Salvatore Sendik, whose Downer Avenue grocery store was known for pretty produce, dies at 84

Salvatore Sendik, second from right, is seen in a 1988 Milwaukee Journal photo with his family inside the Downer Avenue Sendik’s market. From left, he is joined by his son John, grandson Anthony III, son Anthony Junior, and father Anthony Senior. (Photo: Jack Hamilton, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Salvatore Sendik had picture-perfect produce.

He knew people bought food with their eyes, so he ran the Downer Avenue Sendik’s grocery store with a focus on presentation, his family said: vegetables on beds of ice, shiny fruits without blemishes.

Sendik, whose independent Milwaukee market became known for quality foodstuffs amid chain stores’ growth, died Thursday at 84.

“He had a tremendous amount of pride in what he did,” his son, John Sendik, said. “He stressed that we showed quality all the time.”

Sal Sendik’s father, Tony, was part of the original Sicilian-immigrant Balistreri family that got its start selling fruits and vegetables by pushcart in the 1920s. Today, three branches of the family operate separate Sendik’s entities. Sal Sendik’s cousins run the chain with the well-known red bags.

Before selling two stores late in life, Sendik and his sons owned the east side Sendik’s, 2643 N. Downer Ave.; one in Bayside, 340 W. Brown Deer Road; and a Sendik’s/Piggly Wiggly at 2315 N. 124th St. in Brookfield, which remains in the family’s hands.

Family legend says that Sal’s grandfather, speaking with an accent, was trying to purchase a stove and asked a clerk to “send it.” Delivery crews arrived asking for “Mr. Sendik,” and the name stuck. Sal’s father, Tony, legally changed his last name to Sendik, and the two worked hard to carry on their family’s legacy of excellent produce.

Sal Sendik was in the Downer Avenue store from a young age, stocking shelves and arranging produce. He worked there throughout his education at Marquette High School and Marquette University, and as his father grew older, Sendik took over. The store expanded over the years to add meat, fish, groceries and flowers.

“He grew that Downer store into being an incredible operation,” John Sendik said.

The key to decades of success? A strong work ethic. Sal Sendik respected any hard worker, his son said, and he spent long hours himself in the stores — often straightening up the produce section.

“The training, the work ethic that we’ve been taught, that’s what made it last this long,” Sal Sendik told the The Journal in 1988.

Displaying produce on ice is “incredibly labor-intensive,” John Sendik said, but his father didn’t care — it was all about presenting the best products to customers, he said.

Sendik presided over a neighborhood grocery store during a time of rapidly changing trends. He came from an era when many people cooked meals from scratch, his son said, and he always felt that home cooks wanted to hold the ingredients in their hands to inspect the quality.

Over time, bags of shredded lettuce became more popular than heads of romaine, people bought more pre-made items and food delivery services gained popularity.

Sal Sendik kept up by being different, offering items no other grocer in the city had. Sometimes customers would even bring him labels of tasty foods they’d tried. Find this and stock it at Sendik’s, they’d say.

“He had fun in tracking things down,” John Sendik said. “Not just to show people he cared, but to make the store a better place.”

Sendik was always seeing opportunities. He was the one who suggested the owner of Palermo Villa restaurant get into the frozen pizza business after tasting another brand’s pizza. The restaurant sourced all its fresh produce from Sendik’s, and with one order Sal Sendik included a frozen pizza. Switch to making these, he said.

 In 1979, the Fallucca family sold the restaurant and started Palermo’s Pizza.

Giacomo Fallucca, chief executive officer of Palermo’s, remembers Sendik as he often was: in a white smock, cleaning produce in the Downer Avenue store. 

“He was very confident, friendly, personable,” Fallucca said. “He was the kind of guy that was always present at the store.”

Sal Sendik was in his stores, surveying the scene, until the end. The market in Brookfield, although it became a Sendik’s/Piggly Wiggly in 2012, remained under the ownership of Sal Sendik and his sons. 

He used to go in twice a day to chat with customers and, of course, check on his produce department.

Sal Sendik is survived by his children, Anthony Sendik, John Sendik and Meri Jo Cornell; his stepchildren Julie Kim and Russ Singery; his sister Rosemary Maier; and nine grandchildren.

Visitation will take place 4-7 p.m. Wednesday at Feerick Funeral Home, 2025 E. Capitol Drive, Shorewood. A funeral Mass will take place at 10 a.m. at Lumen Christi Catholic Church, 2750 W. Mequon Road, Mequon.

Sophie Carson, Journal Sentinel

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