Pennsylvania General Store owner Michael Holahan. (Photo by Jeremy Jones)

Pennsylvania General Store owner Michael Holahan. (Photo by Jeremy Jones)

by Jeremy Jones

Though not a new sales concept, “nostalgia marketing” was first officially coined as an advertising strategy somewhere in the corridors of Madison Avenue in the 1980s. It’s aimed at engaging the consumer with the power of the past; linking a service or product to the good old days.

When you visit Pennsylvania General Store at 8607 Germantown Ave., all your senses “come home.” as you are surrounded by gift baskets and goodies from the towns and farms of Pennsylvania, and the aroma of fresh baked cookies, lavender and chocolate take you back in time. You could very well be spending a penny on licorice drops at Nels Oleson’s general store in Walnut Grove.

That said, harnessing the magical power of the past was not in 28-year-old Michael Holahan’s original marketing plan, let alone his thinking. He was driven by curiosity, entrepreneurial instinct and prospects for the future. The nostalgia factor that ultimately became a huge piece of the Pennsylvania General Store marketing pie is a result of listening and giving customers what they want.

It all started with an idea that came to Holahan while on a trip to Washington State in 1986. He visited a store called Made in Washington, where the inventory was provided exclusively by local vendors and growers.

“I became interested in selling the sort of small value-added products like jams, honey, maple syrup and pancake mix that are made in Pennsylvania,” said Holahan.

While that idea was still percolating, in June of ’87 Holahan started a small boxed-lunch business in Reading Terminal Market, creating combinations of foods available at the market and delivering them to business lunches around the city.

“I proudly call myself a kid from West Philly who grew up eating Tastykakes,” said Holahan “So, when I started out at the Market and saw other merchants bringing in their stuff, it was much to my surprise that the state I lived in was a huge agricultural state. I thought maybe I should build a store around representing the diversity of food products in Pennsylvania.”

There was no Internet at the time, so researching sources meant getting in the car and driving to them with his girlfriend, Julie, who is now his wife and business partner.

“Julie would go with me on all these misadventures,” said Holahan. “We’d drive to Lancaster and that whole area, go to local stores and farmers markets and look for specialty products.”

After buying one of whatever interested him, Holahan would try it and then spend hours on the phone with Directory Assistance to get phone numbers for remotely located purveyors unique to Pennsylvania, like Bauman’s Apple Butter in Sassamansville.

Six months after starting the boxed-lunch business, the Holahans were ready to sell festively sumptuous holiday gift baskets filled with specialty foods that were purely Pennsylvania.

Ironically what the kid from West Philly learned quickly was as much as folks appreciated the “gourmet” treatment, a vast majority requested Tastykakes and chocolate pretzels be part of the package. Purely Pennsylvania was great but a little bit of home meant more; nostalgia marketing landed in Holahan’s lap – in a basket.

Now, 28 years later, Pennsylvania General Store carries locally made foods from over 50 small producers of specialty foods and crafts. Even the coffee is made locally by another old- time favorite, Horn & Hardart.

A sampler:

Hope’s Country Fresh Cookies – Pennsylvania General Store is one of a select few retail stores to carry Hope’s cookies. They are baked on- site in the kitchen at the store.

Honey – all the honey is made by Bumbleberry Farms, located in the foothills of Pennsylvania ’s Laurel Mountains.

Lavender – Shelves and shelves of fresh lavender and lavender products from a gentleman’s farm in Mechanicsburg.

Candy – Among the assortments: Ashers, Lores, Tradestone, Eclat (try a beer truffle by Victory Brewing Co., made with HopDevil IPA). And life in Pennsylvania isn’t life without Wilbur Buds.

City Charms – Designed in Reading, these sterling silver charms are Pandora-friendly and include Old North Church, the Liberty Bell, a Philly pretzel and LOVE from LOVE Park. Worth noting is a portion of their profits are donated to the Schreiber Pediatric Center of Lancaster County.

Coal Region Rugs – Colorful hand woven, machine washable area rugs made from leftover fabrics from other mills. McAdoo.

Nora Spillane is manager of the Chestnut Hill Pennsylvania General Store, which opened in October, 2014. She has worked for the Holahans for three years and most enjoys helping customers create custom gift baskets, which are especially popular during the holiday season.

“Some items in our gift baskets might not speak to the customer, so we walk around the shop together and collect a variety of things,” said Spillane. “What I love is getting their story, like who it is for, why certain items mean a lot to them or it may be their mom’s favorite candy.”

Learning what means a lot to his customers isn’t a marketing plan for Holahan, it’s a way of valuing their stories and the memories that take us home.