In the Beginning

Posted Jul 31st, 2019 in Historical Articles & Ads

In the Beginning

An account of the Pirri family history in retail. 


By: Vito Pirri Jr.
Photo: Anthony, Vito Sr & Frank Pirri.

In July 1912, the boat en route to Canada, left the straits of Messina, Sicily, docking in Halifax harbor. Off the boat came Vito Pirri Sr., a humble, soft-spoken, hardworking man leaving his home & family in San Filippo del Mela, Messina, in search for a better life.

Vito Sr. ‘s brother Giuseppi (Joe) Pirri, who had immigrated a few years earlier, arranged all the paperwork with the Italian consulate, helping his brother Vito Sr. with his immigration papers to Canada. Vito Sr., traveled by boat with an older relative, Fortunato Pizzurro. With only the shirt on his back and a little coin in his pocket, and I mean a little, Vito Sr. arrived in Toronto.

Once landed, Vito Sr. lived in Toronto with his brother Joe, until he got work and was able to financially support himself. Fortunately at this time in Toronto, there was lots of work for immigrants.

Vito Sr. grew up with his mom and dad in Sicily farming fruit and vegetables. This was what Vito Sr. knew best. Yes, fruit and vegetables were in his blood from birth. Vito Sr. took a job in in a fruit store In the Yonge & Eglington area of Toronto. After five years or so, Vito began to look for other ways of earning more money and ventured into the construction business.

It didn't take long before Vito and his 3 hardwiring compatriots saw the potential and formed their own construction company.  Equipment was purchased and eventually paid off with profits.                

Eighteen hours a day was a normal workday for Vito Sr. who worked extremely hard and saved as much money as humanly possible, in order to get ahead. A few years later, with all his savings, he purchased a building on Danforth Ave. in Toronto for $2.000. Vito Sr. rented the store, with intentions of opening up his own business on Danforth Ave. one day.

After 6 years working 10 hour days, the business took a downward turn.  Money, like most things in life, can be used wisely or wrongly.  Horse racing became the downfall of this endeavour and all the partners walked away with nothing.

Vito Sr., not one to sit still for long, realizing the construction business was not for him, went out and bought a produce cart to peddle fresh fruit and vegetables up and down the old cobblestone streets of Toronto. Next he purchased a second-hand vehicle to pickup his daily wholesale produce. Now back in familiar territory, Vito Sr. worked from sunup to sundown doing what he loved.

Early morning he would go to the wholesale produce terminal at the corner of Jarvis Street and Front Street, in Toronto; a gigantic building later to be become known as St. Lawrence Market, in 1954. There he would buy his fresh fruit and vegetables daily, to sell his customers.

In that era, it was not uncommon for self-employment to be defined as “peddling.” Whether it was a small van and driver, sharpening knives, a old man on his bicycle selling roasted chestnuts from a home made attachment / hot-stove on the rear of his bike, or a fruit and vegetable merchant peddling his goods. People did what they had to do to put food on their tables.

In 1922, Vito Sr., 28 years old, met his bride to be, Vicenza Palumbo, known as Maggie. Shortly afterwards they married. Vito Sr. and Maggie rented an apartment above a storefront on the Danforth for $25. /month, the same street that Vito Sr. purchased a store, years prior when in the construction business. Vito Sr. was still collecting monthly rent for that store and the apartment above, “an astute investment I say!”

What a couple, Vito Sr. and Maggie Pirri were! When & where did they find the time to have two children? Vito Sr. had 8 brothers and sisters, so it was inevitable that it was only a matter of time that offspring would surface. On July 7, 1924 their first son Frank was born, and in December 1929, Anthony arrived.

Numerous challenges had begun, the 1st world war, and a depression that lasted for seemingly a long time, yet people still had to eat and live everyday. Business continued to operate, but at a much slower pace.

Vito Sr. continued peddling fruit and vegetables all over north and central Toronto, becoming so well known that people would sit and wait on their porch for Vito Sr. to arrive on their street. Customers would say, “Vito, you have to open a store.”

Well, In 1939 Vito Sr. convinced his brother-in-law Nat, to lend him $500, to purchase his opening store inventory, in order to open his first business. Pirri’s Fruit Market, at 2930 Danforth Ave in Toronto opened its doors for business. Vito Sr. didn't take long to get his son Frank, now 15-years old and eventually Anthony, 10-years old, working in the store every day after school.

Pirri & Sons fruit market est 1938 toronto ontario

2930 Danforth Ave, Toronto, Canada

Vito Sr., now an astute businessman, realized the road to success was paved with top quality produce; better than the guy next door. Vito Sr. knew if he worked hard and gave his customers’ good value and fair prices, he would be successful. Vito Sr.'s personality had a lot to do with his success, but don't forget about Maggie, she was right there beside him chatting it up with customers. Maggie had customers eating out of her hand; not just the juicy oranges, but the friendly, helpful service she always gave with a smile. 

In 1939 world war II broke out and business was becoming slightly more difficult for Vito Sr. and Maggie, and don’t forget about all those Italians that immigrated to Toronto. During the war years getting paid became a big problem. Selling on credit, leaving customers with just an IOU and no cash, was the biggest challenge yet.  Having enough family members to keep the business going was also a huge factor in keeping the Pirri family afloat. 

No obstacle could stop Vito Sr. and Maggie from making business work. War or no war Vito Sr. and Maggie both kind-hearted and hard-working won over their customers time and again.

It is a natural instinct that different nationalities take sides during a war, and unfortunately Italians felt that large. Business became slow and it wasn't till after the war ended that business turned around in their favor.

At seven years old, son Frank would deliver sacks of potatoes on his bicycle after school, to his dad's customers. It wasn't unheard of, for a customer to call the store and ask Vito Sr. to send Frank or Anthony over on their bike to deliver them a pound of butter and a loaf of bread when they came home from school. Vito Sr. would always oblige, as his business was very service oriented, and he couldn’t loose focus that his customers were his bread and butter. When Frank completed grade eight, he left school to help his dad and mom full time in the store.

Pirri's was a family business, and in 1944, Frank and Anthony, were now young adults; the store officially changed its’ name to Pirri and Sons Fruit Market.

“Now This Is What You Call The Fruit, Not Falling Far From The Tree!"

By the time Anthony turned fourteen, he left school also, to become a full time produce merchant. By 1948 the shop was booming in sales once again.

The Pirri family was living in an apartment on the Danforth, while operating Pirri & Sons Fruit market at 2930 Danforth.


In late 1950, Vito Sr. sold the store on Danforth Ave., bought a home in West Toronto, known as Etobicoke, on Ludlow Ave. with the money he received from the sale of the business and the store on the Danforth.

Son Frank, now 26 years old, with all of his savings, purchased a couple of properties in West Toronto's Kingsway district.


On one property, in the Islington Ave. stretch of Bloor St. West. There, Frank constructed a 2 storey building  The top floor was rented as a doctor's office while the Pirri's lived in the basement, rent free, all the while building equity in the property.  Brother Anthony and his wife Josephine purchased their family home a few blocks from the new store location.

The second location purchased was at 3025-9 Bloor St West, later to be known as Pirri's California Market. (Featured after this chapter)

In July 1951, Frank Pirri at the age of 27 took a giant leap forward into business, opening their first retail fruit market with his younger brother Anthony, 22 years of age. Vito Sr. taught his sons Frank and Anthony all they needed to know moving forward in business. Vito Sr. started Frank and Anthony off in his fruit market on the Danforth, and now it was their turn to make a name for themselves, as co-owners with their father in their new store.

Vito Sr.'s role as a father; was to teach, and to provide for his children. Now his role was to mentor and guide his two sons, to be successful businessmen.

Of course, now all three were partners, Vito Sr. and Maggie, along with Frank and his wife Muriel Cutrara, whom he married in 1945, and Frank’s brother Anthony and his wife Josephine Badali, were well all on their way of creating a family business that would last for generations.

Frank’s wife Muriel was one of 9-siblings. Her family was also in the fruit and vegetable business, as wholesalers in Toronto. Muriel, worked alongside her family, gaining that much needed experience, that became very useful when the new Pirri’s store opened.

In 1948, Frank and Muriel started a family with the birth of their daughter Margaret Rose, named after Frank’s mother.

In 1951, son Vito Jr. was born; followed by sister Roseann, in 1958. Anthony and Josephine had four children, Margaret Lena, Jo Ann, Vito Anthony and Gus.

In 1953 tragedy struck the Pirri Family as Vito Sr., Frank and Vito Jr. were involved in a car accident .

Vito M Pirri - The Boy with the ScarYou can read about details of this accident In… “THE BOY WITH THE SCAR” By: Vito M. Pirri

Once Again; The Fruit, Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree!

By the young age of 19, Vito Jr. had opened up his first fruit and vegetable market, along with a high school friend, in West Toronto.

This was the beginning of Pirri’s Harvest Caravan Fruit Market, modeled after Vito Jr.’s dad’s store, Pirri’s California Fruit Market.

Pirri's Harvest Caravan Fruit Market

Vito Pirri Jr. got married at 21 years old and he and Susan had three children, Frank, Sabrina and Michael.

Vito Jr. had opened up a second location in Mississauga, Ontario. He was beginning to take after his father. Both locations proved very successful. After operating both businesses for 10 years he decided to sell both locations.

In 1981 Vito Jr. decided to move his family to St. Catharines, which proved to be an astute move for the 2 new businesses he opened, Pirri’s Natural Foods and Pirri’s Bulk Foods.

Vito sold his home in Brampton and located his family close to his In-laws: benefiting grandparents and children alike.

Vito subsequently established some 13 new business ventures in the Niagara Region and Toronto. One of the businesses was Pirri’s Natural Foods, including a produce department, where his children worked and gained valuable business experience, while attending school.       

Once Again; The Fruit, Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree!

Son Frank Pirri Jr. (Vito Jr.’s Son) is now operating a ‘Holistic Center’ in Mississauga, Ontario, with his partner Marilyn.

Son Michael Pirri has become a ‘Senior Buyer’ for a well-established produce wholesaler in Toronto

Daughter Sabrina Pirri / Epstein has her own ‘Home Furnishing & Design Company’ in Tenafly, New Jersey, USA.

All 3 Children, Followed In Their Dad’s Vito Pirri Junior’s Footsteps

The Fruit, Didn’t Fall Far From His Tree !!

MARCH 1952



Motorists rolling into Toronto along No.5 Highway and Bloor Street West, or leaving by the same route for that matter, find our newly opened store an eye-opener. Every day during spring, summer and fall they stop in scores and hundreds to browse through the open air market and head home with freshly picked products of field and orchard. The store was opened in July 1951, and its success has far exceeded expectations. Operating it are my father, Vito Sr., a veteran of 40 years in the fruit business, my brother Tony and myself. The store is the result of a ten-year dream. Merchandising in my field, and I looked for the easiest, cheapest and most convenient method of selling fruit and vegetables

Frank PirriFRANK PIRRI                             


I wanted a store which would do these things for the public and myself, a store that would give the most turnover for the least work: for unnecessary work is poor merchandising. The solution was in the store now in operation on Bloor Street. Bloor is a wide street with angle parking, and there is room for many cars in front of the store and near-by. The store itself, actually little more than an enlarged roof, supported at one end by a sorting, picking and cleaning building, and the other by pillars. The store is roomy and gives customers an opportunity to see what they are going to get when they shop.

It is a logical development of the large, open glass front stores, now so common among chain stores and larger independents. For anything other than a fruit and vegetable store, of course, this construction has distinct disadvantages, major ones, including inability to operate during the winter, and necessity of moving stock inside each night. For the fruit and vegetable business, however, it does the most important job a store can do, it puts its products out where customers can see. If the customer can see, and the products are good, a sale naturally follows.

The type of store, too, is one which can successfully compete with chain stores. Prices in most chain stores are well under the smaller surrounding stores, but not our market. We keep all are prices comparable or lower than chain prices.

familyThis can be done only because the store operates with an extremely high volume. In season we keep trucks busy all day long hauling peaches, grapes, apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and a score of vegetable products to our Bloor Street location.

During the winter months, when the store is empty and closed, we take out our trucks and do a score of odd jobs, hauling wholesale fruit and vegetables etc.

At Christmas time, the store takes on the festive air, selling Christmas trees to the customers who bought fruit during the summer months.

As can be seen in the accompanying photograph, flowers are another strong item in the market. At the extreme rear right, you can see cans of gladioli, while in the foreground are potted plants, asters, and other late fall flowers. We use flowers to help blend colors in the store, using them to mark dividing lines between red and blue grapes, green cucumbers, red tomatoes, yellow peaches and vari-colored apples.

The entire set-up, including the pillar supported roof, the storage, trimming and receiving rooms at the rear, represents an investment of about $10,000.