My name is Michael Di Camillo and my grandparents started Di Camillo Bakery in 1920. They were both immigrants from the Abruzzo region of Italy. They came separately and were married here in 1902. They started their family here. My grandfather was working at the Shredded Wheat plant – that’s the iconic cereal started in Niagara Falls. When a unique building came up for sale with a bakery in the cellar my grandparents purchased it. My grandfather’s family had been caterers in Italy and so he was well-versed in food preparation.
The cellar part was the bakery, there was a retail store on the first level. They lived in the flat above and they rented out the flat above them. They started serving just the Italian-American community that was here, which was considerable.
Slowly things moved along. They expanded. My grandfather passed away in the 40’s and my father and his brothers took over the management of the business. My grandmother always ran the store. The girls ran the store – it was a separate empire, if you will.
Then in the late 50’s things got very, very tough for them. The normal delivery chains that they had had sort of changed; the small grocery stores around were diminishing and supermarkets were taking over. They went through a very tough period and then somewhere in the mid-1960’s they made a radical change, cut off all the wholesale routes that they had, which were delivering to supermarkets, and just concentrated on the stores.
In the late 60’s my brothers started returning to the family business. I was living in New York and my brother Skip was in California. My uncle was very ill at that time – and they needed some help. I came back from New York to manage one store, and then in the early 70’s I was visiting a friend of mine who had a place out in East Hampton. I saw what was happening in the specialty food business and we packaged up some of our products and shipped them to New York.
It sort of started the whole biscotti craze that took over America. It really was that one product, the Biscotti di Vino, which is right there – this little bag here was the first time anybody ever heard of biscotti in this country outside of the Italian community.
There’s one person left in my father’s family. My Aunt Angelica is the last of that generation. And now my brother’s two sons have joined the business. So that’s kind of great because now we have a fourth generation.
We’re still the community bakery in Niagara Falls, open seven days a week, ten hours a day. Then we have this other aspect of our business, which is national, which is limited. Then, of course, the internet has done so much to let any small producer open his marketplace to the world – that’s been a wonderful experience for us – but our main business is still concentrated in our retail stores.
There’s a possibility that it will keep going and living on. We’re still doing the same production and we still make that same bread that was the mainstay of the operation. We always made cookies but our service to the community has always been our bread. That’s what people come for. That’s what they stop by for every day. They want a fat one, they want a skinny one. They want seeds, they don’t want seeds. They want it dark, they want it light. That’s been our mainstay and it still is.
It broke my heart when Nabisco closed the Shredded Wheat plant here. I mean it was invented here. They always had a picture of the Falls on the package. I think they were only making Triscuits here but still, I thought that abandoning your home was not a good idea. This is where we started. This is where we’re going to stay, as long as the Di Camillo draw breath.
This is an extract. A video interview will shortly be available to see on You Tube.