At Big John’s PFI, the windows are almost floor-to-ceiling. The floors are shiny, smooth concrete, and the 30-foot cheese counter gleams. It’s an upgrade from the bumpy, wine-stained floors and warehouse feel of the gourmet grocery store’s former location in Sodo, and a far cry from the trunk of the green Plymouth Valiant “Big” John Croce sold olive oil and feta out of when he first started his business in 1971.

Big John Croce passed away in 2015 at the age of 91, but his legacy lives on. His children Mike Croce, Holly Cochran and Cathy Croce Volpone and granddaughter Margo Flones have been running his store and its wholesale arm for years.

Big John’s PFI (“PFI” stands for Pacific Food Importers) turns 50 this month. And in the five decades since its founding, the store has weathered changing locations, a changing clientele, economic depression, and most recently, a global pandemic. But each time, it’s emerged on the other end, still flourishing. The secret to the longevity of this mom-and-pop grocery store that’s become a Seattle institution?

Adaptability and a personalized approach to business. Plus, the family’s commitment to keeping the business alive endures with the third generation at the helm.

“We’re thinking of everything we can do to help the store,” Mike Croce says.

Surrounded by boxes waiting to be unpacked, Cochran, her brother and her daughter are sitting with me at a little red wrought iron table at the back of the store to talk about what the past 50 years as a family-run grocery store have looked like.

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They’re awaiting news about a container stuck off the coast of Mexico that’s packed with food direct from Italy — it’s sitting on a ship like so many others in these days of supply chain backlogs. 

“There are some things we’ve had to apologize for [not having], and for a little while we couldn’t get much Greek stuff, but because we carry such a vast variety of things we’ve been able to keep the shelves mostly full,” says Flones, Cochran’s daughter. 

Like many businesses, they’ve had troubles with supply and labor shortages since the beginning of the pandemic. Because many of their goods are imported, they’ve had to be patient, waiting on port bottlenecks, production delays and working through the increased cost of freight and shipping — “all in the face of increased rent we took on when we were displaced from our old location and had to find a new home,” Flones says. 

Still, there is no business they’d rather be in. 

The siblings have been helping with the business since they handpacked feta as children. Mike came on full time after college in the mid-1980s — “we were born into it,” he says.

His dad, however, was not.

Big John was born in 1924 to Italian immigrants Nazzareno and Rosa Croce, who emigrated from the Le Marche region of Italy and settled in Rainier Valley, a neighborhood that became known as Garlic Gulch for its influx of Italian immigrants. He graduated from Franklin High School — that’s him at 18 on the PFI logo — and dreamed of becoming a lawyer. His parents had other plans.

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“In 1946, when he got out of the Army, he found out his father had purchased a store,” Croce says.

The black and white photos that wrap the windows on the store’s exterior are of Big John and his sisters working at the store — then located on the northeast corner of Rainier and Atlantic. For better or worse, that store sparked something in Big John.

“He was a foodie before that was a thing,” Cochran says.

From that store — which was demolished in 1954 to make way for Interstate 90 — Big John went to Albertsons and worked for Jack Croco at the first QFC (which was then called the Lake Hills Thriftway in Bellevue) in 1955. In the early ‘60s he purchased a Thriftway, adding a second store a few years later, but sold both before the decade was over.

“He sold his stores and then wanted to stay in the food business, but he didn’t know how. He worked for Associated Grocers for a while, but he was one of those people who needed to work for himself,” Cochran says.

Big John soon realized there was a market for imported goods such as extra virgin olive oil, feta cheese and Greek olives. These ingredients weren’t widely known to Seattle shoppers at the time, unless you were Greek or Italian — back then, those immigrant groups were considered “ethnic.” He rented a little corner store on Beacon Hill, mostly to house his wares, but people learned through word-of-mouth he was there.

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“Ethnic people came anyway, Italians, Greeks, Croatians. He wouldn’t turn down a sale, so he sold to everybody,” Cochran says.

“A lot of the stuff was common to us — pastas, vinegars, panettone, tomatoes. We had to pack feta in bags to sell to grocery stores, no one really knew what that was unless you were Greek,” Croce adds.

Dennis Caldirola, director of Festa Italiana Seattle and a product of the Garlic Gulch neighborhood, says before Big John began importing Italian goods, his dad had to drive to Vancouver, B.C., each year to procure things like prosciutto. He remembers that first store well.

“He had giant barrels of pickles and olives just sitting there and everybody came in and helped themselves to a couple olives. He’d say ‘here, try this,’ and you’d buy half a pound,” Caldirola says.

In those days, the Croces weren’t the only prominent Italian family in the local food business scene. However, they are now one of the last; Oberto, the Seattle-based sausage company founded by Constantino Oberto in 1918, was sold in 2018 to the Canadian conglomerate Premium Brands, and the storefront on Rainier Avenue closed in March 2021. Within days of the closure, another longtime Italian neighborhood staple, Remo Borracchini’s Bakery, open for a century, also closed. 

In 1977, Big John’s moved to Dearborn Street — just a few blocks from where it is now, — before outgrowing that space and moving to Sodo in 1990, where it remained until April 2020, when the family was told the building they’d rented for 30 years was slated for demolition. After a long search, they ended up back at Rainier Avenue South and South Dearborn Street, in Garlic Gulch — “back in the ‘hood’ ” Cochran says. 

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The location isn’t the only thing that has changed over the past 50 years. Everything from the clientele to the items they sell is always changing, and the Croces’ ability to quickly adapt to change has been part of their continued success.

Big John’s shop quickly grew to include things Garlic Gulch neighborhood families used every day; dried salt cod called baccala, Greek figs, fresh chestnuts, lupini beans and $35 balsamic vinegar so thick and rich it’s used as a dipping sauce for aged cheese. 

John De Rocco has been shopping at Big John’s since he was in college in 1974 and considers the Croces to be family friends. His grandfather Oreste Di Rocco came from the same region of Italy as Big John’s dad, and his dad, Edward De Rocco, was a contemporary of Big John’s.

“My dad was always looking for someone who could sell him good mozzarella and Pecorino Romano,” De Rocco says. He found it at Big John’s PFI. 

It’s still where De Rocco goes for imported cans of tomatoes when he’s making his oxtail sauce, anchovies, big blocks of feta, and 5-gallon buckets of olives. 

“Before them, you couldn’t find Pecorino Romano. That was the main reason [we went]. Now it’s to support a store that specializes in Italian food. And they have a great selection, the cheese selection is pretty hard to beat,” De Rocco says. 

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Even with loyal longtime shoppers like De Rocco, it’s no longer just Italians and Greeks perusing the aisles.

“We have a lot of older Greeks and Italians and they get the same list of things that they got way back when too, but people today actually cook quite gourmet at home,” Flones says.

The family keeps close tabs on what resonates with customers and what doesn’t because the goal — as always — is to serve their neighborhood. 

Their inventory has never included fresh produce or much dairy — beyond cheese and some French butter — but since moving into their current location, on the ground level of an apartment building, the request they get most often is for milk.

“So we’re getting a new stand-up cooler. I don’t know if there’s a grocery store within walking distance here, so we have to get more staples. The store is still evolving,” Croce says.

“We were in an industrial area before, now there is actually community, people who come in all the time for little things here and there,” Flones adds.

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Shows like “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” help to drive trends. Right now guanciale, a cured pork jowl traditionally used to make spaghetti alla carbonara, is flying off the shelves, as is an Italian orange soda called Chinotto.

There’s an entire aisle of tinned seafood in intricately painted boxes. Much of it is fished sustainably, canned within three hours of being caught. An aisle of olive oil — bigger cans down at the bottom — features what Flones calls your “workhorse” oils, ones to use every day with cooking (there’s even a Big John’s PFI private label, emblazoned with Big John’s face). Single-origin oils, made for salads and even just dipping, are at the top of the shelves.

Croce says they’re also looking into starting with Mercato, an online delivery service, to provide same-day delivery to customers unable to come into the store.

With the passage of time, some older customers have passed, and old traditions lost or replaced by new ones. They don’t sell too much baccala these days, and other things have become more commonplace.

“Panettone — when we were kids you couldn’t find it, and now you see it everywhere,” Croce says.

But, Big John’s still “has the best selection of pandoro and panettone for Christmas,” says Vince Mottola, owner of five Seattle-area restaurants, including Pizzeria Pulcinella, and Mottola Italian Tours. 

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Whenever Mottola needs Italian goods for holidays like Christmas or Easter, he goes to PFI. 

“It always felt like I was shopping in the neighborhood market in Italy,” Mottola says. 

Even with all those options, people still have their favorites, as does the family. I ask the trio to tour me around the store and give me the inside scoop on their favorites. 

Croce points out a high shelf near the back of the store lined with vintage olive oil cans — some of the original brands Big John peddled in the ‘70s, many out of business now. There’s still a large bulk spice section; Flones points to the truffle salt as something people can’t get enough of.

The go-to tuna brand is As do Mar, and Cochran favors Champagne or red wine vinegar over the pricey Giuseppe Giusti brand from Modena, shown on Tucci’s show.

As we venture into one of two aisles (yes, aisles!) dedicated to dried pasta, I ask if it matters which one to buy. “To me it does!” Cochran exclaims. Her current favorite is Rummo brand, specifically Thick Spaghetti No. 5.

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Their favorite pasta sauce is Al Dente, out of California. There are San Marzano tomatoes, of course, but the family favorite is Maestri brand, grown right next to the San Marzano region but for a fraction of the price.

“That’s a Big John thing, if he found something just as good, he would recommend it,” Flones says.

“He was more than fair, he would never want to gouge people,” Cochran adds.

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