June 1, 2012
Bell’s, a tiny market in Braddock, keeps serving its community
This is the fourth “This Is Pittsburgh Food,” a series of stories and videos on local traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon.
Louis Greenwald was just 23 when, against his father’s advice, he bought Bell’s Market, a small butcher shop and grocery on Braddock’s main drag.
His father, Edward, had owned a meat business on Fifth Avenue in McKeesport when he was growing up, as had his paternal grandfather, J.B. Greenwald. Same with his grandfather on his mother’s side, who was a butcher in Jeanette.
At the time in 1967, this mill town along the Monongahela River bustled with dozens of mom-and-pop shops lining Braddock Avenue leading to the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, the hulking steel mill constructed by Andrew Carnegie in 1873, and for many years one of the town’s main employers. Who could blame a young entrepreneur for wanting to be part of the action?
Forty-plus years later, the tiny shop at the corner of Braddock and Sixth, is still is open for business, one of a handful of independent retailers still standing in a town that just a few years ago was almost given up for dead. Its stubborn existence is a sign not just of Mr. Greenwald’s work ethic and driving personality — 11-hour days are still the norm for his staff of six — but also a testament to his commitment to the struggling community.
Times have been tough all over the Mon Valley, but especially so in Braddock, which during its heyday in the ’30s squeezed more than 20,000 people into its 0.6 square miles. Today, thanks to suburbanization and de-industrialization, it counts about 2,100 residents. A third of them live in poverty.
A smart businessman would have gotten out. Not Mr. Greenwald. In addition to providing the town’s sole full-service grocery, the 69-year-old runs a thriving wholesale meat business out of the one-story building, which has played an integral role in feeding Braddock’s residents since it was a dirt-floored store selling pickled and salted meat in the 1890s.
“I try to take care of my employees,” he says, most of whom have been with him for 20 or more years and are raising children and grandchildren. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
It’s the same tradition of looking out for others that helped Mr. Greenwald when he was getting started. When Carl Osterholm, who owned Carl’s Tavern next door, discovered on a hot July day that his new neighbor didn’t have air conditioning, he not only sent his refrigeration guy over with a used A/C unit but also hooked it into his water tower. For free. Even better, Mr. Greenwald recalls, he gave him business — providing meat for his seven restaurants.
To step into Bell’s is to step back in time: Crammed floor to tin ceiling with everything from cereal to frozen fish to spices to gallon-sized jugs of barbecue sauce, the store is so packed you almost have to crab walk to get to the meat cases. Shoppers have their choice of everything from steak, pork and chicken to salami and headcheese. For prices, look to the hand-lettered signs taped, along with hundreds of invoices, to the wall. Bell’s has a few specialty items, too, that appeal to its growing number of Jamaican and African customers, such as the goat meat butcher Dave Kennedy is carving into kebab-sized chunks on a recent Tuesday. A small selection of fresh fruits and vegetables sit in boxes at the front of the store, next to a dairy cooler.
It’s what mayor John Fetterman calls a “gem.”
“It’s a wonderful throwback to what used to be, with a guy who knows you and knows what you want,” he says. “We’re very fortunate to have it.”
You “can get a little of everything,” agrees Walt Andrews, who started working at the store 20 years ago, when he was just 18, and will carry your groceries to your car if the bag’s too heavy.
Working the cash register is his good friend Al Strozier. Originally from Penn Hills, he sweet-talked Mr. Greenwald into hiring him in 1990, after he was laid off from a refinery job in Wilkinsburg. His son, Lorrenzo, followed in 2000, when he was 13. Mr. Kennedy, the butcher, has been here 16 years, long enough to remember the days of “swinging” meat. It now comes to the shop in sections.
“We’re like family — everyone pulls together, ” he says.
Some days there’s just a trickle of customers. But there’s still enough folks who prefer the old-time feel of the shop to modern grocery stores that it often gets very busy, says Mr. Kennedy. Early in the month, lines can stretch all the way out the front door, and not just with locals.
Beatrice Jones, who’s been shopping at Bell’s for more than 20 years, makes the trek from Homestead at least once a week. Other Mon Valley communities also are well represented along with the city of Pittsburgh.
“I can get what I want here,” she says, which on this particular day happens to be bacon with the skin on it. “And it’s nice to talk to the proprietors.”
Given the hours they’ve spent together — some good, some bad — the men are as close as brothers. Mr. Strozier says of his friend, “You gotta have a right hand, and he’s my right hand.”
“Every day’s not a good day, but we keep each other’s heads on,” agrees Mr. Andrews. “We all got each other’s back.”
He’s extremely fond of his boss, too, likening their relationship to that of a father and son. “We fight all day, but it’s just work,” he says.
Mr. Greenwald has a soft spot for Mr. Andrews, too, as evidenced by a whimsical black-and-white mural he had painted on the side of the building two years ago to mark Mr. Andrew’s 18th year on the job.
He made the grand gesture, he says, because “Walt really loves the retail and the people and takes pride in it.”
Braddock has seen its share of sorrow over the years, and far too many buildings have been torn down, notes Mr. Andrews. “But I know one that ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he says. He points to the mural bearing his name.
“Lou’s here for us, to make sure we’re OK,” he continues.” We stood by him, so he’s standing by us.”
“He’s a pillar,” adds Mr. Fetterman. “He always has the community’s interest at heart.”
Lou’s Oven-roasted Brisket of Beef
- 8-pound flat-cut beef brisket (trimmed)
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 8 yellow onions (about 4 pounds), peeled and thickly sliced
- 18-ounce bottle barbecue sauce
- 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
- A couple of carrots, peeled and sliced
- A couple of potatoes, peeled and cubed
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Season raw brisket with salt and pepper. Place in a roasting pan. Add onions, barbecue and Worcestershire sauces and vegetables. Cover, and roast for 31/2 hours, or until fork-tender, basting every so often with pan juices. (If meat looks like it’s getting too dry, add a little water or stock.) When fork-tender, remove brisket from pan, reserving vegetables and juices. Allow to cool, then place in refrigerator overnight.
Place roasted brisket on a cutting board and slice thinly across the grain (the muscle lines) at a slight diagonal. Place meat with reserved vegetables and juices into a 325-degree oven, and heat until warm. Serve with a green salad or vegetable.
Serves 16 to 20 people.
— Louis Greenwald, Bell’s Market