Terry Delmonico’s career at the Italian-family grocery store in Northeast began after he returned from an Army tour in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
“My dad had an operation and asked if I could help in the store for a few months,” recalled Delmonico, 69. “I left after about 45 years.”
Terry and his cousin Bob Delmonico, 63, worked alongside their fathers, Louie and George, at the small corner store and Italian market in the Beltrami neighborhood. The store was founded in 1929 by their immigrant grandfather, Vincenzo Delmonico. He quit a job shoveling coal to buy a duplex on the corner for his family, and turned a small attached building into Delmonico’s.
Delmonico’s not only was the neighborhood grocer for staples, but patrons from around town would buy the homemade Italian sausage, spaghetti sauce, fried peppers, calzone, pizzelles, fresh bread, and an assortment of Italian candies and ice cream flavors. Delmonico’s also supplied Minneapolis Italian restaurants, including the former Café Di Napoli, Venice Café, Luigi’s, Mama D’s, Caffe Biaggio and Donatelli’s. Up to eight Delmonico relatives worked in the store.
Terry and Bob Delmonico, who started in the store as school kids, continued as owners after their fathers died. Eventually, as the old restaurants closed and old customers died and their kids moved to distant suburbs, Delmonico’s business slowed and the aging Delmonico cousins, after four decades, grew weary of covering every shift and stocking shelves into the night.
“It was down to the two of us and we were tired,” recalled Bob Delmonico.
A couple of years ago, they sold the duplex and grocery for the appraised price of $252,000 to Jessica Rivera, an ambitious young woman of Puerto Rican ancestry whose family moved to the Twin Cities in 1992 from Miami after a hurricane.
Rivera, 35, saved money while she worked in the mortgage industry by day and at a restaurant by night. She invested $30,000 and borrowed the rest. She loved the ethnic heritage of Northeast, once dominated by the descendants of Italian, Polish, Ukrainian and other European immigrants. In recent years, commercial arteries of nearby Central and East Hennepin were turning over with new ethnic businesses and entrepreneurs.
Rivera envisioned transforming the business into “Jessi’s Market at Delmonico’s,” with assistance from her mother, a chef. The idea was to make a few improvements to the antiquated building, keep some of the Italian and grocery staples, and launch a deli with a Puerto Rican twist. Meanwhile she would live in half of the duplex and rent the other half, generating cash flow while the deli and store ramped up.
The Delmonico cousins and the neighbors welcomed her.
“We always told Jessica it would take a woman to get this place straightened out,” quipped Bob Delmonico.
But not quite yet. Rivera’s plans passed the zoning department. But a 2015 inspection by the city Health Department after the sale found numerous problems with the antiquated facility and equipment. She needed a refrigerated deli case, new flooring, shelving, plumbing, a walk-in cooler and sink basins. And more. The bids for the work were $160,000. She had budgeted $50,000 and thought, mistakenly, the work could be completed gradually while open.
“I admit I’ve made mistakes,” said Rivera. “I knew that there were things out of code. I thought I would be grandfathered in … that I was going to be able to continue working with the city, as they had worked with the last owner. They were continually licensed.”
Rivera is deterred but not defeated. She’s current on her loans, working other jobs, taking on a roommate and renting half the duplex through Airbnb.
Minneapolis Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents Northeast, said Rivera is a classic case of the unwitting entrepreneur who thought she had a go-ahead through one city office only to be stopped by another agency.
Coincidentally, last week, the City Council, at the urging of small businesses, approved a new several-person navigator office to assist small entrepreneurs in making their way through the sometimes-Byzantine licensing and permitting process that can involve myriad approvals and lots of expense.
There’s a consensus that the process is confusing and too laborious for all but experienced developers and business owners.
Frey has taken on the case for Rivera. A few issues have been mitigated. But she still faces much work and too big a tab.
“Jessica has that same kind of flair and great work ethic of the Delmonicos,” Frey said. “The [Delmonicos] thought she was the embodiment of the next generation of the business. That’s why I was excited. It’s also what’s great about Northeast. And she can cook. My office is helping. [But] the city and state health codes are overly burdensome. The benefit of many regulations is substantially outweighed to the detriment of small businesses.
“It wouldn’t be a problem for corporate America and McDonald’s. When you go in the kitchen of some beautiful, quaint cafes in Paris, where I was on my honeymoon, not a single one would meet our code. I’m a liberal but I think government here has too heavy a hand.”
Rivera, who can’t reopen until the building deficiencies are corrected, has launched a Kickstarter campaign. It will fold at the end of the month if she doesn’t raise $100,000. It’s a long shot. Short of that many-hands approach, she’s looking for an angel investment partner.
“I still have a passion for this,” Rivera said. “I just don’t have the bankroll.”
There is a historic charm about the little store. Once cluttered with food and shelves and noise, it now sits partly gutted, cold, empty and quiet — a half-done remodeling job. There are a few historical photos, including one of Curt Carlson, the late businessman and founder of travel company Carlson. Delmonico was the first client of his first business, the Gold Bond StampCo., a customer loyalty program for grocery stores. Carlson was a regular visitor.
Vincenzo DelMonico was 50 when he quit a back-breaking job shoveling coal and rolled his savings into a bet on the property at Fillmore and Summer streets. Rivera, today, may be even a longer shot for success.
“I still think this is going to happen,” Rivera said last week. “I’m not ready to give up.”
Neal St. Anthony can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.