Thriving produce store, Three Guys From Brooklyn, is community favorite

April 18, 2011 Heather Chin
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In 1998, when Scott Zimmerman saw that the business thenoccupying his father Stanley’s old produce store at 65th Street andFort Hamilton Parkway wasn’t doing well, he, his brother Howard,and long-time friend Philip Penta, Sr. decided that this was theirchance.

So, the three bought the property and opened what would becomeone of Brooklyn’s busiest, most respected and most affordableproduce markets: Three Guys From Brooklyn.

It was tough going at first, but with their combined experienceworking sales and management at the Hunts Point Terminal Market inthe Bronx – plus hard work, smiles and a dedication to thecommunity in the form of quality produce at low prices – thepartners built a successful business that continues to give as muchas it receives from customers.

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I was a little nervous in the beginning, then we startedselling flowers and watermelons and all of a sudden, people startedshowing up, said the elder Penta about how they built a loyalclientele. We gave people good prices and produce, and it’simportant to have nice people working for you. There were timeswhen Howie and I’d be leaving at 11 p.m. and the lines were out tothe freezers, so we’d start bagging.

As the neighborhoods have changed, so has the business, but ithas also grown, said Scott Zimmerman, who is a third-generationproduce businessman.

You learn as you go and every day is different. Prices change,neighborhoods change, items become more available at off times ofthe year… it’s never the same, he said. We try to thrive onthat, try to have everything that’s available, in season, becauseeverything should be fresh at all times. We don’t sell merchandisethat’s not 100 percent. We really try to buy the best and sell themat the most reasonable prices so that people will come back. Peopleenjoy coming back because there’s really no other place likeit.

Family and community are important to the Three Guys family.

That is why the business is entirely family-run, and why theBrooklyn institution has made a point of providing pumpkins for theNarrows Botanical Garden‘s Halloween festivities

This commitment to southern Brooklyn residents was born out of adesire to give back the way they helped us, said Penta, Sr. whois in a wheelchair now, but still comes to the store five days aweek. When Howie was alive, we led a crusade to help everybody. Inthe last couple of years, we’ve had to back off a little, [but] westill try to give the people what they need, with a realisticprofit.

Helping to keep costs down and morale high is the fact thateveryone knows one another and works well together. Around 13 yearsago, Philip Penta, Jr., 33, joined the Three Guys team and nowserves as the general manager, running day-to-day operations at the24-hour grocery store.

My mom is the bookkeeper, my father’s an owner, one other girlI’ve had here probably longer than I’ve been here has a cousinhere, a niece here. It’s really a family-oriented business. Most ofmy staff has been here a long time. It really is like a familyhere, said Penta, Jr. We just carry on that tradition that’s beengoing on for 30-plus years.

This is a place where you see a lot of neighbors running intoeach other who haven’t seen each other in a long time. It’s aneighborhood spot, he added, noting the store’s unique position asgrocer and social hangout for shoppers of all cultural backgrounds.There is a huge diversity. Some people call this the U.N. of fruitstores. You can see everyone getting along here, shopping for fruitin harmony. Food is definitely the unifying force here.

That food comes in as many shapes, sizes and colors as thepeople who buy and eat it.

Outside, there are juicy watermelons, California strawberriesand tropical papayas that sit next to giant Texas leeks, Asianpears and Italian frying peppers. Inside, freshly ground coffeemingles with imported olives, gourmet cheeses and nuts galore.

And winding their way courteously through the aisles areOrthodox Jews from Boro Park, Chinese grandmothers from SunsetPark, families from Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, and everyone andtheir mother from across Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

There’s a good reason for this. On top of their shared love offood, Brooklynites also love a good deal and Three Guys delivers onthat front as well, offering fresh food at prices that are often upto 60 percent lower than the competition. How do they do it? SaidPenta, Jr., it’s about volume, hard work and keeping thingssimple.

We’re able to sell more for less of a profit margin. Plus, ifyou look around, the general makeup of the store is not fancystuff. It is what it is, he explained. We have cement floors,sawdust on the floor, the stands we build ourselves. Everything issimple and old school. I don’t have to spend money on expensivefixtures and lighting. What you see is what you get.

For Maurice M., who drives over three miles for shopping runs,this equation works perfectly. Look, those green peppers are 79cents a pound, he said. In Crown Heights, they’re $1.59 a pound.It’s a big difference.

Three Guys’ core values of low prices and community focus remainstaunch in the face of fluctuating food prices due to a strugglingeconomy and unpredictable weather patterns.

Last year at this time, a 50-pound bag of onions cost $40. Thisyear, we’re paying $9. [On the other end], a bag of carrots isnormally $15 to $16 and this year it’s $45, Zimmerman said. Thecold weather in California means the ground isn’t warm enough, sothe carrots won’t size up enough for them to pack and ship.

We hope they keep coming, added Penta, Jr. while watchingworkers pack up holiday deliveries for Passover and Easter. It’sbeen tough for us with the economy being the way it is, and theweather in Mexico and California affecting the prices. A lot ofpeople don’t understand how difficult it is to keep the prices low,but we have great customers and we love them.

At least some customers are understanding.

Sure, the prices have gone up a little because of the times,[but they] are very good and the quality is very good compared tothe other local stores, said Francine T. of Dyker Heights, who hascome to the store once a week for years. It’s a neighborhoodstore. Everybody comes, especially around the holidays.

Three Guys will be launching a new website and logo in thecoming months to attract new customers and make it easier for loyalcustomers to place orders online. The goal, says Penta, Jr., is tostrengthen the store’s foundation so that it can expand.

I would love to keep this store open forever. I would love toopen more stores. It’s a very difficult operation to run andcontrol, so once we get everything controlled, we’ll look to openup new locations, said Penta, Jr. [Whenever] we have asked thecommunity for help, they’ve answered. So we ask them now tocontinue to come here as we continue to grow and just keep comingback.

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