D’Ettorre’s Grocery and Meat Market
By Gary Swilik
In West Park, the first modern self-serve grocery with multiple checkouts opened at Kamm’s Corners in 1937. Yet many residents continued to shop at their local “corner store.” These mom-and-pop groceries offered convenience and personalized service the big chains couldn’t match. Among these fondly remembered local markets is D’Ettorre’s Grocery at the busy northeast corner of West 140th and Puritas Avenue.
Alfred “Fred” D’Ettorre was born in Cleveland in 1909, the son of Italian immigrants. He was raised on the West Side in his family’s residence and grocery at West 67th and Herman Avenue. He learned the grocery business firsthand, by growing up working in it. In 1926, the D’Ettorres moved their grocery to Lawn Avenue, just off West 65th Street, in sight of St. Coleman’s Church. Five years later, Fred’s father passed away at home from a cerebral hemorrhage leaving Fred, then 21 years old, to run the store with his mother and his younger sister.
In the early 1930s Fred met his future wife, Eleanor Dodson. Like Fred, she grew up on the West Side of Cleveland. “I don’t know how my parents met,” says daughter Denise, “but my father was crazy about mom until the day he died. They eloped and were married in New York City.”
Fred and Eleanor continued to operate the family grocery on Lawn Avenue until 1944 when they bought a building at 13928 Puritas Avenue and opened D’Ettorre’s Groceries and Meats. They raised six children in the attached residence: Jackie, Marcia, Fred, Albert, Dan, and Denise.
“The store was built right onto the front of our house,” recalls Dan D’Ettorre. “There were two or three wooden steps from the store up into our kitchen. We served the neighborhood and knew everybody that came in.”
“We had no front door,” laughs Denise. “The store was our front door. Many times the kitchen door would swing open, customers would look in to see us eating breakfast, and say hi to us.”
The type of groceries Fred D’Ettorre sold changed over the years. “There was not much else in the area when my parents first opened on Puritas,” Dan remembers. “Originally we sold almost everything. Meat, canned goods, beer, pop, milk, and fresh vegetables out in front of the store. We sold baseball cards – five cards with a stick of brittle powdery gum. My Dad would let us take baseball cards as long as we didn’t take too many.”
“The big item was meat,” Dan continues. “Dad was a meat cutter. Our meat was high quality and Dad had a loyal following. We got our poultry from Schulte’s on Lorain Avenue and our beef from Sandusky Dressed Beef. At one time Dad bought meat from the stockyards on West 65th. I still have the big butcher block he used in the store. It sits in our kitchen and my wife Bernie uses it almost daily.”
“When A & P opened at nearby Puritas shopping center in 1959,” says Denise, “Dad started concentrating on meats and wine. He imported lots of different kinds from California and sold it mostly by the case.”
“Dad couldn’t compete with a big supermarket on a can of corn or a frozen bag of peas” Dan explains. “But meat was profitable. He had a walk-in cooler in the store. He made his own ground meat. He had hot Italian and mild sausage. He could also compete on beer and wine, so he started importing wine.”
The World War II years brought special challenges. Fred D’Ettorre, then in his forties, was drafted into the army for about six months near the end of the war. He was stationed in Texas as a typist. Fred’s wife Eleanor and her mother, Coletta Dodson, kept the store open during this time. They were not meat cutters and couldn’t prepare the meat as Fred did. A family friend helped out by cutting the meat and the ladies would package the cuts in white paper. Customers would choose a package and buy it without ever seeing the meat. This worked because meat was scarce and the store had a solid reputation for selling quality products.
“Dad worked like a bull when he was young,” Dan confides. “Cutting and grinding meat was hard cold work. It got harder as he got older. Of course, we kids shouldered more of the burden as we grew up.”
With three daughters and three sons, there were lots of helping hands. “When you were old enough, it was your time to work in the store,” says Dan. “Brother and sister alike. We’d open about 6 am, close about 6 pm. We’d sweep up, clean the floor and all the equipment. The entire store was probably 30-by-30 feet. We never had wheeled carts. Customers simply picked items off the shelf. If someone was shopping for meat, Dad waited on them from behind the refrigerated showcase. We had one of those long-handled pincer tools for grabbing groceries off higher shelves. I wish I had that pincer tool today.”
“We sold a lot of beer and pop,” Dan goes on, “with returnable bottles on everything. Drivers came to get the empties which we kept in the garage. Saturday was the busiest day of the week. We’d make it or break it on Saturday. ”
“We used to eat whatever was left over,” Dan tells us. “Whatever Dad didn’t sell. Chicken wings or whatever. We used to give chicken wings away to customers if they bought something else. In those days people made soup of them. Now,” he chuckles, “they’re almost a delicacy.”
Like many neighborhood grocers, Fred D’Ettorre’s let customers take food home and put the bill on the “tab,” paying later when cash was available. “He kept a record for each customer on a strip of cash register tape,” says Dan, “and kept all the tapes on a clipboard.”
“Dad would say ‘put it on the eye,’” adds Denise. “That meant put it on the tab. And he was even more generous than we realized at the time. After he died, many people told us Dad tore up their tab when they were in hard times.”
Many former neighborhood residents have recollections of D’Ettorre’s. “My mom shopped there nearly every week,” comments Charlene Kullman-Kielar, now of Sun City, Arizona. “Ah, those were the days, before all the big supermarket chains. A mom-and-pop store where everybody knew your name and you could put groceries on the tab until payday.”
“I remember D’Ettorre’s had a gum machine out front selling Dentyne, Beemans and clove gum for a penny.” says Jeff Rau, of Chesapeake, Virginia. “Rumor back then was that Beemans was made out of horse hoofs.”
“My mom called D’Ettorre’s on Friday to order our groceries and Dad would pick them up on Saturday,” relates Rita Bender Nussbaum, of Lakewood, Ohio. “Fred D’Ettorre also catered my older sister’s wedding.”
“D’Ettorre’s steaks were a super special treat,” proclaims Joyce Cotman of North Olmsted. “Fred D'Ettorre was a special angel! I remember I was hosting the Easter Sunrise Breakfast at Puritas Lutheran and running out of eggs. I woke Mr. D’Ettorre at 6 am on Sunday morning and a few minutes later I was running from the church to his store for eggs. He was our neighborhood grocer, butcher, and storyteller, always quick with a comment or joke.”
“My father was one of the funniest people you’d ever know,” confirms Denise. “He was in a constant state of lighthearted humor. It used to drive me crazy when I was little but, as I got older, I loved every word that came out of his mouth.”
“Dad had a big sandwich board out in front of the store,” says Dan. He’d write the specials on it in chalk. One time he wrote ‘The fresh fish you buy today, slept last night in Sandusky Bay.’ A newspaper reporter happened to drive by and did a story on it. Dad also told us kids that when he was in the service an enemy sub was spotted in Lake Erie. He swam out and dragged it back by the anchor chain. You could still see it on the lakefront. They’d renamed it the USS Codd.”
Was D’Ettorre’s grocery a financial success? “All of us girls went to St. Joseph’s Academy,” says Denise. “We did alright.” Her brother Dan agrees. “Dad made a very good living. But today you couldn’t survive in a small grocery. He also ran a catering business out of the store,” explains Dan. “All the kids helped at these events. My wife recalls working a wedding with me one Saturday night back when we were single. She still refers to it as a ‘hot date.’’’
“My Dad was in his 70s when he finally retired,” Dan explains. “He closed the store in about 1980, sold the equipment and the liquor license. The store remained vacant. Dad could have rented it out but didn’t want to because it was attached to the residence.”
Fred and Eleanor D’Ettorre passed away in their 70s in the spring of 1986. Their grocery store and home on Puritas Avenue stood for another two decades. When it was demolished in late 2008, a faded sign advertising Cotton Club Ginger Ale was still visible on the side of the building.
I've really enjoyed sharing memories,” concludes Dan. “My father was a one-man band and the small grocery business was tough. But we grew up in the best time. It was a Golden Age. I think things were better then.”