Diane Mastrull: Phila. mail-order firm ships a taste of home

Posted: October 08, 2013

Ask Michael Holahan about his childhood in Overbrook, 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," 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," Holahan said. "We're happy to be a part of that."

Before locally sourced food became the movement it now is, and long before the August launch of the volunteer effort PHL Made to draw consumer attention to what is still made in the city, Holahan, 55, opened a box-lunch business in 1987 to bring the foods of Reading Terminal Market to local workers' palates.

The same year, Holahan 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 (PGS) in 1990, no longer sells lunches. Nor is it just a retail outpost; it's a thriving mail-order venture that in August moved from Manayunk to more spacious quarters in Feltonville to better accommodate growth.

Its offerings, in catalogs and at www.pageneralstore.com, are far different from what 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 PGS offering - Michael 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 Julie: a goodie tray of Pennsylvania-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, PGS 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," Michael Holahan said last week from the new 4,000-square-foot headquarters/warehouse on West Wyoming Avenue, just off Rising Sun. 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, PGS is doing about $2 million in annual sales, with a workforce of 15 that more than doubles in the fourth quarter for the holidays. (Plans are to open a holiday shop at 8518 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill by Oct. 25.)

The move to a building owned by Lore's Chocolates, one of the candy manufacturers whose products help fill PGS baskets, was just the latest bit of flexibility required of the Holahans over the years - including dealing with competition from Amazon.com and other online retailers.

From the time they decided in 1992 that they needed more space than their corner in Reading Terminal Market, the Holahans have worked from a variety of warehouses. But an opportunity in June underscored the need for the extra room and easier truck access in Feltonville, Michael Holahan said.

Another supplier, Weaver's-Kutztown Bologna Co., asked them to handle its mail-order business, in addition to including its bologna and beef sticks in Pennsylvania General Store gift packs. Weaver's was bought in 2005 by Godshall's Quality Meats Inc. in Telford, whose products PGS is featuring, too.

Weaver's was handling its own mail orders, which required considerable effort when the company was swamped with holiday wholesale orders, said Donna Palm, a 17-year Weaver's employee in sales and customer service.

"A lot of the mail-order customers we had in the past had grown up in this area and had moved out of state and just wanted a taste of home," Palm said. "Pennsylvania General Store has been very generous in taking over."

Michael Holahan knows well the business of geographically oriented cravings.

"It's a language," he said, "that doesn't go away."


A NEW PGS OFFERING

What: PHL Made Gift Crate, $45.99

Contents: Candy, hot chocolate, granola, and cookies by local vendors.

Charitable side: A portion of the proceeds will go to PHL Made, a volunteer group promoting local brands.

Cofounder Danielle Cohn's reaction: "It's great to have partners such as the Pennsylvania General Store jump on board . . . and help locally made products reach a much wider audience than any could on their own."


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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