Being a produce merchant runs in the blood for Paul Desiderio, who has operated his stand at the Clinton-Bailey market for decades. A native of East Lovejoy, Desiderio’s interest in food came with the neighborhood. Surrounded by bakeries, corner delis and pizza shops, he was raised in a large family of food industry workers.
Desiderio graduated from Bishop Timon High School in 1976, where as a center on the school football team he earned All-Catholic honors. He studied business at Erie Community College and worked for a short time in a local factory – but he always knew he would make a career in produce.
He and his wife, Francine, have worked together at Desi’s Produce since the late ’80s. In May, they opened a second farm stand called Desi’s Produce and Garden Spot in Cheektowaga. They have two grown children and live in Kaisertown. Desiderio said his ZIP code hasn’t changed in 55 years.
People Talk: Did you know from an early age that you would be a produce king?
Paul Desiderio: Not really. I worked in a factory called Rigidized Metals, and I was doing well but I told my father I wanted to go into business for myself. He suggested I open a stand at the Clinton-Bailey Market, where he had moved after leaving the Elk Street Market. He was a butcher by trade. My Uncle Jimmy is into fruit and produce.
PT: Have you considered growing your produce?
PD: No. I lease this space from the Niagara Frontier Growers Cooperative Market. It’s owned by Niagara and Erie County farmers. The stipulation in the lease agreement is that when local produce is in season we have to sell it.
PT: What vendors would you like to see added here?
PD: The cheese lady. Birdie used to sell all kinds of cheeses. The spice girl used to be out here, and the girl with the little trailer who did the kettle corn. I guess I’m known as the produce guy because I was in the elevator at City Hall and a guy called me that.
PT: What’s the new fruit at the market?
PD: White-flesh doughnut peaches. They’re to die for.
PT: When did the produce stand become big business?
PD: I’ve been out here my whole life, working for my father in the ’70s. The growers that I’m doing business with are the children of the growers my father did business with. It’s in my blood. I love doing it. I’ve had to diversify my product line. We do homemade jams and jellies, local honey and we resurrected my father’s sausage recipe.
PT: Do you like tripe?
PD: You either love it or hate it. Personally I love it, but my wife doesn’t. So I won’t cook it in the house because it’s got an odor that will linger. If I’m making tripe I’ll go to one of my brothers’ places because they have the exhaust fans. My oldest brother Dom was vice president in charge of meat and deli for the Peter J. Schmitt Co. My brother Joe is a postman. But we all worked for my dad on the market.
PT: How did you and your wife meet?
PD: First of all, my father and her father were good friends. Her uncle sent her down to the market to get dandelion greens. “Go see that nice Italian boy, Paul. Go see him,” he said. I asked for her phone number so I could call when the dandelions came in. She grew up with my cousins basically in South Buffalo and we probably met as kids and never knew it.
PT: Didn’t your father own a pizzeria?
PD: Desi’s Pizzeria up the street. My father opened it in ’69, when I was in seventh grade. My dad opened Desi’s Market Bar in 1980. I opened a restaurant on the corner of Broadway and North Ogden called Desi’s Market Restaurant. I did that for about five years. It didn’t work out for me so I came back to the market. It was a little bump in the road. I actually work now for the City of Buffalo as superintendent of automotive supplies. I work in the garage.
PT: Did your children grow up working at the stand?
PD: They help when I need it. My daughter is going to Mercyhurst College so she won’t be able to help anymore. And my son? Unfortunately the produce stand is not something you can sustain and raise a family on. It’s not going to pay all the bills. At one time it did.
PT: What changed?
PD: It’s such a litigious society now you need insurance against everything. I remember a lady fell in front of my stand. She was an older lady and I wanted to help her up. She seemed OK, but I asked her if there was anything I could get her, anyone I could call. She said her lawyer. An older lady – you wouldn’t think that would come out of her.
PT: Have you converted to digital scales?
PD: Yes. Probably the main reason is the customer is always questioning you with the hanging scale. Digital tells it like it is.
PT: What do you do in the winter?
PD: When I was younger I was able to have the stand in the summer and pay the health insurance for my wife and small child. In the winter I tended bar and did whatever I could. Now I work for the city.
PT: How many hats do you wear?
PD: My wife and I do everything – sweep the stand, sort the fruit. Whatever needs to be done, you just do it. You don’t think about it. It’s funny. I didn’t realize until I started working for the city that when the guys worked a half-day, it was four hours. All this time when my father told me to work a half-day I thought it was 12 hours.
PT: Did you have a midlife crisis?
PD: No. I don’t have a goal to recapture my youth. My youth is in my past. I look forward to progressing. I worked hard my whole life. I put my two kids through Catholic schools. Now I have to put my daughter through college, which by the way is another one of my opinions: College is obscene in this country. It should not cost as much money as it does.