From Corner Stores To Grocery Chains And Back, Pittsburgh's Food Systems Are Evolving

Jan 23, 2017

Gina Merante grabbed a banana bunch from a red wall lined with gradually ripening fruit. She shuffled past boxes of apples and red peppers and pointed outside, past the large display window at the front of her store, Linea Verde Green Market.

“Right now there’s two cases in my truck; I could fit them up on those pegs,” Merante said. “But I still need 150 more bananas for Monday to deliver Tuesday.”

Merante’s short, curly gray hair bobbed as she shuffled back toward the rear of the store to help a young mother and her son. The two were picking out lettuce and it was clear they frequented the Green Market.

For many young people, the concept of a store like Merante’s is foreign. Most of them have spent their lives shopping at large grocery chains.

Bottles and grains sit on shelves at Linea Verde Green Market in Pittsburgh's Bloomfield neighborhood on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Owner Gina Merante says the store is modeled after her father's original shop in Italy.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“I can’t believe how many people just walk in, even just to look,” Merante said. “I feel like I have a fruit and vegetable museum.” 

As Merante checked out the family, she described her childhood growing up in the produce industry. As a young girl in the 1970s, she translated English for her Italian father when he bought fruits and vegetables from Pittsburgh’s Strip District wholesalers.

Her family owned a corner grocery store in Oakland. She said she remembered her entire neighborhood buying food from stores like theirs.

“That was the only show in town,” Merante said. “There was no Sam’s Club, there was no Costco, there was none of that.”

But stores like hers are working. In Hazelwood, Dylamato’s Market was able to transition from a food stand to a brick-and-mortar business. In the past several years, new small groceries like 52nd Street Market in Lawrenceville and Market Street Grocery in Market Square thrive.

Alice Julier, Chatham University food studies director, said that success is due, in part, to the recent change of Pittsburghers' shopping expectations.

“People get food in cities in a different way than they used to,” Julier said. “In urban areas, especially in a city like Pittsburgh that’s so neighborhood-oriented, it surprises me that there aren’t more of these sort of neighborhood markets.”

Gina Merante, 50, talks to a customer at Linea Verde Green Market on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Merante says she loves working in produce because the people are always friendly and "it's just new every single day."
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Julier said throughout the mid-20th century, mom-and-pop shops would get all their produce from wholesale distributors. In Pittsburgh, bulk fruits and vegetables from places like the Strip District went from rail cars to terminal docks to grocery shelves.

As consolidation of industry became popular in the 1970s and '80s, Julier said grocery stores also wanted to get in on the trend. Plus, changing transportation systems were influencing how people shopped.

This story is part of Essential Pittsburgh, our ongoing series exploring how Pittsburgh lives and how it's evolving.

“Because of the rise of the car and the rise of suburban development, people are not traveling to those neighborhood urban enclaves where you can get your produce in one store and your past in the other,” Julier said. “The supermarket becomes the destination.”

At the time, Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle was growing in southwestern Pennsylvania, touting flawless fruits and veggies and the one-stop-shop experience. Chain grocery stores like A&P, Acme and Thorofare that were active in the region started to leave. By the 1990s, places like Target and Walmart started to dominate the industry.

Prices are posted casually at Linea Verde Green Market on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

But Julier said their reign, at least in urban settings, may not last. She said operating in a city can be difficult and expensive. 

“They are demonstrating a lot of problems,” Julier said. “I mean, they may be profitable, but the large footprint of a grocery store is getting more and more difficult for retailers to maintain.”

She said a lot of new residents to Pittsburgh aren’t satisfied with the commercialization of food and the traditional grocery shopping experience. Plus, living in a city contributes to their taste.

“What you see in urbanization when people have more contact with one another, what they’re interested in is different kinds of food and different kinds of ways of eating,” Julier said.

As for Merante, she said she enjoys selling to Pittsburgh’s younger residents, who seem to seek out stores like hers.