My grandfather, Antonio Affronti – known affectionately as Poppa Tony to my siblings and I – immigrated from Italy to the U.S. with his family when he was nineteen years old. This was back in the late 1940s when most of Brooklyn, NY, was empty lots, small shops and immigrants from all over Europe living in tiny apartments with their families. In the early 1960s my grandfather and his brothers, entrepreneurs in the truest sense, opened a small Italian-style butcher shop on Smith Street in Brooklyn called LosPaisanos Meat Market.
Paisanos started out simply: when the shop first opened they kept sawdust on the floor to absorb blood and liquids that dripped during butchering, and my grandfather would smoke Te-Amo cigars behind the counter while working. Like most entrepreneurs at the time they didn’t write down (or even think of) a policy for how to treat customers and they had no formal plans for how to grow the business. They didn’t have to worry about Yelp reviews or complaints on Twitter.
A simple truth, however, was readily apparent to them: as a small retail business, your customers’ loyalty and trust in your product was the most important asset you can ever have. In 1965 they definitely did not have CRM tools, retention metrics, or even SendGrid (how did they get by?). Instead they focused on having good conversations over the counter as their customers ordered their food and shared a bit about their lives. Even when the store was packed and the line was outside the door, my grandfather and his staff always took the time to ask each customer questions like “How’s your family?”, “Did you take that trip?”, or “Is your son’s leg doing better?” These are not your “How’s the weather?” questions, these are the type of questions that demonstrate genuine caring and interest and ultimately increase loyalty and trust.
In the early ‘90s my father, Mike, took over Los Paisanos from my grandfather and has been running the business full-time ever since. His extensive background in retail shops, incredible attention to detail and his love of meeting new people made him uniquely suited to run such a customer-driven business. Don’t worry, though, about Poppa Tony. He is 85 years old and still drives to the shop on Sundays to spend time behind the counter and to say hello to his favorite customers.
It’s 2015 and Paisanos Butcher Shop is still there now, standing proudly as one of the oldest family-owned business in Brooklyn and enjoying a loyal following of customers made up of local Brooklynites, Manhattanites who used to be Brooklynites and even a few celebrities (who I believe are all Brooklynites). If you’re in town and around the neighborhood you should stop by. Ask for the Paisanos Sandwich and I promise you won’t be disappointed.
My father has worked tirelessly to expand Paisanos over the years. It now includes a large wholesale operation that services many of the restaurants in Brooklyn and south Manhattan, and a new burger joint called “The Butcher Burger” that is inside the Barclay’s Center. This expansion and innovation required some changes away from old habits, like the disappearance of the sawdust on the floor and the fact that the shop does not have a smoking section anymore. They have a computerized point of sale system, several accountants and bookkeepers, QuickBooks and the requisite Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. Paisanos embraced technology in order to stay relevant, increase revenues, and grow its business.
I encourage you to walk into Paisanos sometime, lean against the wall, and just listen to the conversations that happen over the counter. I was there this week picking up some steaks and walked in on my father talking to a customer who, based on the conversation, had recently broken up with his girlfriend and was discussing the fallout with him. My father listened and shared some thoughts that were half “toughen up” and half “you’ll be okay” in their guidance, all while clearly showing they were friendly and that this customer trusted him. I reflected that this scene demonstrated my father’s Rolodex-like ability to remember almost every important personal fact and detail about the customers he talks with. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s not neither a salesman’s trick nor something he has to work that hard at. He genuinely cares and listens to his customers in every interaction he can. This level of conversation and caring has resulted in a strong five-star rating on Yelp and glowing reviews of the staff at Paisanos. Along the way this slogan made its way onto the signage at Paisanos: “We treat you the way we want to be treated.”
I never went into the butcher business. Truth be told, the site of blood makes me weak in the knees and I have focused my assistance on the technology and business sides of the house. Throughout my career in technology, whether at Microsoft during an Executive Briefing Session with a company, or at Klink when my CEO and I were hand-pitching our early customers, I have always remembered the examples my grandfather and father showed me time and time again: be genuine, get to know your customers and you’ll earn their trust.
Image credit: CC by Paul Townsend