by Lou Mancinelli
Almost three decades ago Pennsylvania General Store owner Michael Holahan, who grew up in the city’s Overbrook section, worked at Reading Terminal Market in Center City and made boxed lunches for customers, grabbing food from different shops in the market — a pasta salad from a place where he worked, a cannoli from another shop, a turkey sandwich from the deli and some fresh fruit.
This mixed-bag dining turned out to be the concept on which he would base the Pennsylvania General Store, which he opened in 1987 and years later develop into more than a $2 million-a-year business. Today, the shop still exists in its original location. A second location opened this October at 8607 Germantown Ave. in the former Metropolitan Bakery location.
“Coming to Chestnut Hill was an opportunity to build a business again somewhere special,” said Holahan, 56, an Abington resident, who runs the business with his wife Julie. During last year’s Christmas shopping season they tried a pop-up shop at 8518 Germantown Ave., and they were pleased with the results.
Julie handles the operations while Michael manages the marketing aspect of the business. He makes the orders happen, and she makes sure the orders get filled. If years ago Holahan went with his gut and didn’t listen to his wife, he jokes that he’d be out of business. He envisioned the store as a boutique venture that would focus on specialty items such as pumpkin butter and maple syrup; it was the era of gourmet cooking, he believed.
So they rented a space in the historic Reading Terminal Market that had been vacant since 1958. “We sell local goods,” Holahan wrote on a sign he put out front. “We ship local goods.” He remembers many of his first customers asking if they shipped Tastykakes. When he decided to sell gourmet giftbaskets that Christmas, customers indicated they wanted local goods instead, less-then-gourmet items such as Tastykakes, chocolate covered pretzels and scrapple. “I had no idea there was even such a thing as a chocolate covered pretzel,” Holahan said.
The first year, working with the help of his then-girlfriend, now-wife, they dipped pretzels and potato chips into chocolate on their own. But when orders grew too big, 20 orders with two pounds of chocolate covered chips in each, they needed a solution. They soon discovered Asher’s Chocolates, a local company.
For years the Holahans rented a new warehouse space each holiday season to fill orders, but in 2001 his pregnant wife she told him “I love you, but if you make me move out of another damn warehouse, I’ll beat you down.”
He listened. They rented a space at 12th and Callowhill until 2005, when they moved into a Manayunk warehouse. Last year they moved into the former Goldenberg Peanut Chew factory in Feltonville, where they are surrounded by numerous candy makers. Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s history is rich with chocolate and candy makers: Tastykake, Hershey’s, WilburBuds and more.
In the mid-’90s with the help of a friend, the Holahans were able to launch an online operation, which accounts for nearly half of the business.
With the retail location, Holahan can offer some specialty craft products like pumpkin butter or chef’s salt, but it is the gift baskets filled with Philadelphia area products that have carried the business. “It took me a couple years to see the wisdom of doing the Tastykake package,” Holahan said.
When a convention comes to town. they might sell thousands of orders of chocolate covered pretzels to organizers. Philly.com even named Pennsylvania General Store’s Chocolate Pretzel Deluxe Box one of “5 Great Gifts for a Thanksgiving Host.”
For the kid from Philly away at college or a family member in California or Texas, sending sea salt caramel sauce makes less of an emotional connection than Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels or a package of butterscotch krimpets. Their gift baskets filled with local items are like a familiar piece of home.
“What I want to sell,” Michael said, “and what the customer wants to buy are not always the same thing.”