After 75 Years In Business, Florence Food Center Says Farewell

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Joe and Heather Asaro of Florence Food Center, which is closing after 75 years. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Joe Asaro met his wife Heather while she worked the counter at Florence Food Center. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

“We’ve had seven marriages that came from this store, including me and my wife,” says Joseph Asaro, of Florence Food Center, referring to the youth who have worked at the store over the years. “My wife was my best worker, and I said ‘either I have to give her a big raise, or I’m going to have to marry her.'”

Joseph’s mother Faythe Asaro chimes in, “One of the couples got married at St. Athanasius, and the priest said ‘a young man comes to me and says where can I find a nice religious girl?’ and I tell them ‘go get a job at Florence Food Center.'”

The owners of Florence Food Center and Bakery (6121 20th Avenue), which is closing for good in two weeks, could tell thousands stories like these. For the last 75 years, three generations of Asaros bore witness to history and neighborhood changes from their perch on 20th Avenue.

Fayth Asaro and her son Richard tell stories about the good old days. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Faythe Asaro and her son Richard tell stories about the good old days. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Rain or shine, the store never closed. During the Northeast blackout of 2003, Florence Food Center was open, giving away rapidly melting ice cream for free. (“My father sat on the curb all night with a shotgun,” says Joseph.)

There was that one time, when Joe Columbo supporters smashed the supermarket’s windows because Richard Asaro refused to support the mob boss by closing the store the day of a Columbo rally and displaying an “Italians are #1” sign in the window. (“My husband said, ‘If I put Italians are #1 in the window, what about my Jewish customers? Are they #2?'” says Faithe.)

Joe Asaro works the deli counter. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Joe Asaro works the deli counter. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

The Asaros often found themselves looking out for the neighborhood kids, offering them jobs, intervening when they caused a ruckus on the corner.  Once, when race riots broke out FDR High School in the 1960s, Faythe says she and her husband let black high school girls who were fleeing a throng of white boys hide out in the store (“We let them in, and locked the door,” she says.)

The Asaros also recalled a dramatic turning point for the neighborhood, when Yusef Hawkins was killed in 1989 and Reverend Al Sharpton lead a march down 20th Avenue.

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Photos of Joseph and Anna Asaro are displayed at Florence Food Center, which is closing after 75 years. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Joe's bread truck, circa 1965. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Joe’s bread truck, circa 1965. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

The business started out as a bakery in 1941, when the late Joseph Sr. and Anna Asaro — both immigrants of Sicily — rented the back section of a Kosher bakery on 20th Avenue. By the 1950s, everyone recognized Joe’s bread truck driving around Bensonhurst, delivering his delicious loaves and pizzas to Italian neighbors.

In 1963, Joseph Sr.’s son Richard and his wife Faythe got married and took over the store, turning it into a full service grocery. Business flourished and the store kept expanding until the Asaros were able to purchase the building in the 1980s.

“We sold 500 loaves on Christmas Eve, 500 loaves on Christmas Day,” says Faythe. “Before Thanksgiving, there would be a line down the block for our meat pies.”

Florence Food Center and the Asaros have put up with a lot over the years, but the recent demographic shifts — Italians and Jews moving to Staten Island and the suburbs and Asians, Russians, Central Americans, and Middle Easterners moving in — proved too difficult to difficult for the Italian-focused food store to weather.

By the 1990s, many of Florence’s customers had moved away and business began to wane.

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Sale at Florence Food Center. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Citing the changing demographics, Faythe says, “It’s something we should have done five years ago.”

In two weeks, the store, the Asaros, and nearly a century worth of stories will be gone. Florence Food Center building has been sold for just under $1 million, according to this website, and a “For Rent” sign has appeared outside. All non-perishable food items have been marked down by 40 percent.

Jackie (with Faythe Asaro) has been coming to the store since the 1960s. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Jackie (with Faythe Asaro) has been coming to the store since the 1960s. (Photo by Bensonhurst Bean)

Long-time customers we spoke to were devastated. “It’s terrible, my husband broke down the other day,” said Jackie, who has been coming to the store since the 1960s.

As for Faythe, with grandchildren to spoil, she says she’s ready to retire. “Fishing, going to the gym. It’s time to move on to a new life.”

As a token of our gratitude to the Asaros, we now turn to our readers to help us memorialize this neighborhood institution. Did you grow up going to Florence Food Center? Share your favorite stories in the comments below.

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  • Lisa Lisa

    My grandparents Aunts Uncles and cousins all shopped there I have been shopping here for 18 years. I am going to miss everything about Florence and I know the neighborhood who ever is left feels the same, Good Luck to all

  • Cristina

    Ive been going to Florence since I was a little girl. I lived in Bensonhurst for 20 yrs. Me & my grandma would take her little red cart and we’d walk to Florence and she’d buy me anything I wanted Lol .. My mother shopped there often as well. Sad to see it close!

  • Joe Costello

    My father opened his law firm in 1959 on 20th Ave., between 62nd & 63rd St. I remember going to his office as a kid, getting hungry and going to Florence for a sandwich, soda, snacks, or whatever. Around 1977 he moved the office, still on 20th Ave., but now between 59th & 60th St. Now that I am in practice in the same building, till this day I still go to Florence for lunch. Sad to see the neighborhood changing and a part of my child hood leaving.

    • Mark Colavecchio

      I remember your dad and I think I remember you through Parkville! Florence was a big part of our lives growing up in the 60’s and 70’s.

      • Gary prestipino

        I remember your. Dad
        Our dads were friends and members in Parkville

  • Gracellen Golinski

    My Mom used to order delivery from Florence on rainy days when I was little. I always knew that night we were going to have pastrami on rye bread for dinner and an Entenmann’s cake for dessert. I moved out of state almost 3 years ago but I’m still sad to see them go!

  • Danielle Noto

    It has without a doubt been a landmark in our Bensonhurst neighborhood. I will forever think of Florence whenever I think of 20th avenue. It will truly be missed.

  • Anthony Lauro

    I remember my mom sending me up the street every Sunday morning to get their fresh baked crumb cakes, donuts, and Italian bread. The true meaning of a neighborhood store. That was over 35 years ago. I had The best memories growing up in Bensonhurst. Best of luck Faythe and family.

  • George Pugliese

    I lived around the corner and swept the floors there as a kid

    I still remember the smell of fresh baked bread that Joe Asaro senior baked every morning. Had a major crush on Faythe as a kid too

    God bless you all. May the spirit of growing up in Bensonhurst remain as beautiful memories in our minds.

    As Joe BA BA said so eloquently ” God bless your mother in law “

  • Paula Rose Raiola

    Ahhh, Memories of Florence; wonderful memories shopping there with my Grandmother, shopping with my Mother and shopping there with my husband and kids. 3 generations of my family. Oh, and the 70s, lol!!!! My favorite years! God Bless Faythe and Richie, they put up with the boys from the Avenue for years and those boys drove them crazy! But, at the same time, those boys really protected that store and adored Faythe and Richie, as we all have through the years. I do not know life without Florence, this is the end of an era. My heart is happy for Faythe and Richie and their family, it is also broken that it will be gone in 2 weeks. “Thank you, Asaro Family, for being such a big part of my life, you will be sorely missed. Wishing all of you good health and happiness as you start new chapters in your life. CIAO, BELLA, my dear friends. ” Love Paula Raiola

  • Ann Abrahamsen

    Grew up on 60th Street and 20th Ave! Best little food store around. Onion rolls never to be found again! After church, they were the treat of the week. Fayth and Rich were always so helpful and kind! God blessings to you and yours! Ann Sarno Abrahamsen (Tessie Sarno was my mom and Jessie The crossing guard my aunt )

    • Cathy Howe

      I grew up on 64th and 18th Avenue and I remember walking home from church on Sunday mornings with my mom and brothers and stopping in to Florence Bakery to buy their hot out of the oven onion rolls. We would then rush home to have bacon and eggs on those delicious rolls. I remember the taste of them like it was yesterday. I’m 55 years old now and still have not found onion rolls that could come close to those from Florence’s Bakery. Best of luck to them on their retirement and thanks for the memories.

  • Hi

    Another one bites the dust. Bow down to your new jewish overlords. Hide your kids, hide your wives…and your pennies…

    • Amela

      Moron, the old neighborhood was Jews and Italians. You have to be retarded. Look to the new wave of immigrants who are not Jewish. I assume you are muslim.

      • Hi

        And your are ignorant for calling me a retard and assuming i am a muslim. No matter the case the Jewish overlords are coming to take back their piece of property. Between the asians and the jews there is nothing left for good ole sicily; though I hear east brooklyn is up and coming…

        • Maccaroon

          Go fuck yourself you racist piece of shit, go worship your dead Jew & wait til you go into the big heat of hell. There are always these gutter sewer type people who have to bring there hate into every post. Go suck the asshole of your new savoir that baboon brained Donald duck Trump.

    • BOBinBrooklyn

      With all the nice comments, there really is no need for Anti-Semetic Comments. The neighborhood is changing, as Brooklyn and New York in general have always changed over the last 400 years.

      The new non-Jewish immigrants just do not shop at Florence. Plain and simple.

      Mr. “Hi”, I suggest you may want to read Genesis, where God tell Abraham (when his name was still Abram):
      ” I will Bless those who Bless you
      And whoever curses you I will curse.”
      Genesis Chapter 12: Verse 3

  • Amela

    This is one of the last Good Ole Days places, it’s sad what happened to Brooklyn. The Russians and the Chinese immigrants completely ruined Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and Bensonhurst. The Muslims are going to take over Bay Ridge. That’s the end Brooklyn as we all knew it.

    • Dorothy Berman

      The new immigrants have revitalized Brooklyn- they’ve opened businesses and filled the schools in the neighborhood with kids who are excelling here. They have come to Brooklyn for the same reason the Jews and Italians came to Brooklyn. They are just as motivated to succeed. The world changes and we adapt- and learn from newcomers. I’m sorry you are such a bigoted person. One thing you will find about the new immigrants – they do not have the prejudices you have.

      • Guy from the neighborhood

        Sadly, they probably will in a few generations. Once they settle down, establish communities, a few generations pass and their descendants see themselves as the true face of the neighborhood and new immigrants as a foreign element the same prejudices will be there. It’s a cycle.

        When Italians and Irish were the new immigrants I guess they didn’t have those prejudices either. Kinda like high school, the seniors pick on the freshmen and when the freshmen become seniors they pick on the incoming freshmen.

    • Nadirecur

      The reason why communities like Italian Bensonhurst lasted so long is because there used to be a steady stream of Italian immigrants coming into the neighborhood. When the Italians first moved into south Brooklyn, Germans and Norwegians were the ones living here. If you look at Brooklyn now, Germans and Norwegians are nowhere to be found. Germans and Norwegians stopped immigrating to America in the early 1900s, and those who were already here eventually established themselves and integrated into American culture. When they came into money, they all moved to Jersey, then out of Jersey and into the Midwest. The same exact thing is happening with the Italians. You need fresh immigrants to keep that cultural identity alive, and unfortunately, there are no new Italian immigrants coming to Bensonhurst. Don’t blame the new immigrants for filling a void.

  • Jimmy Gerahty

    I worked at Florence from about 1967 to 1971 through my high school years. me and my best friend Johnnie Turek worked there together. I can still remember Anna, Joe Sr, Aunt Aida, Uncle Frank, Joel, Richie’s brother Joseph and his sister Florence.=, and Faythe’s brother Bob too.I also remember Aunt Aida candeling eggs on Saturday mornings too. It was a good job all through my high school years and have fond memories of Faythe and Richie’s and their two sons – they were very young little boys back then. I can remember working in the store and also making deliveries too. Sad to see such a neighborhood institution have to close. But when i have passed through the neighborhood – nothing is really left from years ago.I often think that if my generation had remained in the neighborhood perhaps it wouldnt have changed as it did. Best of luck to all the Asaro’s and best hopes for a great future too.

  • Marie Bonacchi

    My grandparents lived on the corner of 62nd st and 20th Avenue. I remember when Joe and Anna were there. Sad to see you close but good luck on your retirement. 🙂

  • Frankie Del

    Well, it’s true what everybody is saying. This is an end to an era. A real era where Family was truly Family. Florence Food Center (FFC) was a true Family. It was run by a husband and wife band of brothers, the Asaro brothers and another two families whose brothers worked there. (will not mention names but we all know who we were) And those brothers brought in friends and cousins to work there also. It was all about trust. Put it this way, when you had Faythe and Richie leave responsibility to a bunch of boys to open the store, run the store and close the store, you all knew that was a Family. Who would stock the shelves, who would work the counter at the registers and bagging groceries, and who would work the deli (my favorite). We all experienced working different areas in the store. Rotating goods on the shelf, the fresh milk and eggs in the back of the fridge, picking up Polly-O mozzarella and ricotta cheese from the distributor, etc, etc. Now when i go shopping i laugh at how some workers stock shelves and fridges. We all have not great but AWESOME memories of Florence Food Center. The best was when a shoplifter would get caught and Richie would have a “talk with him” and things would get a bit heated, Richie knew he had all the brothers behind him ready to “tune up” the shoplifter. It was funny. One shoplifter was allowed to make a phone call and Richie heard him say “bring the hardware”, Richie flipped out and we all wanted to take this guy in the back and “tune him up”, it was hilarious but that was loyalty to Richie and Faythe and to the store. You see, we all felt the store was part of us, so if you stole from the store, you were stealing from us.!!! When the General Trading truck used to come on Tuesdays, Bob would make sure we were all there un-loading it with hand trucks in hand. When deliveries would come: paper bags, ice, milk, ice cream, bread, soda, the boys were always there checking the inventory to make sure the store wasn’t shorted. When the holidays came around we all worked the whole day and nite whether it be the counter, the deli, or making deliveries with the green van (which I kinda borrowed one nite and got in a bit of trouble from Richie)..:):) We made lotsa money on tips making deliveries those days. The two older brothers out of the boys always ran the show with the Asaro brothers. They were great guys and kept an eye on the younger brothers who were a bit wild at times ( I can speak for myself) That was responsibility and showed how we cared for the store as if it was our own. The FFC Christmas parties were the best. Some were at the Asaro’s house and some were held at the store. We always had a blast, especially when girls from Bishop Kearney High School were invited… For a year or two a softball team was sponsored by Florence Food Center. We got jerseys, hats, sweatshirts and even jackets. That was a great time. Working there taught us responsibility, respect, and a great foundation for work ethics. These days you walk into a supermarket and ask for a half pound of ham and some snot nose high schooler snapping chewing gum sticks his/her hand in a fridge and gives you pre-sliced ham in a plastic bag. Even the stores that slice their cold cuts turns my stomach when i watch them doing it. I feel like going behind the counter and showing the worker how to do it. Times have changed. There will never be another Florence Food Center. To the Asaro Family, Salute !!!! I personally thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your Family, working in your grocery store and being part of the Florence Food Center history. Love and Hugs to all …!!!

    • Joseph Asaro

      WOW Frank u just summed up the meaning of Florence Food Center. Luv to your family from my family….Joe

      • Frankie Del

        Joe, wanted to say so much more….that store and family kept me on the right track..!! please keep in touch. Love ya Buddy ……

        • Jose Antonio Gonzalez

          Thank you for the years joe Asaro its been a great ride and i thank you for always being not just a boss but a caring person to have helped me many times. GOD BLESS & HAPPY RETIREMENT PLEASE STAY IN TOUCH IF YOU EVER NEED A DJ

  • P. Thomas Carroll

    My mother Anne and her sister “Babe” went to the Florence “every” Saturday morning for Cold Cuts and other items. Every week for at least 20 years. I’m now in Florida but whenever in Brooklyn, I always visit the Florence. May God bless your famiglia and thank you for your contributions to the neighborhood.

  • Cassandra Lucchese

    I used to work for Florence. They gave me my first job in NY when I moved to NY 8 months pregnant in 2006. They have an amazing store and I am so sad to hear they are shutting down. I wish the Asaro’s the best and will truly miss the store and mama’s cooking even though I’ve moved back to Florida in 2009. Faythe and Jackie used to help hide me when my now ex husband would beat the hell out of me and I wish I had taken their advice years ago and left him back then. I will truly miss the hot food when I come to visit NY every summer. I worked all day the day I went into labor on November 14th, 2006 and I had my son at NY Methodist hospital at 1:27am on November 15th, 2006. This store will be missed!!!!!!

  • Obama’saracist

    illegals ruin everything

    • Anal Rump

      Go fuck yourself.

      – cheers

      • Obama’saracist

        this coming from somebody who looks like they take it up the Hershey highway from what it looks like from your screen name? typical liberal trash

  • I grew up on 62 ND street and 19th ave. My dad owns 18th bakery and I remember going to Florence for snacks with my friends after school. I’ve watched Brooklyn change. It was really special and I’m sure all of us will miss the fond memories that family run businesses like Florence have created.

  • NWChicago

    Wow, Florence Food Mart closing! I moved to Bensonhurst back from Chicago in the late 1970s when I was transferred to a new position in my company. A stranger in a strange town. I lived on 19th, and Florence was my neighborhood food mart for years. I loved that place. On one of my first visits back there, I was chatting with the girl at the checkout, and she had cousins who lived next door to my cousins in Chicago. Small world. They used to have a really nice bakery, and I used to love the sesame twist bread so much that I would stop on the way home from work, after getting off the subway, and get two. I’d eat one fresh on the walk home! My parents aging and needing help caused me to move back to Chicago thirty years ago, but I never forgot the neighborhood. I go back every time I visit NYC, and usually stay over at the Hotel Gregory in Bay Ridge rather than in Manhattan so I can visit the old neighborhood. My old landlady is like an adopted mother, especially now that my parents have passed on. The last time I visited, the only things that were left from when I lived there were Florence Food Mart, Silverrod Drugs, Silver Star Chinese Restaurant, and Telco, down 18th Avenue. Now another fixture is gone….man do I miss that old neighborhood!

  • Ben Fong

    I used to work for them and loved the cold cuts section.

  • native new yorker

    Note how the new immigrants don’t patronize other ethnic groups businesses.

  • Billy Liljeroos

    I worked there in 70’s & 80’s Sad to hear it is closing

  • Lisa Marin Cetta

    Truly a staple in the old neighborhood, and in my memories. You always felt like family when shopping at Florence. A dedicated and extremely hard working family. I went to school with Richie and Joe they were always working side by side with their parents. 20th ave.will never be the same. Faythe and Richie enjoy your retirement you most definitely deserve it. Richie and Joe all the best to you and your families.