All Detroit Talks About Papa Joe's - Produce Business (2023)

Less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables don't make it to Papa Joe's store.

Originally printed in the November 2021 issue ofproduce business.

“Anything fresher still grows.” That's the motto of Papa Joe's Gourmet Market. And it's the daily promise of Enzo Nigliazzo, a buyer for the independent supermarket chain in the Detroit, MI metro area.

Starting at midnight, Nigliazzo inspects produce six days a week - sometimes seven - at the Detroit Produce Terminal on West Fort Street. Having dealers under one roof makes it easy to get the best product at competitive prices.

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"I get the best price for the customer", says Nigliazzo, who rushes the other buyers of products to the terminal while the products are unloaded from the trucks. “That means our customers get good quality and a good price. It's hard work running a quality business. The public has no idea what we're going through to get products to them. We got there first, so we always get the best.”

At the terminal, Nigliazzo visits wholesalers Riggio Distribution, Andrew Brothers, Ram Distribution, Ben B. Schwartz, Serra Brothers, Rocky Produce and Royal Banana to find the best products and prices. [Editor's Note: See Detroit regional market profile beginning on page 42.]

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Nigliazzo negotiates with vendors, making sure to buy only the freshest fruits and vegetables. With these standards, Nigliazzo is confident that even if the Papa Joe's customer were blindfolded, he or she could be sure that whatever product he or she chose would be the best.

"Production plays a key role in our entire operation," says Anthony Curtis, owner of Papa Joe's, "from the fresh blueberries in our freshly baked muffins to the delicious strawberry tarts made by our pastry chefs." recipes available at ready-to-eat and takeaway stores.

Because of this, Nigliazzo works more than 60 hours a week between Eastern Market, the freight terminal and the six Papa Joe's locations. After 30 years in office, Nigliazzo says it pays to be selective. “Just because one palette looks new doesn't mean the next one will look the same. We will not blindly choose something without inspecting it. If it's not good enough for me, it's not good enough for Papa Joe."

Nigliazzo and Curtis agree that less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables don't make it into the Papa Joe display case.

“We have a very demanding clientele who expect only the freshest,” says Curtis. “The exceptional products are not only sold in our production departments, but are also used throughout our operations – from the more than 1,000 freshly prepared salads daily to our fresh homemade soups. These products are used in our pastry shops, bakeries, ready meals and bistros.”

father and sons

Curtis remembers his father Tony visiting the same stores that Nigliazzo still shops today. Growing up in the 1970's, Curtis knew from a young age that he would follow in his father's footsteps, who was the first generation to enter the fruit and vegetable business. Curtis says that Tony started selling products at a gas station he owned.

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In the early 1970's, old Curtis opened Tony's Produce in Warren, MI, which supplied the area until the early 1980's. Detroit. "I was mesmerized by the sights, smells and fast pace of Eastern Market," says Curtis. "I enjoyed interacting with all the local farmers who bring their fresh produce to the stalls to buy in the middle of the night."

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In 1987, Tony and his brother (Anthony's uncle) opened Papa Joe's in Birmingham, a suburb north of Detroit. The store is named after Tony's late father and Anthony's grandfather, "Papa Joe" Curtis. Anthony and his brother Jeff joined the company in the early 1990's. Their children, now teenagers and young adults, have both worked in the stores in some capacity.

The second Papa Joe's opened in 1991 in Rochester Hills, another northern suburb. "It was the first of its kind at the time, offering meals prepared by chefs from our culinary kitchens and having a true European bakery with a pastry team direct from France," says Curtis.

Many of the more than 100 freshly made items in Papa Joe's Gourmet To Go display cases - from Haricot Vert with Almonds to Grilled Asparagus with Truffle Oil and Papa Joe's signature Eggplant Rollatini - use fresh produce. Eggplant Rollatini starts with fresh eggplant that has been thinly sliced, sautéed and stuffed with thin angel hair pasta tossed with fresh basil pesto and topped with homemade tomato and basil sauce.

In addition to its Birmingham and Rochester Hills locations, Papa Joe's has outlets in three Detroit hospitals and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. There are also two Bistro Joe locations, one in Birmingham and one at the airport.

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Bistro Joes

The family came up with the idea for the bistro about 10 years ago during an extension to their Birmingham department store. "We found ourselves with unused space on the second floor," says Curtis. “We added mezzanines that provided the perfect spot for guests to watch the shopping below.”

Curtis worked with a team of chefs and bakers to create Bistro Joe's menu, inspired by the fresh, sustainable ingredients at Papa Joe's. The bistro opened in 2013, followed by a second restaurant at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Papa Joe's and Bistro Joe's have created a perfect partnership between grocer and kitchen, says Robert Bucaro, general manager of Bistro Joe's in Birmingham. The bistro's atmosphere is informal, which is to be expected given its proximity to the market. The surprise is on the menu, which includes tuna ahi tacushi, Chilean sea bass and prime steaks. Entrees include Brussels sprouts in truffle oil and freshly grilled squid.

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Bucaro, a 40-year food service veteran, has worked at Bistro Joe's for eight months and says he's never experienced the calm that comes with meat and fresh produce.

“Before, I had to plan and worry about whether the delivery would arrive on time, whether the product was of the right quality, whether I ordered too little or too much. Now I can pick berries or spinach. If I run out of an item, I can run downstairs and get it. Instead of going to 15 different retailers to find something, I can pick it up.”

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Another advantage is that less food is wasted, both in the restaurant and in the store. Since the restaurant does not overcook, less products spoil. "The waste aspect has drastically decreased" compared to what Bucaro has experienced in previous jobs in the hospitality industry.

Another convenience at Bistro Joe's: Bucaro says that when customers go upstairs after paying for their groceries, he stores them in the fridge while they eat.

Papa Joe's has always provided the Curtis family with access to the finest fresh meats, seafood and farm produce. "It was logical to offer our guests the same delicacies and wines that the family has always enjoyed," says Curtis.

It's a mutually beneficial relationship for the entire operation, says Curtis.


Papa Joe's Birmingham
Address: 34244 Woodward Ave, Birmingham, MI 48009
Hours: 8 a.m.-8 a.m. Sun-Sat 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Dom
Phone: (248) 723-9400

Papa Joes Rochester Hills
Address: 6900 N Rochester Rd, Rochester Hills, MI 48306
Hours: 8 a.m.-8 a.m. Sun-Sat 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Dom
Phone: (248) 853-6263

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