Homewood Grocer Produces Food the Area Lacked

January 27, 2015 | Diana Nelson Jones | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 

At the griddle in back of his store, James Perry folds omelettes the way you’d tuck a blanket just so under the chin of a sleeping baby.

The omelettes go into Styrofoam boxes with bacon and hash browns for Mr. Perry’s daughter-in-law, Nicole Perry, to ring up.

With take-out salads, sandwiches and hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Perry’s Honeydripper is also a small grocery, one of fewer than a handful of businesses that sell healthy amenities in Homewood. Baker’s Dairy at 7300 Hamilton Ave. is another that sells some groceries and produce, including potatoes, onions and tomatoes.

Perry’s, at 7006 Frankstown Ave., has no bulk, specialty or boutique items. I walked up and down the aisles thinking about what I’d buy. I would need help carrying it more than a couple of blocks: a bag of dry beans, a box of pasta, salad fixings, eggs, butter, cheese, apples, lemons, pears, cabbage, collards and onions.

That kind of produce would otherwise come to Homewood only through the YMCA, which sells crops from its own garden on Thursdays during growing season. The Y is also the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s Produce to People distribution site every second Saturday of the month.

Homewood has been deprived of significant retail for so long that a little market like the Honeydripper seems bigger than it is.

“We sell so much hot food,” Mr. Perry said, “but I wanted to be the place for produce. Homewood is a produce desert. The women in this area who have little to no money, who might have to take a jitney out of the neighborhood, I wanted to be here for them and for their kids to see some growth in the community.”

In nice weather, when the produce is stacked on tilted wooden pallets along the sidewalk in front, Mr. Perry said, “people put on the brakes.”

The store opened in the fall, and as winter approached, Bridgeway Capital gave the Honeydripper a grant to buy a refrigeration unit to sell produce year ‘round.

As I watched Mr. Perry work, I noticed he moved about with an easy, unconscious smile. He was a born entrepreneur who 50 years ago, when he was 19, had already saved up enough to buy a gas station.

Even earlier, at age 8, the Alabama kid living uneasily with an uncle in Pittsburgh decided he was going “to make my way for myself, no matter what.” He bugged people to let him help them and got work all over the city that way, selling newspapers and magazines — the Pittsburgh Courier, Jet, Ebony, True Confessions. He hawked, he hustled “and patted my pocket all the way home,” he said.

“My parents were sharecroppers making $15 a week, so I started sending money home. I started making enough to send $50 a week. This was in the 1950s. I was still a kid.”

He also hawked fruit, carrying baskets on the streets while yelling “Apples, oranges, fantastic grapes!”

In his teens, he had enough saved to invest with an adult partner in a small supermarket in the Hill. It was the first of many he would own or operate there and in Homewood.

When his children were old enough, he taught them how to cut meat and operate a cash register. His wife worked with him and they paid cash for a house on Race Street. He also owned and operated the bar and restaurant at the Ellis Hotel in the Hill.

Like everyone’s, his story has ups and downs. But anyone who has put 11 kids through school and managed to infect one of them with enthusiasm for doing what he does might be prone to smile over his work.

Antonovich, 33, said when he was a little boy, he would get up before dawn to accompany his dad to the Strip to buy produce.

“I’d listen for him getting up so I could go too,” he said, “but one time I caught him going without me.”

Mr. Perry still gets up in the wee hours to cook and bake at the store. He said he still thinks it’s fun, and his son “has that same thing in his blood, about this being fun.”

“People look up to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan,” said Antonovich, shooting a grin at his dad, then pointing at him. “But that is 50 years of dedication to his family and his work. He’s a superstar without the label.”

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626