Gioia’s Deli Chases Trend, Swallows Tail

Gioia’s Deli has a blog. It’s sleek, attractive—more visually appealing than this blog in fact!—and seductive: “Psssst. . .Psst. . .Hey you. Gioia’s wants to hook you up. Join our Mailing List to receive great deals on great food. Just click the picture. Ssshhhh, don’t tell anyone its a secret [sic].” Besides “Al’s Blog,” which so far has detailed “The Gioia’s Deli Philosophy” (1/18/12), “A Day in the Life of a Boxed Lunch” (1/14/12), “Gioias is the Healthiest Option on The Hill” (1/3/12), and “What to get a foodie” (12/1/11), the website offers a “Gallery of Deliciousness.” Unable to resist, I clicked the link and browsed a collection of food porn thumbnails—no amateur shoots, only AVN quality stuff here. Clearly, Gioia’s has decided to bring the business into the 21st century; the deli’s streamlined web presence speaks to any number of contemporary restaurant trends, most obviously, foodie-ism and nutritionism. The desire to capture new market niches would not be so surprising if Gioia’s had not occupied the same plot at Macklind and Daggett for 94 years. Challie Gioia started a grocery there in 1918, and since 1980, the Donley family has operated the store as a deli. At the original grocery, Steve and Johnnie Gioia served “Salam de Testa” to the lunch crowd. Today, the Donleys call the Gioia recipe “Hot Salami”—they serve it on chewy blonde bread, and it has attracted attention from St. Louis foodie rags like Feast. The “Hot Salami” is an excellent sandwich and deserves all the praise it has received. Nevertheless, the disconnect between Gioia’s web identity and its physical reality is disconcerting.

Across from Gioia’s, I make a pit stop in an empty playground. The park bathroom is, mercifully, open in January, and I take a piss in a metal bucket. “The Hill,” St. Louis’ iconic Italian neighborhood, always seems empty despite its dense sprawl of tiny houses—most flying Italian flags and set-up with random lawn statues: gnomes, puppy dogs, Madonnas. Street traffic is sparse, and except on Sundays, when the neighborhood explodes in a flurry of churchgoing, you can walk five blocks in total solitude. Although the sidewalks are immaculate, the edges of the enclave are frayed. Thankfully, sexy and sophisticated have bypassed The Hill. Rigazzi’s still serves beer out of fish bowls, Zia’s slops sausage and red sauce on hoagies without pretense, and the Missouri Baking Company sells one type of Joe: Mr. Coffee, drip, held warm in a dusty Pyrex carafe, poured into Styrofoam cups.  In fact, Gioia’s looks more beaten down than most—few tourists stop by—it’s not well documented in the road food literature—the main clientele is blue-collar take-out and white-collar sit-down. To order: take a number and stand in a mob of hungry construction workers, shout out sandwich name, cheese, veggies, stand back in mob, wait three minutes (average figure, not exact), pay cash at the register, scrum for the rare seat or walk to a swing set: take a big bite: let sloppy loose folds of hot salami, rough and licorice-tinged, slip out floppy lips.

Trend-chasing risks tail-chasing: playing catch-up with the food media is not a successful business strategy. In its attempt to switch markets Gioia’s risks losing its most valuable asset. Gioia’s is beautiful because it reflects a fraction of ordinary life; it embodies a particular history; it is the antidote to generic imitations and formulaic simulations. Instead of updating operating systems, Gioia’s should focus on maximizing the experience of tradition. There is a fine line between surviving and commercializing, getting-by and commodifying, selling-in and selling-out. I understand the desire to preserve a family business for future generations. Maturity is not a symptom of internal weakness, but just an inevitable consequence of longevity. Suspended animation is neither a possibility nor desirable.

But what about quality of life? If necessary, should the Donleys hook the deli up to life support, Botox its lovely wrinkles, and leave it a bland vegetable? Admittedly, restaurants evolve in a state of punctuated equilibrium; in the 1980s, Gioia’s undoubtedly underwent a series of rapid changes as it transitioned from grocery to deli. Yet, that transformation was not schizophrenic. The metamorphosis did not threaten to strip the original of its fundamental values; ‘deli’ Gioia’s maintained an awareness of its ‘grocery’ history and began to accumulate new memories; however, the ‘foodie’ Gioia’s, as previewed online, forecloses the formation of particular histories. In its genericism and sameness, ‘foodie’ Gioia’s must rigorously police its particularity. For instance, every McDonald’s possesses an individual history, or many individual histories, each of which, in its instant of precipitation, must dissolve into a solution of corporate homogeneity. There are no nooks and crannies for history to stick and hide in a McDonald’s; all particularity slips off and evaporates. Gioia’s must be careful not to smooth out its craggy surfaces. Otherwise, hot salami might start tasting a whole lot like another Big Mac knockoff.

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Filed under Restaurants, St. Louis, Theory and Criticism

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