An elderly woman enters Porfirio’s Italian Food market and walks up to the counter. She orders cannelloni, meatballs and a container of Porfirio’s marinara sauce, pays for her purchase, and after a brief chat, bids good-day to the men behind the counter before going on her way.
What makes this transaction unique is that it takes place in Trenton’s Chambersburg neighborhood rather than Hamilton, Robbinsville or another suburb surrounding the city.
We all know that Chambersburg used to teem with Italian shopfronts and eateries. The story of how the Italian community left the neighborhood is a well-worn narrative that needs no repeating. And now they’re all gone, right?
Yes, Porfirio’s has its own Hamilton store and does the overwhelming bulk of its retail sales there, but because of various circumstances, efficacy and stubbornness, the more than 50-years-old business now run by Tony Porfirio and his son Robert still serves the public from a storefront at 320 Anderson Street in Trenton.
The point is that you can still get great fresh Italian provisions in Chambersburg if you know where to go, and you can still find a variety of high quality food and other retail shops throughout the city. If you live in Trenton, you should seek these businesses out and give them your business.
The list of retailers who deserted Trenton in generations past is long and followed the post-WWII white flight that accelerated after rioting in the 1960s. Many businesses still operate in a ring around the city, and even use “Capital City” and “Trenton” in their names despite no longer residing in the city.
Given the growth of malls and shopping centers outside Trenton, many city residents changed their shopping habits too, finding it more convenient to drive outside of Trenton for provisions and supplies.
Today, I see Trenton residents talk and post about how great it is that new shops and food markets are opening in Trenton, while admitting that they are likely to keep driving outside the city’s borders when they need to buy something.
People need to change that mindset. If you live in the city and profess to be a booster, showing up at its events, but you can’t be bothered to push more than a few of your dollars into its retail economy, then you’re just like any other state worker or tourist who makes a beeline for work, or one attraction or another, then retreats back to the suburbs.
As a start, in the age of Google, if you are in the market for something, do an online search. You might be surprised to find that someone sells what you are looking for in Trenton. There are the stores like Porfirio’s that never left, and new stores that have opened, including specialty Spanish grocers and farmers markets like the Monday afternoon Greenwood Avenue Farmers Market. Get out of your shopping routine. Give them a shot, a chance to earn your business.
Might the selection be thinner, the prices higher, the lack of acres of paved parking inconvenient? Maybe or maybe not, but you might be surprised, especially if you factor in mileage, gas, traffic and time.
Don’t sell out Trenton for a few cents a pound, or a few extra versions of some made-in-China product on display. Just because a Trenton store has survived into the present, or new fresh food markets and other retailers have opened up here recently, doesn’t mean there are any guarantees they will survive in the future let alone prosper if you, and a lot of people like you, don’t change your buying habits and support them.
I once, long ago lived in Geneva, Switzerland for about 18 months. Geneva sits right on the border of France. At the large chain grocery stores there were eggs and dairy from both Switzerland and France, right next to each other, wine from both countries, and other products too. Some products were equal quality and some weren’t (yes, French wine is much better than Swiss). The main difference was the Swiss products were usually twice the price of the French ones, or more. So which products did the regular Swiss (not the stereotypical rich, numbered-bank-account Swiss) put in their shopping carts? Yes, Swiss all the way, even at many times the price.
My point is the cost of something you buy is measured in many more ways than the price on the label. Trenton could use a bit of the consumer chauvinism those Swiss exhibited. If you can buy American, buy local, why not buy Trenton?
Tom McCormick oversees the wholesale business at Porfirio’s, which supplies fresh preservative-free pastas, sauces and other Italian specialties to about 100 restaurants a week. McCormick explains that Porfirio’s busy commercial kitchen still resides at its Anderson Street location, as does much of its warehousing. With the Trenton location still active, the family sees no reason not to keep the retail store there open too, he says, even if sales are dwarfed by its location in Hamilton.
Some of the old Chambersburg residents never left, and Porfirio’s feels an obligation to continue to serve them, and any other Trenton customers who happen by. “It’s almost like we are still thanking people for all the business over the years,” he says.
Come on Trenton, let’s give our retailers our business, so they will be around to thank us in the future.
– Porfirio’s Italian Food, Inc. 320 Anderson Street, Trenton, NJ 08611. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. 609-393-4116, www.porfirios.com.
– Greenwood Ave. Farmers Market, 427 Greenwood Avenue. Open Monday, 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. through October 26. 609-278-9677. The market has a Facebook page.