Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Salad Days with the Iovine Family

It was only a matter of time before we arrived here. You can't really delve into the Reading Terminal Market without mentioning Tootsie's Salad Express and Iovine Brothers. Tootsie herself can nearly always be found standing at her cash register, dispensing warm greetings and great food to her beloved customers.

Tootsie in festive attire.

We caught up with Tootsie recently to pick her brain and her fantastic food bar for tips and eats.  After gobbling up a justifiably famous Chicken Caesar we asked her the secret to a great salad. 
Without hesitation, she replied:  "Cold, crisp, fresh."  And for Tootsie, sister of the equally famous Iovine Brothers,  they of produce market fame, she has access to the best.  The good news for the rest of us, of course, is that we do, too.

When asked how she entered the food business, Tootsie smiles.  "My brother Vinnie and I were working as administrators for a court reporting company.  The owner of the business wanted to branch out into food, so he bought two stalls in Reading Terminal--the produce shop and the salad bar.  He offered us jobs managing the two businesses, and we thought, 'why not?'.

Tootsie laughs in earnest.  "We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  At that time, we really did not know the food business, but we figured management is management and believed that our administrative experience would translate.  But it really didn't.  Vinnie was getting up at 3am and heading to the food distribution center for inventory, but because he did not know produce, he was working extra hard to learn the business and the hours were killing him.  I was running the accounting end of things and the Salad Express stand at the Market, but it was not going well.    Vinnie was miserable.  He came to me and told me that he was going to quit.  I told him in words that are unprintable here that if he did I would do him bodily harm.  He believed me, and agreed to stick it out for a bit longer.

"Our brother Jim came into the produce shop around that time.  At that point, the Convention Center was being built adjacent to the Market,  and that was very challenging.    The owner of the business determined that the produce shop had no resale value, so he cut his losses and gave it to Vinnie and Jim.  Through blood, sweat, some tears, and good old fashioned hard work, they pulled the businesses off life support,  learning about produce from the ground up and pushing nonstop to make it a success.  It was a slow process, but eventually, it took.

Enjoy the photo; you'll never see Iovine's this empty!
"My brother Tony always had first option to buy the Salad Bar, and after running it for five years, we approached the owner with an offer and he accepted.  At that  point, the name was changed to "Tootsie's Salad Express," I came in as a partner, built the catering business, and also brought in our brother Bobby to help run things.

"Of our ten siblings, seven now work in the Market--in addition to the five of us I've mentioned, sisters Theresa and Anna work in the produce market, as well as a bunch of nieces and nephews.  It's kind of like a family reunion every time I come to work."

Talk about a story with a happy ending.  Tootsie's Salad Express is thriving; she has regulars and new customers every day.   Her outside catering business continues to grow, and a renovation of her space is planned soon to enlarge the seating area for customers.   Iovine Brothers Produce has grown exponentially as well.  Their produce market is the largest tenant in the Market today, their quality is unmatched, their prices highly competitive, and their variety staggering.

And the eagerly anticipated Molly Malloy's, the Iovine's new gastro-pub, located in the former Beer Garden, will open any day now.  The pub, named for the Iovines' mother, will feature locally brewed beers, American comfort food, the freshest produce available anywhere, and will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.   Given that Molly Malloy's entry was named the winning dish at Scrapplefest, we are confident that the kitchen will not disappoint.

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