The Essex Street Market is a Lower East Side staple when it comes to fresh food and prepared goods. Meet the vendors in this profile series and swing by the market all month long during May to celebrate 75 years of Essex Street Market.
Porto Rico Importing Company came into being because a family of newly arrived Italian immigrants craved items from the homeland.
Founded in 1907 in Greenwich Village, Porto Rico was part of a cluster of stores that sold products that Italians were familiar with. In addition to coffee, Porto Rico offered black, oolong, and green teas, olive oil, botanicals, syrups like orzata and amerina, spices, small stove-top espresso makers—even rolling pins to make different pastas!
Owned and operated by the Longo family for three generations, Porto Rico Importing continues the tradition of serving the finest coffees in the world. Today, all coffee is roasted at Porto Rico’s warehouse and roasting facility in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Much like a bakery, Porto Rico roasts on a needed basis, so the coffee is consistently fresh. Coffee is then sent to Porto Rico’s four store locations at Essex Street Market, 201 Bleecker Street, 40.5 St. Marks Place, and 636 Grand Street.
Owner Peter Longo grew up working at the business and attributes his early education about coffee to his father.
The history he shares here about the business is as rich and aromatic as the coffee they brew every day.
Business name: Porto Rico Importing Co.
Business owner: Peter Longo
Market start: Since 2009
Product sold: Coffee drinks, coffee beans, tea leaves and brewing equipment, spices
Tell us how Porto Rico got started.
In the early 1900s through the 1920s, the influx of Italians to the Greenwich Village area was huge. My grandparents arrived around 1900 and set up a bakery at 201 Bleecker Street. They baked Italian breads, pizza, turkeys, and hams for customers. At the time, most people didn’t have ovens of their own.
In 1907, a man named Patsy Albanese started Porto Rico Importing Company across the street at 195 Bleecker. Around 1958, as he got older, he approached my father to buy his store. Patsy sold him the store, my father rented out his bakery, and Patsy retired.
As divergent groups of Bohemians, Italians, beat poets, and artists came together in Greenwich Village, they all had to eat and, of course, drink coffee. The blending of these folks and their different perspectives was an exciting and mind-altering experience. As the Village developed, so did the business. We expanded the number of roasts and enlarged the inventory of coffees we roasted.
When our customers traveled and returned home, they came in for their weekly half-pound and would say things like, “I recently went to such-and-such a place and the coffee was excellent. Could you get me some?”
We would ask a million questions like, “What did it taste like? How was it roasted? How did you drink it?” and then we would do the research through our green coffee suppliers and try to get it.
“We built a large selection of coffees and teas. It has been, and continues to be, quite an education.”
I grew up in the store. As a kid, my first job was to make deliveries of coffee to the various cafés. After I took an hour to deliver 5 pounds of espresso just around the corner, my father would say, “Where have you been? It took you an hour to go around the corner.” I couldn’t help myself; there was revolution in the air on MacDougal Street. I was in paradise.
As I grew older, I ran the business for my parents, taking over when they went on vacation. In 1965 we moved the store from 195 Bleecker across the street back to our original bakery at 201 Bleecker.
I used to frequent Shopsin’s (also in Essex Street Market). One day Kenny Shopsin called and suggested we move in to the Market. “You should come down, it’s really fun,” he said.
I knew the market as a kid. It was a fixture. I heard it had begun to change and serendipitously when Kenny called, we were interested. I knew it was a neighborhood market and since a lot of my customers lived in the area already, we moved closer to them.
What is your favorite memory at the market?
When I was a kid, the big dare was to run through the market. It was filled with a lot of strange people and strange things; it looked weird and smelled kind of funny, so as you’d pass by on the street, you’d dare your friends to run through. And we’d go in and yell “aaahhhh” and run through as fast as we could! Went to high school on 2nd Ave and 2nd St. And I’ve met other people who used to dare their friends to run through the market, too! So I guess it was a common thing.
What is Porto Rico’s specialty?
Our specialty is fresh coffee and excellent quality, combined with moderate prices. I’m the anti-Starbucks. The quality is excellent and I try to keep prices as reasonable as I can.
Years ago, people bought a half-pound of coffee and mushrooms and then went next door to the bakery; it’s the European style of shopping. We try to operate that way. We roast every day and deliver fresh. That’s the tradition.
What is your favorite time of the week at the market and why?
I like the market in the morning because it’s quiet and you can have a cup of coffee and everyone’s opening. Then everything jumps into action!
Do you source any of your own products from within the market?
Not for my own store, but for myself—yeah! It’s so convenient. Fish, chicken, bread, all kinds of things. And of course I eat breakfast and lunch there. I have my favorites for lunch. You’ve got everything right here. I do my shopping right here. When it’s time to leave, I just walk around, get what I need, and go.
Are there any fun facts about your business that you want to share?
It’s a true family business. I guess it’s an immigrant/Italian-American thing that my parents thought that if they worked with their hands, we could work with our minds. So I went to college. But I’d worked in the store all my life. My parents taught me operations so I could run the business while they went on vacation. And then I ended up taking over. Running the business is like being home to me.
My kids worked in the business too. We always made them work to have any spending money. My oldest son now works at our Bleecker location and I ask him, “Why do you want to be in the business?” and he said, “It’s like being home.” Exactly!
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