Florence Prime Meat Market, the Greenwich Village institution that first started serving customers in 1936, will let its lease expire and likely plans to close its doors after the business day ends on Saturday, March 26. Owner Benny Pizzuco, who has offered to sell the business to his employees, says the combination of lagging sales in recent years and the pandemic contributed to the decision.
A neighborhood butcher shop with a city-wide following, Florence has occupied the same narrow sliver of a storefront at 5 Jones Street, located between West Fourth and Bleecker streets, since it opened a little more than 86 years ago. According to Pizzuco, who bought the business in 1995, much of the equipment is original: The meat hooks, counters, and enameled cast iron panels on the wall date to when this neighborhood was a hub of New York’s Italian-American communities. The sawdust on the floor isn’t a stylistic nod to a traditional butcher, it’s what they’ve always done at Florence.
While Florence has remained largely the same for almost nine decades — the store never bothered to get a website — the buying habits of its customers have fallen off dramatically in recent years. “The retail meat business is a zero-growth industry,” Pizzuco tells Eater over the phone. “The shape of the whole business changed. We used to go in on a Saturday morning and have 30 family orders waiting to be filled. Now it’s a walk-in who wants two chicken breasts.”
COVID hasn’t helped. Some longtime customers died; others moved away. Those who remained didn’t buy as much as before. “Let’s put it this way, if it was breaking even then I don’t know maybe I could do something,” Pizzuco says. “But the lines you get for three holidays don’t pay 12 months rent.”
The news of Florence closing will come as a shock to those who consider it to be a part of the landscape of New York, a cultural icon along the lines of the Strand Bookstore or the Town Shop: These are the stores that shape the identity of this city, and when you walk through their doors you sidestep the passage of time. Pick up a hanger steak at Florence and it’s a retail experience that closely resembles what it was like to go shopping 25 or even 50 years ago.
At Florence, that meant classical music was always playing on a radio plugged and framed family photos on the wall. If customers called ahead to place an order (always a good idea), they probably spoke with Maria Alava, who first started working at Florence in 1986. It was common to see customers lingering on the wood bench in the narrow shop, watching Aristeo Quiñonez and Emilio Aguila trimming cuts and removing silverskin with surgical precision while Bobby Mastronicola sliced slab bacon it in the front under a faded poster of the Mona Lisa.
“We are at peace,” Alava said over the phone. “We understand that everybody wants to stock up on orders and put it in their freezers until they find a new butcher, and that’s ok.”
Some of the employees will work for Florence’s wholesale business, which Pizzuco will continue to operate out of its current location in Huntington, Long Island.
Florence was always brightly-lit and serene. In some ways, it felt more like a neighborhood bookshop than a new-generation butcher shop — this is where you went for advice, or to get the exact, specific cut you required. There were no visible tattoos, or statements about ethical sourcing posted on the walls. Instead, there were soft-spoken veteran meat-cutters who could help folks find a new recipe to try, or slice Newport steaks (a cut claimed to be invented at Florence) as thickly as desired.
Pizzuco says that his lease is up, and he’ll leave the equipment in the space. “What am I going to do with it? That equipment is from 1936. I’m going to leave it there and hopefully somebody else is going to do something food-related there and will do something with it,” he says.
Pizzuco has offered to sell the business to his employees, but hasn’t arrived at an agreement.
“I’m very sad,” Pizzuco added. “But I’m not going to apologize, that’s for sure. It is what it is.”