Sunday, August 27, 2006

Donderos' Kitchen, International Deli and Market

My great-grandfather, hopefully, would be proud. Late in his life he ran his own business, Dondero’s Fruit Market, in Dover, New Hampshire. A hundred years later there is another food-related business in the family, Donderos’ Kitchen. But we are in Athens, GA, and specialize in international delicatessen food, catering, and kitchen and dining-related ceramics and gifts.

In 1861, Joseph (presumably Guiseppe) Dondero as a young man landed in New York from Genoa in northern Italy. Somehow he avoided being drafted into the Civil War, which was the typical fate of the Irish and German immigrants in those days (although his eventual in-law, Sister Elizabeth Keogh, a nun from Ireland, was a nurse with the Union army in Virginia and was later decorated by President Lincoln). Joseph married Sarah Byrne, the American-born daughter of an Irish immigrant family of millwrights and moved with them to Ontario to build grinding mills. Sometime thereafter, the Donderos (Donderi?), including my Canadian-born grandfather, moved to New England. Eventually two New Hampshire fruit markets had our name, one in Portsmouth run by cousins plus the one in Dover. Neither appears to have survived the Great Depression.

That’s not a typo in the name. The apostrophe comes after the “s” since there are three Donderos involved (Anna, Maria, and me) in addition to my son-in-law, Andrew Pearson. Christina has a pivotal role of frequently caring for grandson August, to allow Andrew and Anna to work. Andrew, who is the general manager as well as a principal driving force in launching the enterprise, preferred "Dondero" to his own surname, having heard it is a bad idea to give your first business your own name. That way if it flops, as do many new businesses, your name is not albatrossed with a failure. Thanks, Andrew, but our enterprise appears to be off to a successful start, in good part through your own efforts.

The market building, located at 584 No. Milledge Ave, began as a semi-abandoned, subdivided wreck, infested literally with pigeons and roaches, one staggering step above a crack house. But behind the eye-sore boxed-in sun porch, disintegrating cheap paneling, crumbling plaster, and hideously dog-shredded and urine-crusted carpeting lay a choice early 1900s house with 12-foot ceilings, oak and heart-pine floors, and three fireplaces. Maria, the youngest Dondero, who was then a Spanish co-major at UGA, plus four burly Mexican day-laborers known collectively as “Maria’s Marauders” gutted the place in four days, going through there like the proverbial dose of salts and overloading a huge dumpster. That structural catharsis began the morning after we closed on the property. With Andrew as general contractor and with Bona-Fide and other subcontractors’ skilled work (and, needless to say, plentiful dollars) the building was turned back into a beauty, with our deli and market downstairs and residential tenants upstairs. We won the Athens-Clarke Co. Historic Foundation’s outstanding rehabilitation award in 2006. The old residential kitchen, after passing through its war-in-Baghdad phase, was transformed into a licensed commercial kitchen, chock full of “my” toys, including a huge gas stove and convection oven under a massive vent hood powerful enough to suck to their death low-flying birds or high-flipped omelets. We also have the requisite commercial freezer, fridge, stainless steel counters, and the code-required four (count them, four) sinks.

We opened for business in October 2005. It has been fun developing the product line in the market, including our own coffee, “Cobbham Blend”, named for the historic neighborhood where we are located. I worked out the mixture, and it is roasted and blended for us by Jittery Joe’s, a leading Athens roaster. Food products are reasonably gourmet and imported, many from Greece and the Balkans. Perhaps the most outstanding and popular is “Ajvar” (eye’-var), a luscious roasted pepper and sometimes eggplant spread that we carry in several varieties from Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Macedonia. And our German “Kinder” chocolate has its regular paying enthusiasts, in addition to our top non-paying customer, grandson August, who specializes in Kinder Eggs, the neat hollow chocolates containing a clever toy to assemble.

Led by Maria, now a grad student in ceramics, we import selected pottery from Vietnam, Morocco, and from Puebla and Dolores Hidalgo in Mexico. We also carry original work by five Athens potters, including Maria and a UGA professor. We also carry other decoratively useful, and mostly imported, gifts for the dining table, including place mats, wooden bowls, table cloths, and serving implements.

The freshly prepared food and deli items are predominantly from my recipes, which I standardized for volume production with our first two chefs during our training period a year ago. But our various chefs are also encouraged to use their creativity and knowledge in adding to the repertoire. There is a theme for each weekday for the “entrees” and, Athens being Athens, there are always vegetarian options. Monday is Thai day, Tuesday Italian. Wednesday is Asian other than Thai, Thursday is other European or chef’s choice, Friday is Middle Eastern or Indian, and Saturday is miscellaneous appetizers, tapas, and antipasti. We always have freshly made baked goods, sandwiches, homemade soup, and side dishes, including the very popular cold sesame noodles and hummus. Catering for banquets, conferences, and receptions has been busy, especially during the school year. Most of what we provide is international foods, laid out and garnished on huge platters. All this stuff is shown at our website,

As “executive chef”, I have worked on the menu and oversee from a distance, checking with our chefs frequently. Fortunately my day job has flexibility in timing, so that I can do a lot of the work in the evening or weekends, allowing me to get over to Athens occasionally to work in the kitchen when there is a particular need.

This all has been an adventure and, for me, a sort of wish fulfillment. But it has also been a lot of work for the entire family group running and supporting the project, along with our staff. I have a new respect for people who set up their own businesses. And I have some sense of identity with my great-grandfather, who died long before I was born.


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