With Vincent Aitoro’s death Sunday at age 88, plenty of mementos remain of his tenure running Aitoro. While paying homage to the company his fatherbuilt up, Tony is most in his element today knocking down the walls for what is possible in the kitchens of tomorrow — and knocking down walls to free space on his showroom for customers to try out those innovations.
Aitoro’s efforts won him last month an award from the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Fairfield County for the best retail showroom in the region, at Aitoro’s sole store at 401 Westport Ave. in Norwalk. Started in 1948 as a variety store after his grandfather, father and two uncles lost jobs with a hat company, Vincent Aitoro would stumble onto the appliance business after a man drove up in a pickup truck with a then-newfangled wringer washer in the back, featuring a tub with a mounted, mechanized wringer to squeeze water from clothes fed into it by hand.
“He said, ‘This is going to be the next big thing,’” Aitoro recalled. “My father said, ‘I have no money — I can’t afford to pay for it.’ The guy says, ‘Look, just leave it on the sidewalk.’ … My father sells it, he calls the guy, and he brings two this time, one for the sidewalk and one for the back. And that was our first (appliance) inventory.”
Originally located on Ely Avenue in South Norwalk, the store moved to Westport Avenue in 1963 despite being told sales would die due to a dearth of businesses on the corridor at the time. The next thing the Aitoro family knew, Stew Leonard Sr. had bought the property just down the street for the dairy store that would eventually mushroom into a destination grocery market, and people started coming to Westport Avenue in droves.
‘I want whatever’s in there’
From wringer washers to the pioneering video game Pong to steam ovens today that cook food in a fog to maintain moisture, Aitoro has striven to stock the latest equipment available whatever the era. While Amazon and other dot-coms have taken a big bite out of its electronics sales, the company has thrived with its appliances, whether for individual homeowners or for commercial builders looking to stock housing developments.
Aitoro belongs to a buying cooperative with hundreds of other independent dealers to negotiate lower prices than it could on its own. Despite a growing economy and the struggles of department stores, many independents have been sold or gone out of business the past several years.
Aitoro believes the store he runs today with his brother Vinny and cousin David has succeeded because of a true appreciation for the craftsmanship still available from many manufacturers, some at price points beyond the range of many households. He confesses to be an appliance junkie — recalling a visit to a New Orleans restaurant, he snuck a peek into the kitchen, spotting a new piece of equipment that heats a water bath to cook plastic-sealed meat to a precise temperature.
“I said, ‘I’ll have whatever’s in that,’” Aitoro recalls saying. “The waiter says, ‘You didn’t even look at the menu.’ I said, ‘I don’t care … I want whatever’s in there.’
“It was the best pork chop I’ve ever had in my life,” he added. “That is the next (big) thing in our industry.”
After taking time this week to reflect on his father’s life and legacy, Aitoro will be back in the shop and eager to clear space for the next installment of new equipment.
“I just gutted four kitchens after that (HBRA) award,” Aitoro said. “I don’t stop.”
Includes prior reporting by Leslie Lake.
Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman