In this era of Costco and Sam’s, nobody expects a little family-owned grocery store to last into its fourth generation — not even the owners.
“What store exists for 90 years?” the unflappable Karen Terranova asked recently as she coaxed a neighborhood child to come behind the counter at Terranova’s Supermarket.
Between taking care of customers, she was trying to get the boy to wash his sticky hands in a bucket of water, kept in back of the cash register for just such a purpose.
“Oh, come on now,” she said. “It’s clean water. I’ve got a nice towel.”
On Saturday, the compact grocery wedged onto the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Mystery Street since 1925 threw a party to celebrate its 90th anniversary.
And what a party. More than 100 people showed up despite soaked grass, mud and rain. John Boutte hushed the crowd when he sang “Stand by Me” with backup from the Iguanas. Walter “Wolfman” Washington and his band had kids dancing in the mud.
As it happens, all of the musicians are Terranova’s shoppers, and they all simply volunteered.
“They’re wonderful, hard-working people, the Terranovas,” Boutte explained.
Po-boys of grilled sausage and red gravy and icy beer kept everyone fed.
The event wasn’t publicized except by word of mouth because Karen didn’t want a mob scene — she just wanted to thank her customers, many of them longtime Bayou St. John residents.
Of the numerous family-run small groceries that once dotted the face of New Orleans, Terranova’s is a rare survivor.
Karen, 56, and her husband Benny Terranova, 61, inherited the place from his mother and father, Lorraine and the late Anthony Terranova, who inherited it from his father and mother, Benjamin and Lena Terranova — who came from Contessa Entellina, Sicily, and was transported to New Orleans for her marriage. Karen and Benny now run the store with their son, Anthony, 31, and his wife, Jennifer, 31, who married into the clan seven years ago and has worked there since.
To say they are a close family doesn’t do this group justice.
“I tell everybody I’ve been married 94 years. I double mine,” said Karen, who grew up down the street above CC’s Coffee and who, long before her marriage, was Benny’s sister’s best childhood friend. “Because if you go to work every day with your husband, it’s literally the truth.”
‘It’s the sausages’
Ask the four Terranovas to explain the store’s longevity and they’ll all say the same thing. “It’s the sausages and all,” said Benny, who learned butchering from his father and has taught the craft to his son.
Two or three times a week, Benny and Anthony make the store’s legendary fresh sausages, stuffed pork chops, muffalettas, hogshead cheese and chicken stuffed with artichoke dressing, among other recipes invented and handed down from Benny’s father and grandfather. They still wrap most everything in thick, waxy butcher paper, taping it up snugly. If someone isn’t a regular, they’ll write cooking instructions right on the paper.
Boutte still shows up at the meat counter three or four times a week despite his recent move to Lacombe.
“What’s that Creole paté? Yeah, baby — hogshead cheese! It’s better than foie gras,” said Boutte, ever charismatic. “My mother loves it. I know she ain’t supposed to have much of it, but she smiles when I bring it home. She’ll put it in grits or on crackers.”
Vic Bush, a psychiatrist and disc jockey, used to live in the neighborhood on Grand Route St. John. (“Not too many of us psychiatrist/DJs out there,” he conceded). In his new home city, Lafayette, first-rate Cajun stuffed chickens, sausages and boudins are sold all over town. But he still drives back to Terranova’s regularly for green onion sausage and the rest of Benny’s and Anthony’s creations. On Saturday, he came back not only to stock up but also to DJ at the party.
Terranova’s, he said, is not only in his blood. “It’s in my cholesterol.”
The store’s other secret weapon is its endearing atmosphere, one part “Moonstruck” and three parts purest New Orleans neighborliness.
Terranova’s is the place to go if you want to experience what the world was like before money turned into plastic and commerce became anonymous.
Housed in an ordinary green cinderblock building with a scrap of a red tile roof, it has painted concrete planters out front lush with rosemary, oregano and basil for customers to pick on their way out.
Homemade signs decorate the door: Adorable Asparagus. Prissy Pineapple. Bodacious Beets.
Inside, speckled terrazzo floors are well worn, and wood-paneled walls are evocative of basement recreation rooms from the 1950s. An old cigar box on the counter holds slips of scratch paper for whoever needs it. Shoehorned into 1,680 square feet are four aisles, a wall of refrigerator and freezer cases, and an old-school butcher counter.
‘Make that person smile’
But it’s plenty enough to attract customers who walk in all day long with canes, walkers, strollers, babies in arms, backpacks and rest of their lives in tow. They come in to buy milk, meat, bananas and vodka but also to talk about their most recent surgery, the cheese sauce recipe Karen gave them and who in the family raved about it, or whether the new dating website they joined is any good.
“Bring him to the party,” Jennifer said last week to one of her customers who was dating someone new. “We’ll check him out.”
Whether it’s a local luminary, a jockey or trainer from the nearby Fair Grounds or a nameless disheveled fellow who shuffles in for a pint of Early Times and a can of Coke, Karen treats everyone similarly.
“Your most important mission,” she said, “is to make that person smile before they leave. You want to lighten their day.”
Yet she’s not a pushover. Children are sometimes cut off if they buy too much candy. If they skip school and dare to come in the grocery, their parents get a phone call.
“Karen watches over them like a mother,” Boutte said.
“To me, it’s a hive,” said Erin Peacock, owner of Lux, a salon and spa on nearby Ponce de Leon Street. “You find out everything that’s going on. Oftentimes, there’s a child under the age of 6 working the cash register on Karen’s hip. And it’s always like a comedy routine. If I go in too early, Karen always razzes me: ‘Oh, well, I see someone’s living the life of Riley, leaving work at 5:30.’ Every time, I ask Anthony how he’s doing, and he says something like ‘STU-pendous.’ The next day he always has to come up with a new adjective, better than yesterday’s.”
When pianist A.J. Loria ambled in last week in his yellow plastic clogs, unshaven and in need of cigarettes, Jennifer was working the register and introduced him to a bystander as “my future ex-husband.” Anthony pretended to accidentally ram into him with a large box of eggs, which he then laid down on the counter.
“I’m going to play ‘Oh Terranova’ at the party,” Loria said playfully while clucking into the egg box and sliding coins at Jennifer across a worn patch of Formica. ”A new song. You’re in it, baby.”
‘I was so overwhelmed’
So it goes, warmly and with brio, all day long. Those who get closer come to learn that the Terranovas are also supportive and generous beyond anyone’s expectations.
When Peacock’s then-husband was in a serious motorcycle accident and spent three months in the hospital, she handed over her business to a friend so she could be with him. One December day, she was in her salon, and Karen walked in.
“She had an envelope in her hand,” Peacock said. “She said, ‘Every year, we collect a certain amount of money and give it to someone in the neighborhood who needs it.’ It was a stunning amount of cash, a 30-pound turkey and a Visa gift card. I was so overwhelmed.”
If the Terranovas know something about being exemplary neighbors, perhaps it’s because this clan has spent its entire American existence on a piece of ground a few blocks square.
Benny’s mother, Lorraine, soon to be 90, lives upstairs from Terranova’s in the apartment where Benny grew up.
“They take wonderful care of me,” Lorraine said of her family. “All I have to do is mention something I want, and they get it.”
Lorraine’s husband, Anthony, who spent most of his hours behind the butcher counter, died in 2007.
“I have never in my whole life seen as many people at a funeral as his,” Karen said.
“He thought he was only a little old butcher,” Lorraine said. “He had no idea. But he was well-liked by everybody.”
At Anthony’s wildly crowded wake at Holy Rosary Church on Moss Street, the line of mourners had to be prematurely cut off so Father Bob Massett could finally say Mass. Afterward, the hearse glided by Terranova’s on its way to the cemetery. “He made one last pass. It was really quite emotional,” Karen said.
If Anthony and Jennifer stand on the back porch of the new home they just built a few streets down, they can see the back of his tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
His presence is still felt in the shop, too. Besides being a butcher and grocer, Anthony was a woodworker, and Benny keeps his smooth, amber-colored picture frames and a large wooden swan planter he made near the butcher counter.
‘Mothers were possessed’
Clustered on a wall, the frames hold photographs of babies from the neighborhood — a Terranova’s tradition launched when a customer worried that his infant daughter, Lila, wasn’t getting enough nutrition from breast-feeding. The man started coming in to weigh her on the meat scale before and after feedings every day.
Anthony photographed Lila, and soon other mothers wanted their babies to be immortalized on the baby wall.
“Some mothers were possessed,” Benny remembered. “They had to get their babies’ pictures up. They dolled them all up.”
Now a poised 14-year-old attending Benjamin Franklin, Lila Thaller, the first baby on the wall, showed up at the party with her dad. “Before she could see over the counter, she used to charge candy there,” Matt Thaller recalled.
Asked if he dreams about retirement, Benny said, “Not really. You waste your life thinking about retirement.” Working from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week is just the way he grew up, he said.
And he’s always liked it in the store. Until Katrina destroyed it, there used to be a framed photograph of Benny at age 5, wearing an apron and sweeping the grocery’s floor with a tiny broom.
Though the store lost all of its perishables during Katrina and the family had to clean every inch of the place while wearing masks slicked with Vick’s VapoRub, Terranova’s was one of the first groceries in the area to reopen after the storm, and it stayed open seven days a week for months.
“The hardest thing the first generation had to face was the Great Depression,” Karen said. “The second generation had to withstand the fact that a state-of-the-art A&P opened across the street. And the hardest thing Benny and I ever dealt with was Katrina.”
‘You have to earn it’
As for the fourth generation, the fact that it exists at all is a phenomenon almost unheard of, according to business analysts, who estimate that only 3 percent of family businesses survive to that stage. Nevertheless, Anthony and Jennifer appear content and admirably poised to take over someday.
People in the neighborhood still remember watching Anthony grow up. As a child, he rode his bike everywhere, hunting for frogs and sneaking scraps of meat from his father’s butcher case to feed an alligator that hung out under one of the Bayou St. John bridges.
Now, finally, he knows the fabled green onion sausage recipe, which his father kept secret from him until just after the storm. “You have to earn it,” Benny said. “I had to earn it from my father.”
Peacock, for one, takes solace from the family’s stability, not to mention her luck in living and working near their store.
“It’s one of the most loving environments in New Orleans,” she said. “Every place else is so suburban and big. There are times when I don’t make it to Terranova’s before closing, and on those nights, I have to evaluate how badly I really want the item I thought I needed.”