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Dutchess of Dearborn
11/01/2007 - By Tobi Tesoriero
Dolores Luccarelli - The Dutchess of Dearborn
Dolores Luccarelli Celebrates the Circle of Life
Just back from the wedding of her granddaughter in Italy, Dolores Luccarelli is simply glowing, and her joy about the event sets the tone for this interview. It soon becomes apparent that this enthusiasm and love of life and of family is an integral component of her personality. Dolores is grounded and focused, with her family as her center.
Dolores Luccarelli is the embodiment of the finest characteristics that, as human beings, we all hope to possess. She is quite thoughtful and philosophical, pondering the eternal questions of life and its cycles. She is extremely hardworking and takes on the responsibility for her business and family obligations with enthusiasm and grace. She is charming, and is dedicated to helping with various philanthropic causes.
She, along with her late husband Dominic, founded Dearborn Markets (formerly Dearborn Farms) on Route 35 in Holmdel; the business has always been a family affair. Dolores' in-laws farmed the property, then Dominic followed suit. Dearborn started selling from a farm stand on the side of the road. Through the years the company has responded to changes in the market regarding production, acquisition, and sales.
Today Dearborn Markets remains a family-run business; Dolores' three children have joined their mother, each handling a different component of the business. From the original farm stand, Dearborn has grown to three different stores on the site and has become an area landmark. Dolores has seen the area change, from mostly agricultural to more suburban.
Living In Holmdel spoke with Dolores Luccarelli about her business and her life.
LIH: Where were you born?
DL: In Warren, Pennsylvania, in 1935.
LIH: And how did you end up in this area?
DL: My father was a welder during World War II. He was transferred to a company in Perth Amboy, then he worked in Matawan. We lived in Newark for a year in an apartment…I vaguely remember that. I was about four. Then we moved to a little bungalow in Matawan. When we got home from school we [my sister and I] would do homework, do chores, etc. I often think if my circumstances were different, what person would I be today? Times were rough; we struggled. My daughter once said, "Mom, maybe you would not be the person you are today if you had not experienced those things." As an adult I admire my mother; as a child I did not always appreciate her.
LIH: How long have you been in Holmdel?
DL: Since I married my husband, Dominic, about 49 years ago. We lived in Centerville, and my daughter is now living in that house. My sons also live in Holmdel.
LIH: Can you share some memories of the area?
DL: Everything has changed. My husband used to say, when we were "keeping company," if you drove through Matawan and sneezed you missed the whole town! It was just a street. Everything has changed. This [Holmdel] was all farms when I married Dominic. When we moved to Centerville there were six houses. Now on his family's property there are, I think, 73 homes. It is just all built up; it was all farms and wide open spaces. Route 35 was a two-lane highway. It was very rural.
LIH: How long was your husband's family in the area?
DL: Well, let me think. Dominic was born on that farm and would be 75, and there were children born before that...I guess you would have to go back 80 to 90 years ago. My father-in-law came over to this country when he was about 12 years old. He had family in Staten Island, and then he headed this way. He bought about 100 acres in Holmdel to farm.
LIH: How old were you when you became involved with Dearborn?
DL: I got married in 1958. Dominic's parents had a market on [Route] 35 years before that. Dominic had been farming. At that time there were brokers in New York and you would drive a truck into market; a buyer then would buy the produce. They would get a percentage of every box that was brought in. It came to the point that they were taking money. I will give you an example. My husband had a box of peppers, he would get a call from the houses [brokers] saying what the price for peppers was per box. You plow the ground, you plant the seed, you hire, you pack the product, you have the box, bag a bushel, truck it to market, and then it gets sold. That day they said the boxes would bring in 75 cents; that is what we were getting. My husband got into the tractor, drove into the field and chopped up every pepper plant that we had on the property. He said there had to be a way that we could make some money without having to go through all that.
LIH: What prompted you to become involved?
DL: I had been working in an office since I graduated from school, so this was very new to me. I was a clerk typist, and then moved up in that world. I had loved what I was doing. So then my husband wanted me home anyway [my life began for me when I met my husband]. So I helped him…I packed in the barn. He came to me and said we would open a little place and sell stuff there. I would be there most of the time myself, as he was working on the farm. I was a little scared. Frankie and Lucille were not even in school yet, so it was probably in 1962. We sold tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes. We sold right on the highway and had a little refrigerator for heads of lettuce. A cigar box was our first cash register. I was so scared, as I never had done this before. We had a little kitchen inside and a sandbox for the kids. That's one thing; everything was okay as long as my kids were with me. Even on the farm, when I packed in the barn I had them with me. I had one in the playpen and one in the carriage. Maybe that is how they became involved. My son Frank was raised in this atmosphere; by the time he was 4 years old, I would give him a sandwich to bring to his dad on the farm and he would spend the day with him, with the men, on the tractor, taking a nap. My youngest son was born much later.
LIH: When you first started out, where did you get your product? Was it homegrown, local?
DL: Some stuff was grown on the farm, some stuff we got from the New York market. We'd bring that back and sell it; we had apples, peaches, melons, tomatoes, squash, eggplants…
LIH: Do you still grow?
DL: No, mostly everything is brought in from the New York market. It is just impossible. Farming is expensive; you work with the elements. You put this product in the ground and hope it will produce. You have rain, dry seasons, and bugs…different elements. For a long time in the beginning the store helped where the farm was losing. We found it was better to let go of the farming end and stay in the business and buy quality and quantity produce from around the world, although my husband loved the growing aspect. Actually, my son, Frank, has inherited that from his father. We just had figs that he grew. He has a grapevine as well. He has the deer coming in; we see the cycle of the earth. The planting, the growing, the animals, the survival…it is amazing. We enjoyed that from being on the farm.
LIH: Is the barn that you mentioned earlier the structure that now stands as Dearborn?
DL: We created that look of a barn. The first building was just a little stand with a couple of overhead doors. They wanted that barn to have that old-world rustic look. They recently have expanded and have redone. As part of the process they took some old photographs and blew them up, of my husband as a young man in his truck, pickers in the field, pictures of my husband and his sisters when they were little in their father's truck. They are actual pictures from the farm. It is our way of sharing our history.
LIH: How did you decide on the name Dearborn?
DL: I think that when the property was bought that was the name on the property. What we had done when we first were farming as a married couple, we had taken a picture for a logo. It was a woman standing holding a baby. It was that perspective. Then we went over to doing the pictures with the barn to identify our market.
LIH: Had anyone had agricultural training or was it more learning from being on the farm?
DL: Learning from Dominic's father. Dominic learned from him. Frank went to [agricultural] school briefly. He felt he learned more from his dad.
LIH: Who were your customers when the business began?
DL: The customers were just the people. There were other farms in the area selling as well. John Hendrickson was also in the business; he was a mentor for my husband and me. He said the more businesses that come up, the better you will be and the better it will be because you will always stay on top of things. You can sell stones to someone if you know how to do it. Now today in garden centers they do that! He helped us along. When we started with the food he suggested to sell plants as well; we would dig them up for people. How things have progressed amazes me. My first experience with the customer you don't want was a gentleman that pulled up in a big black car. He was very well dressed. He had a coat, a hat. We had little boxes with tomatoes; tomatoes were about 29 cents a pound then. He said, in this nasty voice, "Well, I guess I am going to pay for your trip to Florida this year." And I started crying. I thought, why would he say something like that? Then he apologized. My husband told me not to allow that again…go with it, don't let it get to you. People don't see the bills you have to pay, how you had to work, how you had to sacrifice to get there. I learned.
LIH: Who is the customer base now?
DL: The same, just multiplied. People come from Staten Island, Perth Amboy; I am always surprised they know we exist. We have always tried to maintain that family atmosphere. You can come into our store, get a cup of coffee, walk around, and talk to people; they see their neighbors and we don't push them out of the aisles…they can spend as much time as they want. I've seen two generations of families shopping here. It is kind of scary, but nice. It is a lovely testament. If you give the customer good quality at a reasonable price and you make it a pleasant surrounding, people will come back. There are enough customers for every business. You try to keep up and do a good job. I often used to say I wonder what my purpose was in this world. I looked at my husband's life and I saw what his purpose was. I used to be Dominic's wife, Frankie's, Lucille's, and DJ's mom; but who was Dolores? I remembered who she was before she got married. I really believe when I look at my kids and my grandchildren that that was my purpose. I am so proud of these people. They are amazing. My kids, my family, my friends, my grandchildren, I am just so blessed. I may not have my husband in my life anymore. But when I see my family he is still here.
LIH: When did your husband pass away?
DL: He passed away 11 years ago. I truly believe that he was here for a reason. Everything he did and accomplished was for a reason. And when he was done, he went on. I miss him dearly. I watch my sons and grandchildren; what greater gift can that be? He was the most amazing man I have ever known; the kindest and truest gentleman, true to his word. His word was his bond. He was humble…he took care of his family and was good to his friends. He felt you do it because you should. There was always food on our table; there were fisherman who would bring us fish or butchers would come with meat, and they would take vegetables - we always managed. Sometimes we had to borrow from the piggybank to get shoes for the kids. But we always had a roof over our heads. And he always said it would be okay. It is my job to worry…you raise the kids. He was liked and well-respected. He was a good human being.
LIH: Is there anything else the farm is involved in?
DL: We have programs at different times of the year for children. I remember working in the greenhouse for the hotbeds. It would be a box of sand and soil. You made a row, placed a seed, and covered it and went back in a few days and saw the earth moved. You go back in another couple of days and you see a little sprout. I saw my granddaughter Dominique being born; I can see the analogy of life growth. It is a miracle. It's the whole chain. We used to have children from the inner city visit. There was nothing more spectacular than the look on these children's faces when they were picking apples. The joy of seeing those children was beyond belief.
LIH: Can you give a summary of the business today?
DL: I never in my wildest dreams ever thought it would come to where it is today. It is a credit to DJ and Frank, as they have the vision that their father had. They look ahead and stay with the times. Frank loves the greenhouse - he has the farmer in him. DJ is personable and works well with people. He is the PR person, doing the golf outings. They each have the special qualities they need to keep this business going for as long as they want…they have the vision. The greenhouse extended our business and is just a beautiful place. We are actually going to have a reception for my granddaughter Nicole's wedding there, as it is such a lovely setting. I don't know if it will go to the next generation, but it has gone way beyond whatever dreams we had. I also want to mention that my daughter is still part of the business. Lucille went to college for special and regular education, but then decided to work for Dearborn. She has a wonderful head; she is a very bright woman. She is my best friend. She had taken off a few years, but now her children are in school so she is back at work a few days a week helping with the business.
LICN: What interests or activities do you have outside of Dearborn Market?
DL: I was involved in Bayshore Hospital, the Foundation Board, the Board of Trustees, the Hospital Board…I resigned from those this year as I want to spend more time with my family and grandchildren and do some traveling. I received the Bayshore Hospital Humanitarian Award, and I was honored by the Red Cross several years ago…and Dominic, Frank, and I were honored by Deborah Hospital as humanitarians. I like staying in the background, quietly doing things. Kiwanis has a charity golf event every year in my husband's honor; they do a lot of work for children. The Rainbow Foundation…any money they raise on the golf outing I also donate to their causes for the children. Michael's Feat is another charity organization that I support. I think that is what it is all about. It is important to give. I am not the best committee member, as I tend to be outspoken. I also sponsor a Day at the Races for cancer fundraising at Bayshore.
LICN: Any lighter pursuits?
DL: The Count Basie Theater; I love to knit, to read, and I like being with friends and family more than anything.
LICN: What haven't I asked that would complete the picture of who you are or that you would simply like to let folks know?
DL: Oh, I don't know…people should take stock of their lives and see what they can do for others. I look in the paper and see countries where children are dying. I still can't believe children go hungry. I know that probably sounds a little corny. But there should be more people worrying about that and looking outside the box. It is a big world out there; there is a lot we can do.
2 Senza in Red Bank and Doris and Ed’s in the Highlands
The Philadelphia Story
People who do not think outside the box
Three people you would like to dine with:
John Paul II, Princess Diana, and my grandmother, Zock
Photo GalleryClick here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.
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