Basket Case: Local food products' longstanding champion

story by Courtney Sexton | photo by Albert YeeWhen you think of local food, fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat probably come to mind first. But what about the family-run, small scale packaged food businesses that call Philadelphia home? For 25 years, The Pennsylvania General Store at the Reading Terminal Market has been the one-stop shop for buying these regional treats.

Store founder Mike Holahan’s foray into selling local foods was inspired by a family picnic. “I was heading to a football game with my father and I had packed two box lunches using food from different vendors around the market,” says Holahan. “That was when the idea was born to deliver box lunches to offices in the area.”

In June 1987, he hand-delivered his first box lunch to a law firm. The lunches were made with foodstuffs from various market vendors. “We were really doing locally produced lunches before we even thought of it as that,” he says. “I was just using the resources that were here.”

That Christmas, with the help of his then-girlfriend Julie (now wife and business partner), Holahan added gift baskets filled with local specialty items, like jams and honey, to his box lunch operation. “That was when we came up with the idea to sell local products,” he says. “This was the 80s, and no one really had a sense of what that meant [to source locally].”

Soon, Holahan was spending Sundays visiting small farmers markets and independent grocery stores to find locally made products. Eventually, the gift basket and mail order business grew so large that Holahan sold the boxed lunch venture and opened a retail outlet at the Reading Terminal.

Twenty-five years later, the store is still a go-to source for goods made in the Philadelphia region. The store sells well-known treats like Tastycakes and Peanut Chews, but their shelves also stock Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies and an impressive variety of local handmade and bar chocolates. While the Internet has given people better access to these products, Holahan, who’s also a two-time president of the merchant’s board at the Reading Terminal, says that the store’s location has been critical to the business’ success.

“We survived because of the people who supported us,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s always about relationships. A place where you feel like you’re in relationships with people is where you want to be. And that’s why Reading Terminal Market is different. This is the life I’ve chosen.”­

Pennsylvania General Store, 51 N. 12th St. (inside the Reading Terminal Market),