Business Profiles

How Nino Salvaggio Grew From a Strawberry Roadside Stand

July 3, 2019

The third-generation family business prides itself on being a top produce and meat shop for Metro Detroiters.

By Susan Peck
Photography by Derrick Martinez

What started out as a flat of fresh strawberries at a simple roadside stand has grown into the produce and food emporium — Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace — with four locations in Metro Detroit and growing.

A young Nino started working with his Italian father and brother Angelo, selling produce from a stand and truck on the east side. After service in Vietnam, he came back to Michigan eager to establish himself with his own business. The first effort was tiny Nino & Ray’s fruit market in 1968, and then he moved to the larger Nino Salvaggio’s store in 1979, both in St. Clair Shores.

“While most of us were still sleeping, Nino and managing partner Mike Santoro were up at 4:30 a.m. walking around the Eastern Market’s historic Detroit terminal to shop for fresh produce for his store from the third-generation produce suppliers there,” says Kirk Taylor, 60, partner and company president.

Family, including Nino’s children Andrea, 44, and Leo, 47, came aboard as the business grew to multiple locations. The slow and steady approach to growth created stability for the company, says Andrea Nicolella, now the co-owner with her husband Frank Nicolella and Leo. Their expansive, up to 53,000-square-foot stores are renown for vast arrays of fresh fruit and produce, premier meats and seafood, and 48-foot display cases for cheese and other specialty gourmet and imported items.

Co-owners of Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace from left to right: Kirk Taylor, Frank Nicolella, Andrea Nicolella and Leo Salvaggio.

“Everyone working at Salvaggio’s today would agree Nino is still a daily presence in all of the stores, even though he passed away in 2003 at age 56,” Taylor says.

It’s as if the bronze life-size statue of Nino that stands in the newest store in Bloomfield Township comes to life each day. “I still hear his voice in my mind coming across the store just the way it did when he was bustling around the aisles,” says Frank Nicolella, 45. “And I swear I hear his unforgettable laugh — one that carried through the store when he was connecting with the customers and staff that he loved so much.”

Nicolella, who started as a stock boy at the first store, says the company has a “What would Nino do?” philosophy while running the markets in St. Clair Shores, Clinton Township, Troy and Bloomfield Township.

“He did everything possible to satisfy his customers by bringing in the finest and widest selection of food items, and worked hard right until his last days before he passed away from cancer,” Nicolella says. “I’ll never forget Nino came in on one of his final days dressed and ready to cut up the wood pallets to make displays for the store, something we still do at all of the locations today as an homage to him.”

Sign of founder Nino Salvaggio.

Strong Family Values

“My father became a visionary in the gourmet market industry — he was always ahead of the curve and mentored us in marketing and branding our business,” Andrea says. “Our family does everything to uphold his mission to provide a unique and ever-changing shopping experience.”

That means keeping a pulse on what their customers want today like gourmet meals to go, a sushi bar, in-store café with big screen TVs, deli kiosk for speedy service and an expanded kosher section at the Bloomfield store.

The markets all offer beer, spirits and a stellar selection of rare and hard-to-find wines, and sommelier Aimee Vermeersch is available to offer personal recommendations. The Bloomfield location boasts a sophisticated, curtained walk-in wine cellar elegantly lit by an oversized crystal chandelier.

Fruit department.

“Growing up, my brother and I would spend summers in the store with my father,” Andrea says. “He made sure we worked in every department because he wanted us to know every aspect of the business. I eventually gravitated to the floral department and currently handle floral and giftware merchandising for all of our stores.

“Today, my two sons Joseph, 17, and Nino, 15, are working at one of our stores with my in-laws. It’s truly an honor for the entire family to carry on my father’s legacy.”

The newest location had a grand opening in December that included Salvaggio’s five grandchildren cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony.

Giving back to the community is important to the family members, and Nino established the Nino Salvaggio Charitable Foundation for Children in Need.

Bread department.

Poultry counter.

“We are proud to say we’ve raised and distributed nearly $1 million to assist charities in our area,” Andrea says. “Our foundation specifically supports smaller charities such as Families Against Narcotics, Wigs 4 Kids, Turning Point and many others.”

As for future growth for the gourmet grocer, “We are always on the lookout for potential store locations and opportunities to serve the community,” Leo says.

But something that will never change is the dedication to quality and service embodied by founder Nino that will live on through his children, grandchildren, partners and each employee who wears his signature strawberry on their uniform. It’s a reminder from him to pay respect to your beginnings, and to always remember to dream big and reach for the top.

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