Carfagna’s Market Prepares for Move to Polaris
A look back at the Columbus institution during its final days on 161
It’s a Saturday afternoon in April, and the Carfagna’s Market parking lot on East Dublin-Granville Road is full, causing customers to park on the grass outside the market with its iconic red, green and white awning and wooden produce stands with hand-lettered prices. These same customers will gather in front of the meat counter, peruse cases upon cases of prepared Italian foods and navigate tiny aisles as they stock up on supplies for the day, week or month. The market is not unlike the TARDIS time machine of Dr. Who fame. Somehow, it’s “bigger on the inside” than it is on the outside.
Carfagna’s Market has drawn customers from all over the city since opening its original location in Linden in 1937. The market relocated to East Dublin-Granville Road (aka OH-161) prior to the holiday season of 1971. Soon, it will relocate to a much larger (28,000-square-foot) former Earth Fare location in Polaris, providing ample space for customers to enjoy the specialties and service that have helped the market thrive for 50 years. Carfagna’s expects to show off its new market digs sometime this summer at 1440 Gemini Place.
Stepping into Carfagna’s on 161 is stepping into history, with service counters, a paper ticket system and butchers who have memorized customers’ names and preferences. Everything is charmingly old school, down to the seven clipboards on the wall, each marked with a day of the week, designed to hold the day’s carbon copy catering forms.
While whole chickens and packages of bacon-wrapped filets fill most carts, it’s not uncommon to see a case of Carfagna’s pasta sauce, whole pints of grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, or even five bags of Grippo’s potato chips—a Cincinnati favorite. (Of the latter, a customer explains to his cashier, “No one else has these, so I stock up here when I can.”)
Carfagna’s is a fourth-generation family business, and not in a “father and son work here” way. More like a “father and uncle and aunt and sister and brother and nephew work here” way. It was founded by Saturnino (Sam) Carfagna, who’d immigrated from Vastogirardi, Italy. Three of his grandchildren—Dino and Sam Carfagna and Julie Riley—run the current day-to-day operations. Between the market, a wholesale business and a restaurant in Polaris, 13 Carfagna family members are involved in the company, from sales and service to marketing and accounting.
Staff and customers alike have been adopted throughout the years.
“When I go, I see all the same faces,” says Candy Gioffre, a customer of 40 years. “Aunt Mary Alice. Dino. Sam. Mr. Carfagna. They knew everyone. When I first started going there, I’d take a number and think, ‘This could take a while’ because of how friendly they’d be to everyone. They’d ask how the baby was. They’d come around the counter to say hello. You know there’s going to be a line, but that’s part of the charm.”
“They adopted me,” says deli manager Bobbie Loar, who still remembers the day she started at Carfagna’s in 2001. “It was the day after the Super Bowl,” she recalls.
Two members of the Carfagna family trained Loar. “My husband told me, ‘You need to listen to these old Italian ladies,’” she remembers. “Aunt Phyllis taught me how to make the deli trays, and Aunt Mary Alice taught me how to have patience to do things right.”
The loyalty and love for the market runs deep for Loar. As deli manager, she is responsible for all deli items—from adjusting prices of the prepared foods in the case, to making cannoli filling from scratch, to ensuring that the pans of house-made chicken piccata and gallons of wedding soup make it to their respective weddings, baptisms and corporate dinners. On her phone, in between photos of grandchildren, are some of her catering creations, including a three-tier tower she’d assembled using more than 400 slices of prosciutto. “I’ve made five of them,” she says, “all for Carfagna weddings. The tower takes four days to build.”
She chokes up when telling me about a recent day when a crowd of employees watched the iconic storefront sign on the front of the building be dismantled for the upcoming move. (It will be reconstructed in the new location.) “I was taking pictures and crying,” she says holding back tears. “There are a lot of memories here.”
Changing with the Times
Change is not uncommon for the folks at Carfagna’s. In fact, it’s a means of survival.
When the market first opened, Dublin-Granville Road was thriving. “[It was] the Polaris of its day,” Dino says. In a two-block radius, there were three independent grocery stores and a Big Bear. Cub Foods was the first big-box supermarket to show up. And then more came. Lacking a niche, the other independent markets could not compete. But Carfagna’s had built a reputation for its meat department and deli.
“We had to make a hard decision,” Dino says. “Our biggest thing was our fresh meat counter and the service. We made a decision to be a specialty food store. No dog food. No cereal. Just what we do best.”
Throughout the years, the interior of the store changed. Grocery aisles were removed to provide more room for the deli; the wine selection grew; catering operations took off. “All the areas that we were making money in, we expanded,” Dino says.
The Carfagna’s youngest generation encouraged their elders to embrace a better website, e-commerce and social media. “Millennials are our new customer,” Dino says. “Their way of doing business is different than ours. We are listening a lot to young people and their ideas.”
A Dying Art
Carfagna’s started off as a poultry house. “You’d go in, pick out a live chicken. They would slaughter, dress it and bring it back out to you,” Dino says. “[My grandfather] then expanded the business and started selling fresh meat, cutting it fresh from the sides of beef that came in, something that wasn’t common elsewhere.”
That beef—and its pricing—was a draw. “We did not have much money growing up, but my parents knew the value of good quality meat,” remembers customer Peggy Roggenkamp. “My mom always bought our meat there, and I had friends I went to school with that worked the meat counter so I continued to go there when I had a family.”
Cutting and serving meat at Carfagna’s is an art and a career. Aaron Garner, director of meat and seafood, started his Carfagna’s career as a 21-year-old, stocking, bagging and cleaning the floors at night. And in his nearly 24 years, he worked his way up through the meat department. There are distinct tiers in the department, with making “Grandpa’s sausage” (a recipe from founder Saturnino Carfagna) being near the bottom, and cutting meat and serving customers at the top.
“It’s a dying art,” Garner says of his work. “There are not many meat cutters left.” Garner and his team of four will cut and prepare at least 700 strip steaks and 1,000 bacon-wrapped filets for a weekend. While customers crowd around the counter waiting for their number, in the back room, the butchering continues all day.
“We will be 100 numbers behind at Christmas, but [customers] don’t mind it. They see people they know. They like to be waited on. Our job is to make people happy,” he says.
And that appears to be working, at least for Gioffre. “As you get older, what a welcoming thing it is to be able to walk into a store and have people know you. I’ve always been touched by it, the way they treat their customers.”