It wasn’t even 9 a.m. Sunday, but Zaccagnini’s on Oaklawn Avenue was packed. The throng of customers defied lines, grabbing a ticket and eyeing the glass cases filled with elephant ears, brownies and apple turnovers. The line trickled out the door.
Owner Joe Zaccagnini was exactly where you’d expect him to be -– back in the kitchen. But this time it was for his final shift, as the family-owned bakery, a Rhode Island institution for 65 years, closed its doors.
Customers are devastated, but Joe is ready to say goodbye.
“I’ll miss all the crew and a lot of the customers, but I didn’t cry any tears on my way to work and I won’t cry any tears on my way home,” he said. “It’s something I’ve got to do.”
Zaccagnini’s is closing so that Joe and his wife, Donna, can retire from the business. He is looking forward to spending more time with his two children and four grandchildren. DeLuise Bakery will reopen in the same location as early as September, but the Zaccagnini’s sign will come down forever.
Joe’s father opened Zaccagnini’s in North Providence in 1947. Starting at age 7 Joe worked in the bakery, watching his father closely and getting more responsible as time wore on. By the time his dad was ready to retire, Joe was a full-fledged pastry chef. He and Donna bought the company in 1981, setting in stone his grueling work schedule. He is at the shop in the early morning hours, around 1:30 a.m., to get ready for the day to come. On weekends it’s even earlier, with Joe pulling into the parking lot before the day has broken, at 11 p.m. or 12 a.m. the night before.
“The hours are long, and I haven’t missed a day out of work in my entire life,” he said.
Peeking out from the kitchen, waving to longtime customers, Donna said the crowds have been steady all week, as people from Cranston and around the state have turned up for one last bite of the bakery. Saying goodbye to them, she said, is the hardest part.
“It’s very bittersweet,” she said. “I love my customers. It’s been a long haul, but [Joe] is due.”
The outpouring of support from customers has been “overwhelming,” Donna continued, and she said she is glad that her husband is getting to hear firsthand from supporters about what his work has meant to their own families.
“To him, it’s a job. He hasn’t realized the impact he has had on the lives of people,” she said, adding that Zaccagnini’s has been a part of too many weddings, birthdays, christenings and other celebrations to count.
They have also provided employment to many Cranston teens, who Joe says now return to the bakery with children of their own.
“I think about every girl who has gone through Cranston West and has worked here,” he said.
Customers yelled out well wishes while picking up their orders, telling the Zaccagninis and their employees how much they will miss the products and the camaraderie of coming into their neighborhood bakery. Among the patiently waiting patrons was School Committee member Janice Ruggieri, taking a seat outside to wait for her number to be called. Her children begged her to stop by the bakery for one last box of treats.
“They’ve saved me a million lunches, that’s for sure,” she said.
When asked what kept bringing customers like Ruggieri back, Joe said it’s the formulas developed by his father, back when the bakery business did everything from scratch.
“I do everything the same way my father taught me. The product is always consistent,” he said.
Standing in the corner of the bakery, trying to dodge hungry customers, was A.J. Favicchio, a film student at the University of Tampa whose family has been bringing him to Zaccagnini’s since he was two years old. He decided to honor the bakery’s contributions to the community by putting together a short documentary about their final days. With his video camera in hand, he lamented saying goodbye to the food and friends found at Zaccagnini’s.
“There’s nothing not to love about it. It’s very Cranston-oriented,” he said. “I’ve been dreading this day for a while.”
Favicchio says retirement will be a well-deserved break for the Zaccagnini family, however, and Joe in particular.
“Joe deserves a break from the business. He put so much undying work into it,” he said. “We owe it to Joe to give him that credit.”