe this is the result of all the hard work he put into his personal and professional life: success was not handed to him on a platter. His professional achievements catapulted him out of the confounded depression of his childhood – as he puts it – caused by growing up with his father and stepmother after his mother died when he was only two. His decision to start his own store acted as a catalyst on his personal development.

Even today, Deluca is surprised by their meteoric success that went far beyond his wildest dreams. And yet – despite this success – his passion not only for his life’s work, but also for quality and aesthetics in general has not flagged. Although he withdrew from the operating business of Dean & Deluca a few years ago, he continues to live his dream of the perfect culinary experience in his new restaurant “Giorgione.” Still brimming with ideas, it would come as no surprise if he were to open another shop with an entirely new concept. Slowly but surely he is becoming a brand himself.

Can the founder spirit be upheld?

In terms of all-embracing aesthetics, Dean & Deluca remains matchless. To be sure, the brand has lost a little of its sheen during the last few years: expanding to new locations and markets has affected quality to a small extent. Nevertheless, the brand’s concept remains intact and is sustained by the good name it has carried over from its founding years. This is not entirely unproblematic, given that both of the founders have retired from the operating business. It remains to be seen whether the new managers have really grasped the brand’s history and identity in all its details. Hopefully, they, too, will not succumb to the temptation of making nearsighted and uninspired decisions in the interest of short-term profits – and so carry on the founders’ tradition of intuition, originality and quality.

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Comments (3)

Zeal | 25.04.2011

In awe of that article! Really cool!

Kacper Potega, Stijlroyal Design- & Werbeagentur, Wiesbaden | 21.03.2011

Danke für dieses tolle Webmagazin! Mein RSS-Reader hat gerade neues Futter bekommen!

sven | 10.03.2011

Die Geschichte einer Marke ist eines, und sie gehört ja auch zum Brand. Die Wahrheit ist oft ein bisschen anders ... Die wahre Geschichte ist oft spannender. Ob's die hier manchmal auch gibt, im Vergleich zur offiziellen?


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