Family-owned grocer has kept up connections for some 100 years
Michael Rulli is a busy man. A fourth-generation grocer, he serves as the director of operations for Youngstown, Ohio-based Rulli Bros. But what sets him apart from the five other family members in the business is that he’s been a state senator since 2018.
Rulli has found a good schedule that allows him to balance those obligations. His week begins at 5 a.m. on Mondays. He works at the grocery store through the day before heading to Columbus, Ohio, that night or early Tuesday. He stays at the Capitol through late afternoon Thursday.
On Fridays and Saturdays, he’s at the location in Austintown, Ohio. As the company’s stores are closed on Sundays, he gets to spend time with family then.
“I’m really lucky because I’m the one [in the family] that has all the kids. So my brothers or my dad, they’ll come and do paperwork on Sundays,” he said.
Founded in 1917 by Rulli’s great-grandfather and great uncle, the company has always been family owned. In fact, Rulli’s grandmother had the original license framed.
The Rulli brothers were known around Youngstown for their flair for business. During the company’s “heyday,” they owned five grocery stores, two restaurants and a movie theater, Rulli said. But after World War II, the original generation died over the course of five to six years.
“My dad’s only 13 years old, his father dies, the last of the generation. So my dad took it over…he actually had to get a special driver’s license from the governor so he could drive to work and school.” He also maintained the family farm, an enterprise still in operation today.
Rulli’s father, Frank, did away with all but one store – in downtown Youngstown – before it, too, was phased out as the township underwent an “urban renewal.”
“They kicked out a bunch of little stores [downtown] because they thought they were trying to rejuvenate, that Youngstown was to become a big city like Cleveland or Cincinnati,” he explained. “Unfortunately, Black Monday happened and they shut down all the steel mills.”
In 1970, Frank Rulli opened a store in Boardman, Ohio. By the end of the decade, the location had expanded from 9,000 to 20,000 square feet. A second location, in nearby Austintown, debuted in 1987.
What has helped keep Rulli Bros. in business for so long is its dedication to old-fashioned practices.
“Even in the early 1980s, there was an automation movement in groceries where they took away the full-service deli, the full-service meat, and they streamlined it,” Michael Rulli said. “We chose to stay old-fashioned…and we carry extremely unusual items.”
The company has nearly 43,000 SKUs and buys products from more than 500 different vendors. The stores also boast the largest selection of olive oil in Ohio, as well as 14 to 15 types of sardines. “We’ve never lost our connections over 110 years,” Rulli added.
Alongside the grocer’s extensive SKUs, Rulli Bros. is known for its prepared foods and deli. As Rulli noted, “everything from scratch.” That includes the kitchen and bakery, where one of the most popular items is homemade bread. “The joke is, you can’t even get home before you eat it,” he said.
The deli is unique. “I have three different kinds of regular mortadella and I have four different kinds of mortadella with pistachios. We have all of these unusual things. We have over nine different kinds of genoa salami…we have the Black Hole salami, which is the real hot stuff.”
Rulli is excited for what could be the fifth generation of ownership. His son, a recent college graduate, works in the Boardman store. He’s being mentored by his uncles and grandfather. Just a sophomore in high school, Rulli’s daughter already has won awards for her baking.
But Rulli doesn’t want to push them into grocery. “My dad wanted us to find a love for the business because he was forced into it. I’m trying to do [the same] with my kids.”
For more information, visit rullibrothers.com.