Carrettino: Locally Owned and Operated
So easy it is, for us, in our modern world, to fall prey to the big box glare, to capitulate to lower prices accompanied by lower standards. Fettered by million dollar marketing blitzes, we are dragged through the aisles, blinded by the glorious prices and well placed products. Ignorant are we to the "Mom and Pop" shop we sped past on our way to savings, to the shuttered store fronts once occupied by small business owners struggling to survive. We have forgotten that this wonderful nation of ours was built upon the entrepreneurial spirit now swallowed whole by insatiable capitalism. I had the honor of interviewing one such spirit this past week.
A Dying Breed
Seated behind a desk heaped with documents representing events in plan, ideas in the works, and letters of the law, John Russo, CEO of Carrettino Italian Market and Wine, looks tired. He looks tired, but a kind and fiercely dedicated spirit shines through as he begins to humbly describe how his family helped to build Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"We have been here in Grand Rapids for over 100 years and I'm fourth generation in this industry. We've been doing the food and wine thing for hundreds of years, in Europe and the (United States). I spent my whole life, pretty much, in this business and my kids, they have been at it since they were little, and my grand kids are back there," he says, gesturing to the back office, a small smirk crawling across his face as the giggles grow upon his mention.
The Russo family first planted roots in the East Grand Rapids area, around Reed's Lake in 1905, but soon moved their establishment downtown. Following the movements of the, then, large immigrant population, they settled upon the corner of Franklin and Division, mere blocks away from the rapidly growing heart of Grand Rapids.
"(My grandfather) bought that building in 1908 and had a lot of different businesses in there. There were seven small shops, a bunch of apartments, a night club, warehousing, manufacturing, it was all there."
He smiles as he recalls stories of times long passed, but there is a sadness there, spawning from the tarnished visage of the current corner of Franklin and Division.
"Yea, there's a Burger King there now," he says, laughing. "That's where our family spent most of their time."
As he continues on, telling the story of a family who poured lifetimes of dedication into building a name, it becomes increasingly apparent that, while brick and mortar may build the face, it is the people that truly comprise the heart of the business. He tells of his teenage years, in which he would leave from school only to begin work. He would load up a station wagon and personally deliver goods to all of West Michigan, cementing his family's name into the minds of their associates as kind, reliable, honest, and personable.
"It's always been very, very personal. (We have) a lot of relationships with customers and suppliers that go back generations," he says. "I try to primarily work with family owned businesses, so there is a meshing of philosophy. We like to sell products where I know the people, I've been in their facility, and I know they're honorable. I know that if there is a problem, I can call them up in the middle of the night and the problem is settled."
Unfortunately for Mr. John Russo, time has been rather unkind to the small business owner relying upon family values and honor. When he speaks of the past, the pleasant nostalgia is intoxicating and we laugh at what was once a simpler time, but when talking about the present, an air of frustration settles upon the room.
"It is difficult, banks aren't lending to the little guys. It's tougher and tougher."
Devoted to Service
Despite all his frustration, very little tempers this man's will to succeed. He speaks of the difficulty of merely opening the doors of Carrettino, but there is an ever-present hope that keeps him going, a driving determination unstoppable in its force. When I ask him if love plays a part in his steel will, his response is immediate.
"Yes, otherwise we would never do it. It's a lot of hard work, it's a lot of risk, and the paycheck isn't that great. It's a small business, small profit margins, you've got to look at a whole lot of tonnage or you're not going to make it. If I didn't have all family slave labor, we would have been gone a long time ago," he says, flashing a childishly exuberant grin at his bustling family as they diligently work around us.
As the interview comes to a close, John walks me around Carrettino, his mini empire built upon generations of hard work. Despite all the struggle, he has a smile for every customer and ensures his family members have the same. He shares his abundant knowledge of the wine industry with anyone willing to listen, further enhancing the experience taken from the store. He thrusts upon me gifts with his brand name on them and I must say, I have thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant Cabernet Sauvignon for many a night.
So eager are we to trust the billion dollar pitch, to traverse the fluorescent hallways of bargained shame. Let us not forget the little guy in our daily yearnings, let us not forget John Russo, whose family helped to build the great city of Grand Rapids. The next time you desire an experience more authentic than your last big box trip, head to Carrettino, you won't regret it.