These guys corner the market on history of Thorofare stores
Steve Krassa, Cletus Doptis and Lane Core have never met Bob Schneider. But they have a lot in common, and all four would enjoy getting together for a stroll down Memory Lane.
Schneider, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Hubbard, Ohio (about 10 miles east of Youngstown), is a history buff with a particular interest in Thorofare supermarkets.
Krassa, of Carroll Township; Doptis, of Monessen, and Core, of Roscoe, are very much a part of the store’s legacy.
“I’m an old East Liberty boy who grew up in Pittsburgh and had parents and relatives who shopped at Thorofare,” Schneider said in explaining his ongoing search for information about the popular chain of stores. “My mother, like thousands of other people, was a big fan of the S&H Green Stamps. And my first ever visit to West View Park was with Thorofare Day tickets.”
In seeking more information about Thorofare in Western Pennsylvania, Schneider focused his attention on the mid-Monongahela Valley, where the firm had stores in Charleroi, Monessen and California.
“I knew they had stores in that area, but I never had any real luck in getting details about locations and personnel,” he said.
That’s where Krassa, who enjoyed a 41-year career in the grocery store business; Doptis, who worked 31 years in that profession; and Core, whose six years with Thorofare evolved into a successful 55-year career in the retail food and produce business, entered the picture.
“Thorofare certainly holds a special place in my heart,” Krassa, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in May, said during lunch at Riverside Place, the new senior center at Chamber Plaza in Charleroi. “I was fortunate to work with so many wonderful people, and we had great customers.”
Standing outside the senior center, Krassa pointed to the building only a few blocks away that housed Thorofare in Charleroi. It is now the location of Charleroi Medical Center.
“I came there in 1954,” said Krassa, who began his career in the grocery business in 1938. “I was working at the Uniontown store at the time and received a call from Sam Henry, who was vice president and one of the owners of Thorofare. He wanted me to go to Charleroi to talk with Bill Brant about a job at the Charleroi site. Bill had managed the Streamline market in downtown Charleroi for a number of years and was manager at Thorofare at the time. He was getting ready to retire and they offered the job to me.”
Krassa, who originally worked at Thorofare in Masontown, accepted but returned to his duties in Uniontown for a few months before transferring to Charleroi.
“The Charleroi store was bigger than the one in Uniontown,” said Krassa, whose wife, Ann Marie, died March 13, 1988. “I knew it would be a challenge, but I felt I was ready for it. I continued to live in Uniontown and traveled back and forth each day for two years. One day, Sam Henry called me into the office to tell me I was doing a good job. He suggested I make an investment in my future and buy a home in the Mon Valley. That meant a lot to me; it showed he had confidence in my ability. So, we bought a home at Valley Inn, and I’ve been there ever since.”
While Krassa is a transplanted Mon Valley resident, Doptis has lived in the area all his life. A 1951 graduate of Charleroi High School, he moved to Monessen after marrying the former Mary Louise Gnip, of Monessen, in 1957.
“I actually started working in the food business while I was in high school,” Doptis, 73, said. “I worked with Henry the huckster, who was a familiar figure traveling with fresh produce throughout the area. I went to work for Bill Brant when I was 17. He owned the Streamline market next door to George Gezzer’s drug store. They had an old-fashioned soda fountain and counter there and I remember Marie Gezzer, George’s wife, making sundaes, milkshakes and sodas for us. They were very nice people, and we always looked forward to going there on our breaks.”
Working at Streamline as a teenager was a blessing for a “young kid,” Doptis said.
“Hey, it gave me some spending money and I was able to buy a car, a ’38 Chevy, to get around,” he smiled. “Those were tough times and the extra income helped.”
The Streamline market was located in the building that later became home to Rego’s and the Red Bull restaurants and now houses Salatino’s restaurant. The second floor of the structure housed New Moon Lanes, a popular duckpin bowling establishment, for many years and later was home to a large model train display during the holiday season.
After graduation from high school, Doptis enlisted in the U.S. Army and served two years as an ordnance specialist in France, Germany and England.
“I was looking for a job when I got out and there was an opening at (Thorofare) Charleroi,” Doptis recalled. “I jumped at the opportunity.”
The Charleroi store ran the length of McKean Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. For more than the first half of the last century the building with the arched roof was owned by Pittsburgh Railways and served as the company’s car barn, where trolley cars were housed and repaired. The trolley line ended its runs on June 28, 1953, and the building was purchased by Joseph Lettrich & Sons, well-known general contractors in the area. Letttrich also purchased the West Side Motor Co.’s building a block away at the northern entrance to Charleroi.
Charleroi architect Bob Lettrich remembers his father, Joseph, converting the streetcar barn that became home to Thorofare.
“He put a lot of time and energy into remodeling the building. It was a lot of work,” Lettrich recalled. “I graduated from (Charleroi) high school in 1956, so I know it was prior to that when the transformation was completed and Thorofare opened. It was a big deal for the community because it was a very large store.”
Krassa, a World War II veteran who also worked at Thorofare stores in Morgantown, W.Va., Masontown and California during his career, supported that recollection.
“The shopping area covered 18,000 square feet,” Krassa said. “Sam (Henry) only wanted half of the building at first, but Joe (Lettrich) encouraged him to ‘think big, take all of it,’ so he leased the whole thing from Mr. Lettrich. It was a smart move and they had the greatest grand opening ever. The store had 10 cash registers, which was a lot then, and it really marked the turning point for big stores. We had eight trailers of food being delivered from the warehouse in Murrysville each week. People took to the store from the day it opened and business grew at a rapid pace.”
Doptis’ decision to take a job with Thorofare in 1955 marked the start of a retail food career that ended when he retired seven years ago. It included working in managerial positions for Thorofare in Charleroi, Monessen and Pittsburgh’s South Hills.
“I was at Monessen when they closed in 1982,” Doptis said. “I transferred to the Caste Village store and later worked as assistant manager at the Whitehall store.”
Doptis also worked for Loblaw and Shop-4-Less at sites in Monessen. He was grocery manager when Shop-4-Less, owned by Sam Mele and Geno Bertini, moved from its Grand Boulevard site to new headquarters at 701 Donner Ave. in Monessen. Among others leading that transition were store manager Bill Patterson; head cashier Carol Talarico; meat manager Stan Silvestro; refrigeration superintendent Sam J. Mele and decor directors Russell Fine and Walter Becker.
Doptis recalled that promotions were a “very big thing” with Thorofare.
“The S&H Green Stamps drew people, of course, but we always had something special going on,” he said.
There was the time, for instance, when veteran character actor Dick Wilson brought his “Mr. Whipple” persona to the Monessen Thorofare, which was located next to the Park Casino and then Tony’s Lounge at Park Shopping Centre.
“Mr. George Whipple” was the fictional supermarket manager featured in the popular television ads that ran from 1965 to 1989 for Charmin toilet paper. If you’re over 40, it’s a cinch you remember “Ladies, please don’t squeeze the Charmin!”
“He was a great guy; the customers certainly enjoyed him,” Doptis said of Wilson, who had played a recurring role on the television series “Bewitched.”
“Everyone, of course, was taking packages of Charmin to him and squeezing them. We had a lot of fun that day.”
Another actor who portrayed the Rath bacon Indian in TV ads and whose name Doptis doesn’t remember also made a personal appearance at the Monessen store.
“He walked into the store wearing a business suit and tie and I thought, ‘My goodness, he doesn’t look like an Indian,'” Doptis said laughingly. “But after he went into the back and changed into his costume, he looked the real McCoy. He was wearing a large, colorful headdress and was decked out in war paint. People, especially the kids, loved him.”
While Bob Schneider recalls Thorofare Days at West View Park, Doptis remembers similar outings at Kennywood.
“It became too much of a trip for those who lived in this area to go to West View, so the company decided to hold a picnic at Kennywood for us,” Doptis said as he displayed a photo of his wife and their oldest son, Richard, at one of the Kennywood outings in the late 1950s. “It was a great time because we took our families, and we had the opportunity to meet people from other stores.”
Krassa said promotions also complemented the S&H Green Stamps at the Charleroi store and the Green Stamp redemption center in the 400 block of Fallowfield Avenue in Charleroi.
“We sold almost everything, from ground beef and green beans to encyclopedias, golf clubs, artistic pictures, dishes, pots and pans, knives and appliances,” he said.
To emphasize his point, Krassa shared a clipping from the Tri-State Food Trade publication of Jan. 8, 1962. It shows him presenting the “deed” to a $4,000 swimming pool to Mrs. Russell Farlow, of Belle Vernon, as second prize in a nationwide contest by Diamond Crystal Co. Rober Dow, public relations director for the salt firm, also was present at the ceremony held at the Thorofare where Farlow had filled out her entry form.
Krassa also has a photo in his archives that shows him adjusting the knobs on a new television set won by another area couple. Krassa doesn’t recall their names but said they lived “on the hill in Charleroi.”
The Charleroi Thorofare had an arrangement with Charleroi Radio and TV owners Steve and Faustine Skomsky whereby the latter’s merchandise was displayed at the supermarket.
“It worked well for both of us,” Krassa said.
The Charleroi store also worked in partnership with area schools in offering educational tours of the facility. In addition to his duties as store manager, Krassa said he doubled as merchandiser and teacher to show students “what makes a supermarket tick.”
A newspaper clipping in his collection shows Krassa discussing “behind the scenes” store operations with a group of third-graders from Ninth Street School in Charleroi led by their teacher, Frances Spence, and student teacher Carole Lesick.
Krassa and Doptis also remember the “delicious” baked goods from Gysegem’s Bakery sold at the Charleroi and Monessen stores. Ernie Gysegem had the “franchise” for those items.
“Ernie would bring fresh bread, cakes, pies and a number of other goodies to the stores every day,” Doptis said. “I can still smell that delicious stuff coming through the doors each morning.”
Lane Core’s memories of working for Thorofare remain just as vivid as those of Doptis and Krassa.
A native of Long Branch and a 1946 graduate of Charleroi High School, Core began working in the stockroom at the Charleroi store. He had previously worked at G.C. Murphy stores in California and Hazelwood, Brown’s 5 & 10 in Masontown and the Acme market in Monongahela.
Core worked for Thorofare for six years and then decided to pursue a career in produce.
“I had advanced to assistant produce manager at Thorofare and really learned a lot from Tom Marshall, who was in charge of the department,” said Core, 78, who retired only six years ago. “I felt I needed a change, so I took a job with Potter McCune at their warehouse in McKeesport. Eventually, I became a produce supervisor, setting up departments in new stores and training employees.”
Core later worked for Safier’s Inc., in Uniontown. He and his wife, Donna, have been married for 51 years.
Like Krassa and Doptis, Core had the opportunity to see many transitions in the retail food industry.
“I never expected to see anything change in such a big way,” Core said. “The growth, in a relatively short period of time, has been tremendous. The stores sell so much more than food today. You go to a place like Wal-Mart and it’s so convenient. Everything is there under one roof. I guess Sam Walton (Wal-Mart founder) had the right idea.”
Krassa and Doptis said they saw the proverbial handwriting on the wall for Thorofare as it neared the end of its run.
“It became a matter of economics,” Doptis said. “(Thorofare) couldn’t stay in the game. Meat was the big draw for a long time. We had triple A and grade A meats, but the prices became too high and business dropped off. The company was losing money. Even the Green Stamps couldn’t save them. A&P had Plaid Stamps and other stores were offering similar promotions. And there were discount stores coming into the picture.”
Krassa, recalling that Thorofare operated some 100 stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia during its heyday, offered similar sentiments.
“In the beginning, the small over-the-counter stores were owned by P.H. Butler, and there were many in the region,” Krassa said. “Later, the P.H. Butler stores were enlarged and became self-service sites; that is, you went from aisle to aisle to get your groceries instead of ordering from someone behind the counter. The new stores were named Streamline markets and they had wooden grocery carts, which, at the time, were high-tech.
“The business has come a long way since then and unfortunately places like Thorofare fell by the wayside in the name of progress. In a way, I guess, it’s gone full circle. The original supermarkets knocked the neighborhood shops, the mom and pop stores, out of business. Then the super supermarkets eventually took their toll.”