Food Column: Three generations have helped Wholey's thrive as it turns 100


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What's it take for a family business to survive and even prosper for 100 years?

Jim Wholey, who heads the Pittsburgh staple Wholey's, says it's "the Pittsburgh work ethic."

The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this weekend with a festival at its Strip District store.

Modern-day Pittsburghers typically associate Wholey's with fish -- especially the famed "Wholey Whiting" -- but that's not where the company got its beginnings.

Wholey's 100th anniversary celebration

Times: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Dates:Friday through Sunday

Location: Wholey's, 1711 Penn Ave., Strip District

Featuring: Live music, magic acts, stilt walkers, balloon art, face painters, contests, free samples and cooking demos. Through Saturday, stop by the store to donate to the Children's Institute in one of two ways: Put a donation in the Rachel the Pig bronze piggy bank in the front of the store or pay $1 for a chance to guess how many trout are swimming in the store's giant fish tank. (Closest guesser gets a Wholey's gift card.) Wholey's will match the proceeds from the fish tank and the piggy bank.

Special events:

• Noon Saturday: "Celebrate the Strip" parade

• 1 p.m. Saturday: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will issue a proclamation renaming 17th Street "Wholey Way."

• 2 p.m. Sunday: Presentation to the Children's Institute.

Wholey's started in 1912 as a McKees Rocks store selling mainly butter and eggs. In the early years, the store also sold poultry (live poultry, no less), meats, sausages and coffees. Robert C. Wholey, son of founder Robert L. Wholey, also sold Christmas trees and had fresh fruit and vegetable stands in the region.

"My father was an entrepreneur, and we were raised with that entrepreneurial spirit," Jim Wholey said, adding that the company has survived some lean times. The St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 pretty much wiped out a lot of Pittsburgh-area businesses, including Wholey's, which was still in McKees Rocks at the time. But "you forget the hardships and remember the good times," Mr. Wholey said.

In 1948, Robert C. Wholey returned from World War II and opened the Robert Wholey Company Poultry Market in Downtown's Diamond Market. When Diamond Market was razed in 1959 to create Market Square, the business moved to its present location in the Strip District. Fresh fish didn't come along until 1960, after the move.

In 1961, the store mobilized a fleet of delivery trucks that would deliver fresh fish and meats right to your door. The trucks still operate today, although the fastest-growing sector of the business is online. Through Web orders, the store ships fresh items all over the country -- including such rarities as alligator, rabbit and turtle meat.

Since 1980, the company has also operated a cold storage facility in Cranberry.

Jim Wholey is in the third generation to run the business. Asked when he started working there, he couldn't even produce an answer. He just grew up working. "Even in grade school, I'd go in to work with my dad."

He has eight siblings; three of his siblings are co-owners with him, and some fourth-generation family members in their late teens and early 20s are beginning to get involved in the business.

Mr. Wholey says his mom, Lois M. Wholey, has 26 grandkids, any of whom are welcome to come into the business if they want to do so.

Mr. Wholey cites the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh as one of the reasons the family business still is prospering. Staff members at the institute are helping the family to sort out issues, such as succession planning and mentoring.

Meanwhile, as the business moves forward, it doesn't forget its roots. Mr. Wholey says his mom, who served as an ad copywriter for Wholey's under the pseudonym "Frances Fish," now writes tweets for the more computer-savvy generation to put on Twitter. Her husband, Robert C. Wholey, died in 1998, but she and some of her children and grandchildren represent three generations working together, carrying the business into its second century.


Festivals

Mother Earth News Fair: Workshops on organic gardening, real food, renewable energy, small-scale livestock, green building and remodeling, and other sustainable-lifestyle topics. Keynote speakers include Dr. Temple Grandin, possibly the most famous autistic person in the country, speaking on how animals think and feel and how to design environments that increase their welfare. Noon to 7 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at Seven Springs Mountain Resort. $30 for the weekend or $15 for a single-day pass in advance; $5 extra at the gate; free for youth ages 17 and under. motherearthnewsfair.com.

Romanian Food Festival: Tripe sour soup, polenta with cheese and cream, chicken kebabs, grape must, beer, sambuca-based soda, walnut rolls, apple strudel and other delicacies of Romanian origin. 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 12:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday at St. Andrew Romanian Orthodox Church, McKees Rocks. standrewpitt.org.

Taste of Pine: Food and drinks from restaurants and businesses in Pine, plus music, wine tastings, and silent and ticket auctions. 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at Pine Community Center. $40 per person or two tickets for $75 (ages 21 and over only); benefits Pine Community Parks. 724-625-1636.

Meals

Breakfast, lunch, dinner and a breakfast that might as well be lunch or dinner:

KDKA Spaghetti Breakfast: Larry Richert and John Shumway, hosts of the KDKA Radio morning news, emcee this event with a breakfast of penne pasta, sausage and bread, plus live music by Jimmy Sapienza. The Little Sisters of the Poor, the favorite charity of event founder the late John Cigna, will collect money and canned food. 5 to 9 a.m. Friday at the Heinz Hall Garden Plaza, Downtown.

Pancake Breakfast: Benefits Spina Bifida Association of Western Pennsylvania's FireFly Camps and Retreats programs. 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday at Cranberry Community United Presbyterian Church, 2662 Rochester Road. $7 per person. Reservations suggested but not required. Information: 724-934-9600 or sbawp.org.

Farm Fresh Lunch Lesson: Demo on growing, preparing and consuming locally grown produce; includes lunch. Noon Friday at Pittsburgh Public Market, Strip District. Limited to 30 people; register ahead by e-mailing events@pittsburghpublicmarket.org.

Dinner Under the Tent: Latin tapas theme -- crab, corn and poblanos with mango, lime mojo and fried plantain; greens with beets, goat cheese and tangerine vinaigrette; pork tenderloin with pecan chili crust and more. 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at Whole Foods, East Liberty. BYOB. Reservations: 412-441-7960, ext. 215.

Classes

"Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!": Hour-long lesson on making and kneading pizza dough and creating a signature sauce; bring along two containers to take home your dough and sauce. 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at Sweetwater Center for the Arts, Sewickley. $65. Register ahead: sweetwaterartcenter.org (click "Classes").

Organic Orchard: Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture hosts a Master Class on "Fall in the Organic Orchard" from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 29 at Kretschmann Organic Farm in Rochester, Beaver County. $10 for PASA members; $15 for nonmembers. Preregistration required: 412-365-2985 or e-mail leah@pasafarming.org.

food - foodcolumn

Rebecca Sodergren: pgfoodevents@hotmail.com. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM


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