Nicetown-Tioga: Local Businesses

Sweeney Brown, owner of Wayne & Berkley II, cuts fresh fish into filets.]

Sweeney Brown, owner of Wayne & Berkley II, cuts fresh fish into filets.

Most people need nothing more than snacks, soda and cigarettes from their local corner grocery store. They don’t expect to find rows of fish laid out on mounds of ice, with pairs of beady round eyes peering through the glass display case.

That is exactly what one will find at Wayne & Berkley II, though, a seemingly normal storefront on the edge of the Nicetown and Tioga neighborhood that specializes in both fresh and prepared seafood.

Named after its original location at Wayne Avenue and Berkley Street in Germantown, this particular store has been around for close to 30 years. Sweeney Brown has owned the store for two of those years.

When Wayne and Berkley II was founded, Nicetown and Tioga were booming industrial areas of the city. The store is located across Hunting Park Avenue from the former Budd Company factory site, where car parts were manufactured. Brown said that when the factory was open, workers would cross the street to have fresh fish for lunch every day.

Like so many other once-industrial parts of the city, though, the factories closed, families fled, and the local businesses were left to fend for themselves.

Nowadays, although Wayne & Berkley II sees considerably less business than when the factories were open, the store remains sustainable. “I wouldn’t say it’s real busy here,” said Brown as he scaled trout, cut off their heads, and sliced them into filets. Brown used the word “steady” to describe his customer flow. Although summer is fast approaching, Brown said that business remains about the same year-round.

The store sells both fresh fish and prepared foods. These products, Brown said, come from suppliers and wholesalers from as far away as Costa Rica, though some of them are local.

Customers come from all over as well, according to Brown, though many are from the neighborhood. “It’s definitely still a local business,” Brown said. He has three full-time employees working for him, with some part-time help from the neighborhood on other days. While it may not be the hot spot it was during the age of industry, Wayne & Berkeley II remains a unique and appreciated institution in the community.

Yong Han, co-owner of Diamond Venango Hardware.

A few blocks down the street is another corner store with unlikely products inside. Venango Hardware, located at 1701 W. Venango St., is an important staple for people in the neighborhood, especially those in need of home improvement.

Yong and Mimi Han, who came to Philadelphia from Korea in the late 1970s, have owned the store for almost 20 years. The building, according to Mrs. Han, is over 70 years old, though she said that the building has had no issues so far.

Like the seafood store, the Hans’ hardware store has seen busier days. Mrs. Han blames the lack of thoroughfare through the neighborhood for the slow business. “Not many people drive through here,” she said. “because there aren’t other stores around.”

The Hans said people go to their store solely out of convenience. “They get small things here,” Mr. Han said. “For big things, they go to Home Depot.”

However, Venango Hardware sells some items that won’t be found in the expansive aisles of Home Depot. Near the cash register, the Hans sell different-scented incenses. Next to the incense stand is a rack of CDs, mostly hip-hop and Reggae music, wgucg are also for sale.

Mrs. Han admits that the neighborhood isn’t always the best. “Some of the people who come in here are bad,” she said. Still, the Hans are happy with the business they have started in the community and the familiar faces they see walk through their doors. The Hans now have children who have grown up in Philadelphia, and they say they aren’t planning on going anywhere.

“We want to work five more years. Then we can retire,” Mrs. Han said, smiling.

Not all local business owners come from as far away as the Hans. Jamal O’Malley runs his own sandwich shop right across the street from the house he grew up in.

Jamal O'Malley, owner of O'Malley's Sandwich Shop, makes a sandwich.

O’Malley’s, located at 3327 N. 22nd St., almost seems out of place, its bright lights from inside and fresh paint on the outside standing out from some of the other run-down, unkempt structures around it. Inside, O’Malley keeps the place even more spotless.

O’Malley worked in this location since he was nine. Back then, it was a typical corner grocery store. O’Malley worked in the store until he was 17, and it was there that he says he learned all he knew about business, from paying off bills to balancing a checkbook and so on.

When the store owner left the neighborhood in 1994, O’Malley jumped on the opportunity to turn the store into his own business. Using his own money and without any loans, it took almost 12 years of work and planning before O’Malley finally turned the store into his own.

When the shop opened three years ago, O’Malley had to hit the ground running. “The first sandwich I made was the first sandwich I sold,” he said. “The customers enjoyed it, so I think it was successful.”

Nowadays, O’Malley says, he has plenty of neighborhood support. “My business is all word-of-mouth now,” he says. He is also proud of what he calls “a 99 percent retention rate.” “Once customers have a sandwich here, they’re not going to go anywhere else.”

The key, he believes, is in the ingredients. O’Malley uses Dietz & Watson deli meats, freshly baked Italian bread, ground black pepper and crisp romaine lettuce, along with other fresh vegetables and toppings. He builds each sandwich in layers, starting with cheese, then lettuce, then meat and other toppings, and then stacking them all over again.

O’Malley is obsessed with quality and consistency, maybe even going overboard sometimes in his quest for both. He puts his sandwiches in clear plastic containers, containers that he says keep sandwiches fresh for days in the refrigerator without making the bread soggy or stale.

Recently, though, the supplier he orders the containers from was out of stock and had them on back order. Instead of using other containers temporarily, O’Malley closed his shop for almost three months, until the plastic containers finally arrived.

“If you ask any business owner, they’ll tell you it wasn’t the best business move,” O’Malley said. “When my customers asked me why I closed, they couldn’t believe it, but they appreciated it nonetheless.”

This consistency is what keeps O’Malley and his shop going strong. “My customers are very loyal because I keep doing the same thing consistently and they know exactly what they’re going to get,” O’Malley said.

Aside from making a great sandwich, O’Malley believes it is important for black-run businesses to diversify in the neighborhood. He says that most of the black-run businesses in the area are barber shops and beauty salons, which end up competing with each and ultimately hurting business for themselves. He also believes that neighborhood children should see their own people running local businesses. “All too often, the youth go into a business, but they can’t see themselves running the business. Their ethnic group isn’t running the business,” he said.

While O’Malley understands and appreciates diversity in local business, he still believes it is important to keep the presence of black business strong. “We need to be aware that we can compete on any level, and we can service anyone,” he said.

His presence in the neighborhood has not gone unnoticed. Of all of the local businesses in the area, O’Malley’s is arguably the most popular. Workers stop by on their lunch breaks, and local kids hang out outside the shop after school.

Even O’Malley’s mother makes the trip across the street to hang out in her son’s shop. While O’Malley’s sandwiches may be nothing more than a local favorite, he seems more than content to be in the same neighborhood he has always lived in, around the people he knows best, building a business that he and the rest of the community can be proud of.

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