Philly's iconic Di Bruno Bros. peddles old-world food over the internet

Owner Emilio Mignucci offers a cheese sample at the 1730 Chestnut St. site, one of five Di Bruno Bros. stores in the region.

This might be the perfect marriage between old-school Italy and the new digital age. 

A Moody’s report this month predicted that all e-commerce sales will keep growing as companies use physical stores to continue building a greater online presence.  

That has been the experience of Di Bruno Bros., the venerable food emporium that operates four stores in Philadelphia and one at Ardmore's Suburban Square.

Online sales are just 5 percent of total revenue, but they rose about 30 percent in 2015 from 2014. The Center City-based company, which opened in 1939, specializes in gourmet food, gift baskets, gourmet and specialty cheeses, and Italian meats. 

With the goal of marketing its wares better online, Di Bruno is now producing how-to videos.

Shippers such as UPS, USPS, and FedEx are crucial to the business,  said the company's third-generation owner and vice president, Emilio Mignucci. Now 49, he took over the family business in 1990, along with his brother, president Bill Mignucci Jr., 50, and cousin Billy Mignucci, 49, vice president of finance.

Emilio said Di Bruno Bros. started online sales in 1998, and has been really ramping it up in the last five or six years.  “When we started, we had no idea how to really do it,” he said. “Along the way, you learn a lot.”

While embracing online, he said there was one thing they had to do: Maintain the in-store experience on the digital platform.

"At Di Bruno,  we treat our customers like guests in our own house," he said as he tended to the store at 1730 Chestnut St. And that's the essence of what he wants to preserve online. 

Longtime customers "loved my grandparents,” Emilio recalled. “We had to continue that legacy.  

“In the end, it’s really about knowing the consumers — what their needs and wants are," he said. “It’s not the responsibility of the consumers that UPS or FedEx screwed up. ...  If we need to reship something, we do it. We have to deliver in the e-commerce world.”

Nearly a third of online sales go out of the area. Among the items sent packing are aged balsamic vinegar, special cheese spreads, and jams. 

Emilio travels to Europe once a year to buy products, seal deals, and design labels with suppliers. For instance, Di Bruno carries truffle honey from Umbria, Italy, on its private label.

“We have great products, so it’s about how to deliver a great experience through e-commerce,” Emilio said.

In the United States, online sales growth is outpacing overall retail sales growth, but online sales still make up just 8 percent to 9 percent of total sales, said the Moody’s report.

That said, “online sales for food delivery remain a niche," typically for well-heeled consumers. Buying online and picking up in the store "is a compelling model for brick-and-mortar food retailers, and can be scaled,” said Moody’s lead retail analyst Charles O’Shea.

At Di Bruno, 95 percent of sales come from its five retail stores, catering events, and distribution of products to other mom-and-pop retail stores,  supermarkets, and restaurants.​

Di Bruno doesn't aspire to Amazon scale. "We have our customers who want special, unique products," Emilio said. "We have a niche.  You can’t be something you’re not."

But "the website should have some bells and whistles" to get attention, he said.

Nick Manzo, an executive at 1WorldSync, a supply chain management company, agrees: In food service, "a competent online presence isn't often the first priority, but we're seeing that change as more consumers look to purchase anything and everything online," he wrote.

To drive sales, he added, firms such as Di Bruno need to make it easy for customers to buy because "food poses a larger set of risks than many other goods sold online.”

For the last three years, Di Bruno has been posting how-to videos on its website, Dibruno.com, and on its YouTube channel, demystifying aspects of olive oil, charcuterie, and cheese.    

Emilio hires a crew to produce the videos, which are like tutorials that embolden consumers to try new products for entertaining, say, on a big game day.

“You have to figure out ways to engage young people today,” Emilio said. “We are very interactive.”

The five Di Bruno stores have close to 400 employees, up from 300 in 2014.

“It’s been a gradual growth since 1990, when we started with seven or eight people,” Emilio said. “We are hands-on operators. We put in six or seven days a week; that’s the norm for us."

A sign of its growing online business is its holiday gift baskets. The company is expecting to sell 16,000 baskets this year, up from 13,500 last year. They range from $50 to $300 and special ones go for as much as $400. 

The business does a lot of food buys for corporations. “That’s where the growth is, especially in Center City with all the financial firms and real estate companies shipping all over to their clients and family,” Emilio said.

So Di Bruno Bros. must stand on tradition even as it pivots to a digital future. 

“My grandparents gave us a foundation for giving our customers a great experience with food,” Emilio said. Firing up e-commerce "allows us to be more of a national brand and presence. The goal is to teach people how to eat really well and to celebrate their lives. 

“Life is good.”