3-day celebration will mark 100 years for Wholey's

| Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

There's nothing fishy about the success of Wholey's in the Strip District.

Getting and keeping customers is a rather simple matter, says Jim Wholey, president of the store that handles a full run of groceries but is best-known for its seafood.

“The mission is: Give people the best quality at the best prices in a family-friendly atmosphere,” he says.

Whatever the strategy, it would appear to be working. The company that began as the McKees Rocks Butter & Egg Store will celebrate 100 years of business Friday through Sunday at its well-known Strip District store.

Stiltwalkers, a Saturday parade, cooking demonstrations, musicians and bands, and a caricature artist will be featured throughout the three days, adding to the crowd that is always around the market on busy weekends.

In addition, the section of 17th Street between Penn Avenue and Smallman Street will be renamed Wholey Way. Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, says a temporary street sign will be erected while safety officials study whether to make the change permanent.

“It is a thank-you to the city of Pittsburgh for keeping us around all this time,” says Wholey of the celebration. He runs the business with his four brothers. They succeed their grandfather, Robert L. Wholey, who started the business just down the Ohio River, and their father, Robert C. Wholey, who brought it to Pittsburgh.

Officially named Robert Wholey & Co. Inc., the firm still maintains its family touch, says Thelma Tambellini, who has worked for the firm for 34 years and is now assistant store manager.

“It is a great place to work,” she says. “They want you to be who you are, and there's no other place you could go and smile every day.”

Tambellini started as a cashier, moved up through the ranks, even being general manager for a while. She is the namesake of Thelma's Fudge, the candy that is a mainstay at the store.

“It's not an everyday name,” she says with a chuckle.

Wholey's history is not an everyday tale, either.

Jim Wholey lays out the story:

The business began before 1912, when Robert L. established himself with an egg-and-butter route from McKees Rocks to the Sewickley area, selling as he went. The trip, in a horse-drawn carriage, would take a whole day, ending when it was too late to return.

He would spend the night and then return to McKees Rocks on a packet boat the next day.

The Butter & Egg Store opened in 1912 and did well enough to establish itself in McKees Rocks through the Depression and the flood of 1936.

Young Robert C. Wholey (1919-98) grew interested in the business early on and moved it in 1949 to the Pittsburgh Diamond Market as the “Farm to You” store, selling coffee, vegetables, fresh meats — even live chickens. When the city tore down the Diamond Market to make Market Square in 1959, Wholey moved the store to its current site along Penn Avenue.

A change almost as big as the move to the Strip happened in early '60s, Wholey says. The company, which was doing some supply work for other stores, was hauling a good deal of meat from the Delmarva Peninsula on the East Coast. One client asked whether Wholey's would bring back some fish. Then another client asked the same.

Wholey's saw a new market.

Fish grew steadily as a part of the grocery market, he says, and then erupted in the '70s, when a concentration on fitness and health was reflected in the popularity of Jim Fixx's “Complete Book of Running” and all things aerobic.

By the late '70s, he says, Wholey's was hooked on selling fish. Lots of fish.

He says Pittsburgh is a great place to be a big-time fish dealer because of its landlocked nature.

In shore communities, there is a concentration on fish that are common to the area: crabs in the Chesapeake, salmon in the Pacific Northwest, lobsters in Massachusetts.

But because Pittsburgh doesn't have such a category, Wholey's goes after it all.

“Really, the way things are, there is no place you can't be in 24 hours,” he says. “So we can go after fish from everywhere. If it's there, why not bring it in?”

Because of that travel flexibility, he says delivery of fresh fish to the store is a “24/7 operation.”

That selection is part of the reason Wholey's draws its crowds. Fish accounts for 60 percent to 70 percent of its sales, he says. The fish market is half of the store — with all other selections from candy to meat — sharing the other.

It creates the most lively area, with customers pulling off numbers to create a service queue. Fresh steaks, fillets and shellfish lie atop piles of ice down the one side, with the busy fresh-fish clerks filling orders.

Some of the staffers are so talented in guessing the weight of a piece, shopping becomes almost a show. There are times, like the day before Christmas or the weeks when King salmon is being harvested, that the crowd itself is the show.

Right now, Wholey says, the company 6is concentrating on being a fish market and grocery. From 1979 to 2007, he says, the Wholey firm owned a nearby 383,000-square-foot cold-storage building that allowed it to grow, and made money from rental space.

The company sold the building when an offer too good to pass up came in, and the fish brass decided to concentrate on the market and its wholesale side. Wholey currently sees a steady growth to the online business through which Wholey's is able to deliver fish favorites to Yinzers far from home.

It's all a question of the keeping customers satisfied, Wholey says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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