Mail-order food venture still keeps its flavor

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Ask Michael Holahan about his childhood in Philadelphia, and mouthwatering recollections pour forth: Tastykakes. Lebanon bologna sandwiches. And lots of candy.

"As a teenager, I worked at a neighborhood pharmacy called Love Pharmacy, and the pharmacist, Tom Brannon, turned me on to Wilbur Buds," Mr. Holahan said of the beloved chocolate drops.

He confesses another indulgence: "I spent every cent of tip money on Zitner Butter Krak eggs for the two to three months they were available around Easter each year."

His entire trip down this gustatory memory lane is fueled by Pennsylvania companies. No wonder he formed the Pennsylvania General Store, a retail/mail-order company devoted to spreading the calories of foods made in-state.

"There's a sort of connective tissue in the foods we eat," Mr. Holahan said. "We're happy to be a part of that."

Before locally sourced food became the movement it now is, Mr. Holahan, 55, opened a box-lunch business in 1987 to bring the foods of Reading Terminal Market to local workers' palates.

The same year, he branched into gift baskets, influenced by a store in Seattle that featured crafts and other items made in Washington state.

His business, renamed Pennsylvania General Store in 1990, no longer sells lunches. Nor is it just a retail outpost; it's a thriving mail-order venture.

Its offerings, in catalogs and at www.pageneralstore.com, are far different from what Mr. Holahan first envisioned: "I wanted Moyer's Ham. I wanted to ship Bauman's Apple Butter and Cope's Dried Sweet Corn."

He also was hooked on the idea of a breakfast basket, including, among other things, stone-ground pancake mix -- which his future wife (and business partner) scoffed at in 1989.

Julie Holahan urged her then-boyfriend to give customers what they wanted -- and, she concluded from requests for Tastykakes and other prepared snacks, what they wanted were baskets offering a gloriously effortless open-and-eat experience. No cooking required.

Granted, the Pennsylvania Breakfast Box remains a company offering -- Mr. Holahan's prerogative, given that he has designed every gift package. Well, all except one. To his annoyance, the top-selling offering after more than 25 years started with his wife: a goodie tray of regionally produced cookies, chocolate pretzels, chocolate-covered Oreos, and nonpareils, selling for $23.99 to $85.99, depending on size.

"I still haven't found a way to beat that," he said good-naturedly.

What he's relieved to have defeated was a serious threat to the company's survival: the 2008 economic meltdown.

Until then, Pennsylvania General Store had enjoyed year-to-year growth of 5 percent to 10 percent. In 2008, sales dropped 20 percent, after the company's best year in 2007.

Vendors were paid late. Consultants were cut loose, and production of the sales catalog was brought in-house.

"We didn't beat the business of Christmas 2007 until last year," Mr. Holahan said from the new 4,000-square-foot headquarters/warehouse. In a sweet bit of irony, it's the former site of Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, now produced by Just Born Inc. in Bethlehem.

Back in growth mode, Pennsylvania General Store is doing about $2 million in annual sales, with a workforce of 15 that more than doubles in the fourth quarter for the holidays.

food - state - businessnews

First Published October 15, 2013 8:00 PM


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