By Kiran Sury
Special to Brooklyn Eagle
First the sound: the endless tapping as red-feathered hens peck at their cornmeal feed, the rustle of rabbits moving through the straw, the grating squawk of a guinea hen. Then the smell: the sharp tang of ammonia shrivels the nose, where it mixes with the scent of sweat and just a hint of blood. The animals may be reminiscent of a farm in upstate New York, but don’t be fooled. La Pera Bros. Poultry, one of about 80 live poultry markets in the city, is right at the intersection of Borough Park, Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights in southwest Brooklyn.
Wearing double flannel shirts and pants that are too white to be working with animals, Carlo Formisano manages the business from behind a bank teller-esque plastic booth as he has done for the past 26 years. He takes customer orders speedily, and steps out frequently to direct other workers and occasionally grab a chicken himself. You want duck instead? No problem. Something more exotic, like a partridge? It’s right between the pigeons and the quails. Even goats are kept in a pen in the back. But it is not just the animal selection or the freshness of the meat that make La Pera a success: It’s Formisano’s personal touch that keeps customers coming back.
Formisano credits his success to three things. “I’m honest. I don’t rob from nobody. And I’m honest,” he said.
Or perhaps it’s his unusual manner of referring to all of his customers as “young lady” or “young man” regardless of age. Formisano picked up the habit from his father, who owned a fish market in Bed-Stuy. At first, he didn’t understand why his father did it. “I said ‘Dad, the woman is older than you. How can you keep calling her young lady?’” he said. But over the years he grew to appreciate his father’s custom.
“It just makes people feel good. And that’s what you’re here for. You’re not only here to take their money,” said Formisano. “This way they come back.”
The strategy seems to work, as does another habit that seems out of place amongst the animals. Formisano gives lollipops to children whose parents drag them along to do the grocery shopping, an idea he borrowed from previous owner Charlie La Pera to retain customers. It worked, perhaps a little too well.
“I got two generations coming in here that want lollipops,” said Formisano. “They’re 25 years old, they’ve got kids of their own, and they want a lollipop. That’s what happens.”
Formisano never intended to work in a meat market. He went to Kingsborough Community College for two years, but soon decided that cubicles weren’t for him. “I liked people and I wasn’t a person that could sit down in an office,” he said.
When his father fell ill, Formisano took over the family fish market. It was a natural fit. His older sister, Marie Formisano, a Moody’s investment analyst, said that the willingness to help was typical of him. “When he was very little I took care of him. Now he takes care of me,” she said.
Eventually the market became too much to handle, so Formisano shut it down. “They broke in one too many times and I closed it up,” he said. After two years working in a butcher shop, during which he regularly bought chicken at La Pera, he was offered a job. He brought with him years of experience and a simple maxim for dealing with customers that his father taught him: “treat them good, they’ll be good to you.”
The orders for the birds come quickly. Hispanic and Yemeni workers fearlessly reach into the cages and grab birds by the feet. They initially resist, but then hang limply like death row inmates who have accepted their fate. Processing is fast and impersonal: The birds are killed with one cut to the neck, then left upside down for their blood to drain. Next comes a hot water scalder to soften them up, then the defeatherer. The carcasses come to a rest in the next room, where skilled hands chop off beaks and feet, rip out giblets, and peel off skins as you might peel an orange.
Formisano has learned to cater to the different immigrant communities that make up the neighborhood. Different cultures prefer different breeds of chicken: Indians like grey, Arabs like white, Asians like black, while all have a penchant for red. Asians often like the head and feet to remain attached, while Indians want everything removed. If customers request halal meat, a Muslim worker is available to prepare the animals according to Islamic law. There are no Jewish employees for a kosher option, though Formisano mentions that rabbis are welcome to come in and prepare their purchases themselves if they wish.
“The word I don’t use is slaughter,” said Formisano. Whatever the procedure is called, the birds go from alive to someone’s dinner in about 15 minutes. A sense of humor is as crucial as a sharp knife, and workers joke with each other in Spanish as they rinse blood off the floor. Brooklyn’s freshest chicken is not for the squeamish.
Formisano keeps things running smoothly. Alberto Dominguez, a butcher in the back room who speaks limited English, calls him a “beautiful manager.” Sal Saeed, another worker, is more direct: “Carlo is one of the best guys I’ve worked with,” he said.
A newspaper clipping taped to the wall proclaims Formisano the Poultry Professor. “What can I say,” he said. “I know a lot about chicken.”
Kiran Sury is a NYC native and freelance writer who graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in journalism. Kiran also studied science in college, and will attend medical school full time starting this summer.