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Schwartz Market going back to the future

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

Donna Stanton and her local produce at Schwartz Market. Photo by Elisa Beck

By Diana Nelson Jones

 

Elisa Beck is the prototype of a green person. Like everyone in the sustainable movement, she wants to save the world.

Her latest project is Schwartz Market on the South Side, which her husband's grandfather started in 1938 and where the clientele and groceries couldn't be more traditional. But with a little rearranging, the shelves have made room for food that is even older school: that akin to what great-grandma used to eat, before the evils of shelf life.

Shelf life is a comfort to grocers, but shelf life depends on preservatives. One of the owners, Donna Stanton, said she worries that the organic food she has been supplying since Aug. 1 won't move fast enough. "My first order [of organic food] was $800, and my husband and I took it out of our savings," said Donna. The wholesale prices of organic and natural foods she is now ordering is double what she pays for other food.

The experiment is working so far, she said, "but I'm not sitting on a lot of product."

She ordered three jars of kimchee and all three were gone in a week. If she orders six jars, will she have six customers for it or will three go bad before the original buyers return? That's a worry.

.On a visit the other day, I found some of my favorite products, ones I have bought at Whole Foods. Most of the produce is local, organic, or both. The rest of the local, natural and organic foods are scattered and noted by neon-colored paper signs. I bought my favorite coffee, a blend of shade-grown organic coffee from Nicaragua, roasted by La Prima in the Strip, and I also bought the last box of Swedish meatball mix that Anne Rost can't find in Houston, to which she retired several years ago. When she visits family back on her native South Side, she stocks up on the mix and on fresh kielbasa at Schwartz Market. I bought the mix for its list of ingredients, which include high fructose corn syrup, calcium propionate (a preservative), MSG and hydrolyzed corn and soy proteins.

"This store is a microcosm of our culture," Elisa said.

It attracts people who have made it to an age where they think organic food is a poppycock obsession of people who have more money than sense and people who hope to make it to that age in this world of corporate non-food and are willing to pay the price.

Elisa is convinced this is one of those when-one-door-closes-another-one-opens moments for Schwartz Market, which has been struggling. Donna Stanton, one of the market's owners, is working on being convinced, bravely going where few ma-and-pa owners have gone - yet.

"This is a remarkable woman," said Elisa

"I'm trying to save my business," said Donna. "There's nothing remarkable about it."

The store began integrating its groceries on Aug. 1, when it threw a party to announce its decision to join the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's "buy fresh buy local" campaign. (Visit www.buylocalpa.org)

"My vision is to have the organic, local and natural foods more abundant and spread out," said Elisa, "for this to be someone's primary shopping place, not just for convenience."

The market, which has been at 1317-1319 E. Carson St. since 1938, still has its original sign painter, Joe Liotta. Every day, on pieces of paper that cover the glass storefront like quilt squares, his blue lettering advertises the specials, from kielbasa made on the premises to turkey breast, from olive or pickle loaf to salad dressings and saltines. He hasn't painted any signs for Stonyfield Farms yogurt yet, but that isn't likely to go on sale.

Mr. Liotta, who was 14 when he began as a delivery boy for the Schwartz Market in Homewood, ended up as the grocery manager at the East Carson Street store before retiring. He has been painting signs since he was that 14-year-old delivery kid and said he hopes to continue painting signs advertising specials as the store makes the leap into the future.

"I am not looking for anything new," he said. "I'm 86 years old and can't change my style, but I'll do whatever I can to help them. I maintain that a freehand-painted sign is more noticeable than a manufactured sign."

Paper as opposed to plastic signs, handmade by a local guy? You can't get any more old-fashioned -- i mean cutting edge --than that.

(See a version of this report in the Aug. 27 Post-Gazette's Food section.)

 

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