Some small-town grocery stores finding a way to blossom
Ed Christofano owns Youngwood Corner Market, which recently opened in the small Westmoreland County town.
Brothers Leonard, left, and Eugene Labriola in Leonard Labriola's Italian Store in Monroeville.
Debbie Bozek of Hunker shops at the Youngwood Corner Market. The market is close to her home, saving her from traveling to Greensburg or elsewhere to grocery shop. She walks with the aid of a cane and likes the help she receives from the store's staff.
Tania Ciano makes pizzelles in the kitchen at Leonard Labriola's Italian Store in Monroeville.
Becky Carl prepares a cheese order in the deli at Youngwood Corner Market. Ms. Carl starts before the store opens to prepare homemade soup and other hot foods.
Travis Keller puts groceries in customer Debbie Bozek's car after her shopping visit to the Youngwood Corner Market. The market is close to her Hunker home.
Donna Freeman of Youngwood makes a quick visit to shop for condiments at the Youngwood Corner Market. Freeman calls the neighborhood market a "lifesaver" for her.
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Louis Greenwald stood behind the counter at Bell's Market in Braddock, something he has done for nearly half a century.
He barked offers for coffee to anyone who approached the refrigerated case full of meat: "Young lady, do you want a cup of coffee?"
Tuwanna Coward of McKeesport accepted.
"Who comes to the grocery store and gets coffee?" she asked.
She said she was born and raised in Braddock and always shopped at Bell's with her mother. Although she has moved out of town, "we still come shopping here."
" 'Cause you can get it the way you want it," she said, referring to the cut of the meat. "And they're decent people. You don't have to worry about the hustling and the bustling and the rush, rush, rush."
Such small markets are few and far between, but loyal customers say they fill a niche that big-box stores don't -- usually with stellar customer service, hard-to-find products or both.
Bell's has supplied Pittsburghers with meat since before the widespread use of commercial refrigeration. Mr. Greenwald said the original Bell's Market, which has had many owners, opened before 1900 and sold smoked, salted and pickled meat. Now, Bell's supplies meat to families and restaurants. One day last week, Mr. Greenwald noted, an order of sweetbreads was headed to Salt of the Earth in Garfield. Regular customers, like Ms. Coward, come in for weekly or monthly groceries.
Other than the meat, the stock at Bell's changes because Mr. Greenwald is strictly a "price buyer."
"I'll back away from something if it's too expensive," he said.
Parts of the market resemble a very small, cramped Costco, with shelves lined with large cans of tomatoes, Crisco, and pork and beans. A bucket in front of the meat case contains six parsnips. One 25-pound bag of Uncle Ben's parboiled white rice is propped up against cardboard boxes. Its price -- $17.79 -- is scrawled on the bag with a black marker. Handwritten signs are taped to cases and shelves. Receipts, business cards and other scraps of paper line the walls. Freezers opposite the meat counter display signs for sausages, onion rings and chicken wings. Huge boxes of cereal are stacked nearly to the ceiling.
Mr. Greenwald said the displays of the wide array of groceries "cover the dirty walls."
He believes independent grocers in the Pittsburgh area didn't fade away because the steel mills did but because children didn't want to carry on their parents' businesses.
Mr. Greenwald's stepson, Walter Andrews, however, has worked at Bell's for 22 years. He handles the retail operation and plans to take it over someday, although that could be awhile.
"As long as he can breathe, he'll be here," Mr. Andrews said of his stepfather.
Despite Mr. Greenwald's assertion, some family-run markets remain in the region, such as Leonard Labriola's Italian Stores, now operated by a third generation of Labriolas.
The first Labriola's opened on Larimer Avenue in East Liberty in 1929. That location closed and moved to Penn Hills in 1969, said Leonard Labriola, who owns the markets with his siblings. The markets now have four locations: Marshall, run by Mr. Labriola's son, also named Leonard; Penn Hills, run by Rose Labriola; Aspinwall, run by Camille Miksic; and Monroeville, run by Eugene Labriola.
"Mom and Dad gave me one brother and two sisters, and without them there wouldn't be any Labriola's," Leonard Labriola said, noting that it's challenging to open stores and pass them down through three generations.
"I've been blessed with great kids and a great family and a wonderful business," he said.
Labriola's sells Italian staples -- pasta, olive oil, vinegar, canned tomatoes -- as well as prepared foods, deli meats and limited produce.
"I believe that Italian foods will always maintain their attraction," Mr. Labriola said.
New to neighborhood
While Bell's and Labriola's have been serving Western Pennsylvanians for decades, Youngwood Corner Market has been providing staples to residents of that small borough for less than six months.
Ed Christofano, the market's owner, said he wanted to open a small deli and store to serve a need in Youngwood: the borough has no grocery store, and the nearest Walmart is in Greensburg.
Mr. Christofano said the small community has "embraced" the market, noting customers "go crazy" for the simple luxury of being able to pick up a gallon of milk and a few things for dinner on the way home from work.
Youngwood Corner Market also offers free delivery, which Mr. Christofano said is "a way to go back to a simpler time."
He said the market averages 15 to 20 deliveries a day to people of all ages -- working parents, elderly people and single mothers.
The immaculate market includes a small deli case with meats, cheeses and prepared salads and a corner of produce. Canned goods are lined neatly on shelves, labels facing forward, perfectly centered. Small sections of office supplies, medicine and pet food round out the grocery-store staples. Customers stream in and out steadily, most recognized by name by the staff.
When the market first opened, it was closed on Sundays, but Mr. Christofano said customers expressed an interest in Sunday hours. Now, the market is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.
He also has added items based on customer demand, including more produce and a wider variety of lunch meats.
"You either react to the customers and what they want, or you go out of business," he said.
Wild Purveyors, a new market in Lawrenceville, caters to a very specific type of eater. The store, which started as an Internet-based wholesale business that sold directly to restaurants, opened on Butler Street in late August and offers seasonal produce, wild edibles, foraged mushrooms and local cheeses and meats. The cheese is all certified organic, and the meats are free of hormones and antibiotics and are from animals that are raised ethically, said Cavan Patterson, who owns Wild Purveyors with his brother, Tom.
Cavan Patterson said the store is a place where locals can stop to pick up a few things they need to make dinner, but it largely caters to people who are looking for a "secret ingredient" -- special, hard-to-find foods, such as foraged morels and chanterelles.
And for a person with a discerning palate -- chef or home cook -- that's important.
Leonard Labriola knows that. His parents, who figured out the key to owning a successful market more than 80 years ago, told him: "Always sell the best products because you'll have [fewer] complaints."
First Published January 24, 2013 12:00 am