How Do You Modernize One of the Oldest Pastry Shops in New York City?
Veniero's started in the East Village in 1894, but more recently, it's been opening for business on apps like Grubhub and Postmates.
Frankie Zerilli spends most of his days delivering joy. He drives the Veniero’s Pasticceria and Café truck around New York City, dropping off cakes and pastries to wholesale customers. He enjoys the job, but he’s thinking about the big picture. “I’m not trying to just be known as the Veniero’s truck driver,” says Zerilli, 32.
That won’t be hard: Zerilli is the fifth generation of his family to work at Veniero’s, which opened in 1894 in the East Village, and he’s learning the business so he might possibly run it one day. For now, he’s helping his father, Robert, operate it, while also bringing a youthful eye to a very old-school business.
Veniero’s is the epitome of classic New York — a noisy, bustling, fast-moving eatery, where diners can enjoy a dessert and a coffee. The café originally served candy and biscotti, and is said to be the first place to introduce espresso to New York City. Head chefs from Italy were hired to work there, and over time its offerings expanded to include a wide range of pastries.
The business stayed in the Veniero family until the 1950s, when one of the owners sold it to his cousin. That buyer was Frankie Zerilli’s grandfather, and it’s been the Zerilli family business ever since.
Frankie Zerilli started working there about a decade ago and has been growing his influence over time. He respects the place’s timelessness but also wants to make sure it gains some modern advantages.
For example, Zerilli pushed for the shop to get on Grubhub and Postmates. “In case someone wants to get something smaller,” he says. “That’s a perfect late-night delivery service.” Afraid of being pigeonholed as a truck driver, he’s also spending more time in the kitchen with the bakers and shadowing his father to learn how to close the shop. He’s a visual learner and prefers hands-on work, so experience matters a lot to him.
Working at Veniero’s has given Zerilli purpose. “I go through these phases in my head where I think I’m lazy, and I think, ‘What am I doing? I should be working harder,’” he says. “I’ve learned not to get so down about it, because Veniero’s gave me a very good work ethic.” Part of that comes from the previous generations, who spent long hours at the shop and have set an example for Zerilli.
It was his grandfather’s idea to initially start delivery and branch out to new pastries, for example. Now Zerilli sees his father carry that same work ethic forward. He describes Veniero’s as his father’s first (not second) home, and he feels the pressure of trying to live up to that level of hustle. It’s why he spends as much time as possible in the shop.
“To me, Veniero’s is my school,” Zerilli says. “I really have to be there as much as I can to learn what I can.”
Zerilli also benefits from his forefathers’ foresight: His grandfather bought the building that houses the shop, which wasn’t worth much at the time but has since appreciated greatly in value. That level of stability helped the 127-year-old café survive the pandemic.
Now Zerilli knows it’s his turn to look ahead. Not every trend appeals to him or the family, though. They’ve gotten requests to become a franchise, for example, and they declined. A customer recently asked whether Veniero’s wanted to get involved in NFTs and cryptocurrency. “We’ve shut it down,” he says. Still, Zerilli is open to wild ideas — and is considering launching a streetwear line — because he realizes that old-school businesses need to stay relevant, and sometimes the best ideas start out sounding crazy.
“You have to go with the times,” he says.
Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her features have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere.