Larry Damico is a self-described “produce person.” He comes from a long line of produce people—three generations’ worth—and he’s been involved in the family line of work since the age of eighteen, when he started driving trucks for his father’s wholesale produce business. After years of working the wholesale trade, first with his father’s business and later as a salesman, he made the foray into retail with the opening of Hyde Park Produce in 1996.
This jump wouldn’t have been made without another longtime Hyde Park figure: John Frangias, the owner of Hyde Park restaurant Salonica, who called him up with a business proposal at the time of a market salesman union strike that Damico was participating in.
Frangias was then the owner of a produce store located in the space another Hyde Park restaurant, the Sit Down, currently occupies. “He actually offered me partnership for a year with the arrangement that if I liked the work I’d buy it, and if I didn’t I’d walk away,” Damico recalls. When the year was up, he bought the business from Frangias, and in 2008 moved the store to its current location on Kimbark Plaza, into a space nearly three times larger.
When Damico’s family acquired the new property, they tore down the existing internal structures and created the interior from scratch. It took them over a year to create the space they wanted, a process that Damico admits was difficult as a first-time grocery store owner. “When the store first opened, I didn’t know how to do groceries,” Damico recalls. “We didn’t have enough items to fill the dairy section of the cooler, and two days before opening we were scrambling to fill it up.”
In the seven years since, he’s adjusted to his new role in the world of food distribution, and found his niche within the community of Hyde Park as one of the neighborhood’s most popular grocery stores.
Produce is still Damico’s main interest, however; he calls himself a “produce man at heart” and declares that the cooler holding the produce in the back of the store is “the heart of Hyde Park Produce.” He selects all of the store’s produce himself, making the trip to South Water Market every morning at 3am to buy it, and depending on the quantity of the day’s purchases, either sends trucks to pick it up or gets it delivered to the store later in the day. When I jokingly ask how he’s managing to stay awake during our mid-afternoon interview, he replies seriously that he got his daily five hours of sleep in—all he needs before arriving in the store to face the rest of the day’s work.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the family aspect of the business: Damico’s partners in the store are his father and cousin, and his son works for them as well. “I don’t think there could be anything better than working with my father and my son,” Damico tells me. He’s worked with his father his whole life, and is clearly excited that his son is showing interest in the family line of work.
The family-oriented nature of the store is also reflected in the way that Damico views the neighborhood it supplies. While he’s not a native Hyde Parker, his knowledge of and dedication to the neighborhood show in everything he does. The family has been serving Hyde Park for over two decades, and Damico says that this has made opening and running the store much easier. “After working here so long, I kind of knew what was available and what was needed in the neighborhood—what people wanted,” he said. He’s proud of being a neighborhood store, proclaiming that most of his customers are Hyde Parkers.
At the conclusion of our interview Damico led me out of his office, and asked if I had ever seen the back of a grocery store. My interest in the warehouse-like space and the people bustling all around had given me away, so he offered a tour of the behind-the-scenes world of Hyde Park Produce. The pride he takes in his store was evident as he took me around the cooler, freezer, and unloading dock, explaining the specific function of each component. He told me about the importance of creating a balanced ratio between the front and back of a store, the specific functions of the workers in each section, and what he thinks is the biggest mistake they made in the store’s design: not planning for a big enough freezer.
When I asked about his future plans for the store, he had to stop and think. After a while, he looked up and admitted that it wasn’t something he’s thought about much. “I’m just concentrating on keeping my customers happy right now, and then we’ll see what happens and what we have to do from that point on,” he said. “It’s all about keeping them excited to come here.”