HADDON HEIGHTS, N.J. — Retail customers flock to one of the largest and oldest Italian bread-baking operations in southern New Jersey as they have for 91 years, buying bread and rolls fresh from the oven inside the factory.
Now, with an eye toward expanding its customer base and selling more bread while keeping the traditions of Del Buono’s Bakery, new owner Tom Whitman has pursued a natural extension of the bread business — a sandwich-making delicatessen.
But because he had no experience in that business and to help ensure success, he bought Carmen’s, a popular Italian deli in adjacent Bellmawr run for 50 years by the Giglio family. A second location is now open alongside the bakery to piggyback on both business’ successes.
Carmen’s II is using the same sandwich-making techniques, lunch meats and cheeses and even some of the employees from the original Carmen’s, which already was buying Del Buono rolls for most of its hoagies, cheesesteaks and other sandwiches. (Now, all sandwiches there are made with Del Buono rolls.)
“It was a way to move into the future by combining two business legacies and growing them,” the 54-year-old Whitman told the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill (http://on.cpsj.com/2xbhRw2 ). He expanded the size of his bakery building to add the deli.
“I keep buying Italian businesses. They complement one another and it helps in cornering the bread market. Every day is busy at the bakery,” said the owner, who has zero Italian heritage but was raised in neighboring Mount Ephraim and regularly accompanied his mother to Del Buono’s for dinner rolls and bread for their family of eight boys and a girl.
“I don’t need my name on any building. I respect tradition and these well-known business names,” he added.
Customers started trickling into the new deli as word spread through the neighborhood. But Carmen’s II signs have now been erected — a grand opening is scheduled for some time this month — and traffic is on the rise.
Whitman bought Del Buono’s Bakery in 2013 from Constantino “Nino” Del Buono, whose father started baking Italian bread in Camden in 1926 before the Great Depression and later moved the bakery to 319 S. Black Horse Pike in Haddon Heights.
Since taking over, the new owner has added more pastries and made multiple improvements to the building and equipment while keeping the vintage feel of the bakery room.
He bought a $2 million conveyor baking oven that uses half the energy, added dough-rising rooms, upgraded the electricity and switched the main oven operation to the new addition in order to renovate the front of the older section for the deli.
The deli sandwich menu is the same as at the original Carmen’s. Hoagie rolls are well over a foot long and packed with meats and cheeses and other accompaniments like tomato, lettuce, vinegar and oil and a choice of six varieties of peppers from sweet and roasted to long hots.
The most popular hoagies are the Italian with ham, salami and American cheese and the Rosie’s Special, which has provolone cheese and more Italian meats, such as prosciutto and hot capicola that gives it zing. Cheesesteaks are the other customer favorite.
“The original Carmen’s is ranked one of the best in the country and has always used a tremendous amount of high-quality product from Dietz & Watson, Thuman (Primo) and Freda’s lunch meats,” Whitman said.
Carmen’s was voted the Best of South Jersey delicatessens by Courier-Post readers for more than 25 years. The bustling Bellmawr business at 42 E. Browning Road, which often has lines of waiting customers, also has been visited by TV’s Food Network chef Aaron “Big Daddy” McCargo Jr.
McCargo especially loved the cheesesteaks during a stop there on his travels around the country looking for the best hoagies. He called Carmen’s cheesesteak the “real deal” and bulging with “big meat.”
Whitman’s longer-range business plan is to open more Carmen’s at the Del Buono’s bakery outlets in Marlton and Stratford and shortly will open a new bakery outlet at 5051 Black Horse Pike in Turnersville with possibly a deli.
Longtime bakery customer Maria Gamble of Bellmawr took notice of Carmen’s II just after it opened and while on one of her frequent visits to the bakery recently.
“I love all their breads and cookies and now you can get lunches. Great!,” she exclaimed as she picked out dinner rolls with wax tissue paper.
Whitman is hiring more cashier/customer service workers for the deli, which is open at breakfast and lunch times.
“Sometimes a customer will want a breakfast sandwich on a bagel, so I’ll tell them to go into the bakery through the doorway and get one fresh from the oven,” said deli employee Susan Giordano, a veteran hoagie maker transferred from the Bellmawr location to the new Carmen’s.
Bread customer Joe Mannion of Audubon came in recently and ordered his first hoagie at the new deli.
“I was very excited they were opening one here because it is more convenient to where I live,” he said while he waited for Giordano to make his Italian hoagie lined with generous portions of meat and cheese. “The hoagies are fresh and you get your money’s worth. They don’t skimp,” he explained.
Businessman Stephen Weissman stopped in to chat with Whitman and then bought the same type of hoagie. “They’re large sandwiches that taste great and you get service with a smile,” he offered.
Whitman continues to make bread the original way without preservatives but with high protein and high-gluten wheat. Hoagie rolls have a thin crust with a soft interior. Dinner rolls cost $3 a dozen, but other rolls are now $3.50 a dozen.
Customers must enter through a new doorway that takes them into the baking area in the front of the new addition, where they can still see and smell the aroma of bread coming out of the end of a long conveyor amid the whir of the oven operation and exhaust fans. On one of the wall shelves of cookies, the Italian biscotti and waffle-like pizzelle release the sweet smell of anise.
Movable wire racks are stacked directly in front of the oven and are regularly filled by an employee with more than a dozen types of warm bread, bagels, rolls and soft pretzels as they come off conveyors.
Customers can enter the deli through a doorway leading into an adjoining room where the old oven used to be.
Whitman has kept the signature black horse statues that stand outside the business along the Black Horse Pike and has increased the parking lot’s menagerie of animal and soldier statues that attract customers or the curious who often stop to take pictures with them.
He also has retained the Del Buono business slogan, “Quality: It’s How We Roll” and has added a new unwritten one, “Just Be Nice.” Employees say the boss and employees treat one another and customers like family. Some even are.
“I wanted to buy this bakery ever since I was 10 years old and every dollar I am making here I am reinvesting back into the business because I have other businesses for income,” said the entrepreneur, who has a master’s degree in business and also owns three Domino pizza franchises in Mount Ephraim, Glendora and Turnersville as well as Toasties pastry company in Bellmawr.
Whitman usually greets customers when he is not in his office, even hugging many, and works almost every day. A triathlete, he has switched to a veggie hoagie from his former Carmen’s favorite, the Big Daddy steak sandwich that features cherry peppers and fried onions.
Nino Del Buono lives two houses away and still stops by the bakery.
“He pestered me for 10 years to sell him the business. I sold it because I had no up-and-coming relatives to take over,” the former owner said on a recent visit there.
He said he is “most happy” Whitman is in charge. “He’s a hard worker and has built it up,” he added, becoming a little melancholy.
“What I miss most are seeing the people — the customers who come here.”
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/