The Sodo food distributor has been serving it up family-style for 115 years.
WHAT DO SEATTLE’S best restaurants have in common? If you’ve eaten at Ba Bar, Bar del Corso, Bar Sajor, Barjot, Belle Epicurean, Bitterroot BBQ, the Blind Pig Bistro or the Boat Street Cafe, you’ve eaten Merlino Foods — and that’s just a few highlights from the B’s. The printout of their customer list is half an inch thick.
Merlino’s — that’s what most people call it — is the kind of place where they still, courteously, print things out. They also still take half their orders over the phone, and they’re proud that when a customer calls, a human answers — one who’ll probably know which of their 22 kinds of mozzarella that particular customer wants.
Merlino’s, like multinational behemoth Sysco, delivers foodstuffs to restaurants, bakeries and bars. You’ve seen their trucks around. But Merlino’s is a local company run by a family with a true love for the food, for the business, for each other and for Seattle.
Every weekday in Sodo, crates are filled with canned tomatoes, dried apricots, marinated white anchovies, bulk spices, specialty flours (pastry, certified Neapolitan, emmer, gluten-free, more), Italian white truffle honey, Italian black summer truffles, pancetta, pâté, prosciutto, pasta, pickled peppers, compostable cutlery, Oregon jumbo hazelnuts, alder wood chips, caviar, escargot, salt (27 kinds), bitters (32 kinds). The 98,000-square-foot warehouse is a food-lover’s overwhelming dream, like a Costco full of the highest quality imported and domestic edibles, minus the tires and TVs and polo shirts. Merlino Foods is right across the street from Costco, in fact, but don’t go knock on the door; it’s wholesale only, and the warehouse is not open to the public.
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THIS YEAR MARKS the company’s 115th anniversary. It started with olive oil. After immigrating here from Taranta Peligna, Italy, Angelo Merlino began importing it from his homeland, and in 1900, Angelo Merlino & Sons was born. You may not have heard of Angelo or his sons Ubaldo and Attilo, who ran the company next, but you might be familiar with his grandson Armandino Batali, founder of Seattle’s revered Salumi. Armandino Batali, of course, begat Mario Batali, who became a renowned New York restaurateur — meaning Seattle’s most famous export when it comes to Italian food is the great-grandson of its first Italian food importer.
Seattle’s original Italian-American community, centered in Rainier Valley — then also called Garlic Gulch — was a close-knit one. In the beginning, Angelo also ran a small Italian grocery, but he didn’t only supply his countrypeople with the foods they missed; he also functioned as the bank, especially after the crash of 1929.
“The Abruzzi — the people from the Abruzzi area of Italy — were very close, and they didn’t trust the banks. So they’d leave their money with old man Merlino, and he would put it in his safe,” says Bruce Biesold, who now owns Merlino Foods with his wife, Phyllis, and their sons, Jeff and Todd. Phyllis’ father Gill Centioli was like family to the Merlinos: He was Attilio’s godson.
Phyllis and Bruce met while they were both flipping burgers at Centioli’s restaurant Gil’s 19 Cent Hamburgers at Rainier Avenue South and South Genesee, and Bruce worked for Centioli until 1976, when he and Phyllis bought Merlino Foods from Attilio. (Phyllis’ sister, Dorene Centioli-McTigue, founded Pagliacci Pizza in 1979.)
Bruce changed the oil in all the trucks himself for years. Phyllis did the bookkeeping at home at night, with daughter, Ronna, staying up late to help. Their two sons both started out driving delivery routes. Now, Jeff deals with sourcing, procurement, customers and more, while Todd, a lawyer, handles financial and legal aspects. Their sister, now Ronna Schmidt, recently rejoined the family business as well. Some of the 10 grandkids work in the warehouse during summers. And Bruce and Phyllis still work two days a week.
THE KITCHEN NESTLED within the offices at the Merlino’s warehouse is outfitted with the appliances and cupboards that were in Jeff’s house before a remodel. This is a family that saves, salvages, repairs and reuses, from the wooden bins in the warehouse that DeLaurenti in Pike Place Market was getting rid of long ago to the cans of tomatoes that get damaged during shipping. The latter, known as “dents,” are used to make sauce for the pizzas that Bruce sometimes makes for the crew, or for workday meals that also make use of broken pasta. Over a noontime red-sauce lunch recently — made by Jeff with warehouse rejects — Bruce, Phyllis and Jeff shared stories and laughed.
The dents alone are fodder for plenty of talk; they’ve supplied the family cupboards for years. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a straight can at home, have we?” Phyllis says. “We wouldn’t know how to open one that wasn’t dented,” Jeff jokes. The food bank won’t take the dented cans, but everyone knows to listen for the “phssssst” when opening them. Then, Jeff says, “If there’s no bubbles, hey, it’s good!”
This is a family that talks over one another, corrects one another, supplements one another’s memories and finishes one another’s sentences. The topic of new Jack’s BBQ not too far away comes up; it used to be Bogart’s, and before that, Goldie’s. But before that, it was an Italian restaurant, called … Bruce and Phyllis think while they keep talking.
“They made their raviolis in the basement,” Bruce remembers. “Jerry was the guy that used to make ’em. I can still see Jerry down there rolling raviolis out…”
“It’ll come,” Jeff says, and there’s more chatter: The chef lived on Bainbridge, and he died not too long ago. “Adolfo’s!” Bruce finally says, to celebratory agreement. The name of almost any local restaurant, any chef, old-school or new, brings up a story, which leads to another story, and so on, back into the almost forgotten archives of Seattle’s food history.
Jeff’s the one taking the family obsession with food into the future. He was in second grade when his parents bought the business, and they’ll show you his first invoice, in painstaking brand-new handwriting, for Johnny’s Super Sub, dated 1977. He still remembers, he says, exactly how those sandwiches tasted. He’s got a regular-guy demeanor, but he casually throws in information about the polyphenols in olive oil (“that’s the peppery taste in the back of your throat”), the beauty of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar (recommended on vanilla ice cream), GMOs (“I think the US has probably screwed up the wheat source worse than everybody else”), real versus fake San Marzano tomatoes (“The Italians aren’t very trustworthy, so you really have to find your good sources” — the room erupts with laughter).
Jeff goes to Italy every year; he takes cooking classes. Talking about his grasp of the business, his father almost can’t find the words. “Jeff is … Jeff … he’s a miracle,” Bruce says.
Jeff’s two teenage daughters might be the leading contenders to take over Merlino Foods someday — he took them to the fancy food show in San Francisco this winter, and they loved it. “We don’t just feed ’em,” he says. “They know what’s going on. They genuinely care. We’ve pissed off so many of the neighbors, because their kids will be at our house, and they’ll eat good food … then, you know, Costco pizza doesn’t work on the neighborhood girls anymore.”
After Jeff’s two girls took a trip to Italy a couple summers ago, Phyllis proudly reports, “They said, ‘Grandma’s food is just as good.’” Their favorite thing there was the northern Italian snack torta fritta: dough fried in lard until puffy with prosciutto wrapped around it while it’s still hot, served with lambrusco wine. There’s a collective, inchoate cry about this goodness; then Phyllis protests about the wine, and Jeff says, patiently, “This stuff is like 4 percent, Mom. They only had like a glass, it’s fine.”
THE GENERATIONS are in agreement on the value of service. It’s what’s put the business where it is today, Bruce says: “If a guy needs something, he needs it now, not when you get around to getting it to him.”
A room at the warehouse, for instance, is devoted to repackaging 30-pound bags of nuts and so forth into smaller quantities, so customers can get the amount they need, fresh.
“It makes it so much easier for the little restaurants,” Bruce says. “And those are the ones that need the help.”
The little restaurants get listened to at Merlino’s. Jerry Corso of Beacon Hill’s Bar del Corso complained about the yeast he was getting. It wasn’t breaking down the way it should, meaning his pizza dough wasn’t rising in perfect domes. Everyone agreed he was being a pain, but, Jeff says, “We revisited the way we store our yeast because of him,” moving it further from the cooler’s fans, protecting it from air. There’s respect there. Jerry is “like an opera singer. He’s really an artist,” Phyllis says. Jeff takes Jerry figs in the summertime, from a tree that came from his grandfather.
“We have the best customers in the whole world,” Phyllis says.
“It’s a chain,” Bruce says of the interconnected nature of the business. “We always treat the dishwasher the same as we treat the chef. That’s been kind of like the secret to what’s made us what we are, I think.”
“Because, of course, the dishwashers end up as chefs,” Phyllis says.
“And the dishwasher’s the chef tomorrow, if that guy quits!” says Bruce. Everybody laughs.
Information in this article, originally published Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, was corrected Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the square footage of the Merlino Foods warehouse.