Five years ago, the little food market on Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill changed hands.
John Ruggieri had been in the grocery business since he was a 12-year-old boy and decided to retire in his mid-50s rather than die on the job as his father had. He found capable buyers in Joya Burkholder and James Devers (above).
The business partners of the newly named Food Shoppe are celebrating their fifth anniversary in a business that's tough enough when it's on the beaten path. This one, several blocks from the Murray-Forbes corridors, shares a block with a dry cleaner and a police and fire station.
This week through Saturday, the Food Shoppe offers lunch specials, and tonight is the anniversary party, with a special 5-7p cook-out and half-priced grilled items. Turner Dairy will be giving tea samples, Nicky D will be making pizzelles and Gary Langer, the man behind Uncle Gary’s Peppers, will trot out his array of items for the public to sample.
When I reported on the store’s transition in 2008, the storefront, which is set way back off the sidewalk, did not have cafe tables out front. These tables have filled up with lunch customers since the new owners added them for outdoor lunch grills.
Joya said the Food Shoppe has expanded its customer base in large part by offering more prepared foods such as soups and entrees made in the store. “Over half our business is prepared foods,” she said.
You can still find the can-and-box staples that include canned peaches, ketchup, toilet paper and garbage bags. But the attractions clearly are the deli counter and prepared food section. Unlike in many small markets, you can find shallots, leeks, fresh ginger root, asparagus and blueberries in this one.
Asked if they would do it again if they had known what they know 5 years ago, they paused and laughed. “I would,” said James, “and maybe she wouldn’t.”
“It’s just such a complicated beast,” Joya said, describing the juggling act of ordering, baking, cooking, keeping inventory moving without running out, keeping fresh items fresh, marketing prepared items for fast sales and scheduling catering jobs.
“We were lucky to make it through 2008” and the subsequent economic scare, James said. “We have grown, but there are peaks and valleys” with seasonal upticks for Jewish and Christian holidays and the seasonal vagaries of produce availability.
“It took us at least two years” to get into the rhythm, Joya said.
The store’s as pretty as it was when John Ruggieri ran it, without the beautiful Middle Eastern carpet. It stocks baked goods from Prantl’s right by the cash register. There’s a pizza counter where the pies are made on site. The produce is fit for a photo shoot.
Some reconfigurations of the old store have reduced the aisle space, including several indoor tables.
The Food Shoppe’s audience is largely affluent residents who live nearby, but the owners see a number of people who ware working in the neighborhood — electricians, plumbers and gardeners — for lunch. It’s the only place within blocks where you can get a prepared meal.
“But we hear people say that they’ve lived here for several years and didn’t know we were here,” Joya said. “I think a lot of people who do know don’t know what we have. We’re not a dinky little store.”
The secret to their five years and counting? “Hustle and versatility,” she said. “That’s what has kept us going.”