Saturday, May 07, 2011

Harry G. Ochs & Sons, 1906-2011

Nick "Ochs" Finocchio
Harry G. Ochs & Sons, a fixture at the Reading Terminal Market for more than 100 years, closed its counter for good last Monday evening, just days ahead of when the business would have been evicted for being $21,000 in arrears on rent.

I was out of state Monday when Nick "Ochs" Finocchio closed the shop, unannounced to employees, market management and fellow merchants. Since then I've had a chance to chat with some fellow market denizens and merchants, including its general manager, Paul Steinke.

In addition to the rent, two separate banks held judgments valued at more than $200,000 against the business. One merchant told me he was owned $8,000 which Nick never paid back for services rendered.

The problems started long before Harry "Ochs" Finocchio Sr. died in December 2009. Even when Harry owned the business, it was in trouble.

In an email to me and another market follower, Steinke said he worked hard to help the Ochs business succeed. "In fact, we have devoted more time to them than to any other merchant here," according to Steinke. "We met with them countless times. We arranged free consulting services for them with the Wharton Small Business Development Center. We offered them tenant improvement financing. We agreed to rent discounts that no other tenant was privy to. We offered numerous, generous payment plans (all of them broken)."

All this did little good, he admitted.

"As their account got further and further behind, we held off legal action for years in deference to the Ochs name and what they contributed to the Market, and later, because Harry was sick," Steinke said. Given the business's unlikely success, Steinke suggested that they call it quits, offering to host a large farewell party so they could exit the market in dignity, which Harry and Nick declined. "Once Harry died, however, we felt that it was time for the Ochs stand to carry its weight in the Market along with the other merchants. So we gave them one more chance," wrote Steinke.

The market and Nick negotiated and signed a new lease last summer but, according to Steinke, "he started falling behind almost immediately. So, after years of holding back, we finally had no choice but to initiate the legal process to enforce the lease. Nick filed for Chapter 11 protection in early April." When, two weeks later the court dismissed the filing, the writing was on the wall.

It was wrenching for Steinke and the market to lose the Ochs business, which moved there only 14 years after the market opened its doors in 1892. Nick's grandfather joined the business in the first half of the century and adopted the Ochs name when he took it over. Indeed, his son Harry was better known as Harry Ochs than as Harry Finocchio. When the market's future was threatened by the proposed construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, it was Harry Finocchio who was a key player in preserving the market and pressuring the center to renovate the then-dilapidated structure. Today, the block of Filbert Street astride the market is known as Harry Ochs Way.
"We are saddened by the loss of the Ochs name," wrote Steinke, "but I take solace in knowing we did all we could to help them and to maintain an environment conducive to their success. I also take solace in the general prosperity of the great majority of the rest of the Market’s merchants, who work hard, serve their customers well and pay their bills."
(The Finocchio family, like all of us, were not immune to tragedy. Nick's brother Harry died a few years ago, preceded in death by his young son Tim, who also worked at the store. When Harry Senior died he lost a two-year battle with cancer.)
There's no reason a butcher can't thrive in the market, as Charles Giunta has shown with his relatively new shop. Where Giunta's is strictly a butcher (having given up on his rotisserie chicken experiment), Ochs had tried to move into deli and prepared food -- at least half of the cases were filled with either items for reheating at home or Boar's Head cold cuts -- with little success.

Nick did less and less cutting meats to order in the last few years. I continued to shop there for chuck ground to my order for burgers, even as little as a pound which Nick and his staff happily provided. I would also occasionally buy a chicken breast or piece of lamb there, but Giunta (and to a lesser extent his brother Martin who operates his namesake stall as well as a wholesale sausage business) had won over a good hunk of my meat-buying loyalty. In addition, those who have more knowledge about the subject than I say that Nick's butchering skills, while good, just weren't up to the level of his father and late brother.

That move to prepared and deli items undoubtedly was an attempt to keep the business viable, since few people were prepared to pay the prices Ochs had to charge for his excellent prime, dry aged beef. And those who were willing to consider meat as an investment vehicle spent most of their dollars at Whole Foods -- my market sources tell me Ochs took a big hit in revenue when Whole Foods opened at Callowhill and 20th Street and never recovered.

There are neither heroes nor villains in this story. Just changing times that exempt no individual or institution from its demands.

What's next for the premium space Ochs vacated?

Steinke has yet to make a decision, but says he has plenty of businesses that want to locate in the market, which is currently 100 percent leased other than the Ochs stall. (More will become available when the market's renovation is completed late this year.)

One possibility I broached with Steinke would be for an existing lunch vendor to take over the space, which fronts on center court, and put a new purveyor of food to cook at home in that business's spot. Steine said that might be particularly attractive in light of the renovation of the market now underway and which will become more visible to shoppers this summer.

What you can be sure of is that no chain businesses will be allowed, nor will the market's ratio of purveyors (butchers, fish mongers, greengrocers, etc.) to other businesses be reduced.

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Note: This version edited to correct earlier error to correct Finocchio family history in joining the business and adopted Ochs name.

1 comment:

Eric C. Dummett said...

Sorry. Harry G. Ochs, Sr. founded the business in 1906. It was his son, Harry G. Ochs, Jr. who passed in December 2009. Harry Jr. was known as "the Mayor of the Market", and is credited with saving the market from the developer's wrecking ball by having it listed on the U.S. Register of Historical Places. Harry Jr. could be found working the family stall at the Reading Terminal Market until his death at age 80.

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