Joe and Barb Hermanowski

    Joe and Barb Hermanowski

    Joe Hermanowski spent his working life in the Strip District and has a story or two to tell.

    So, as we sit down to talk about the old days, he settles in with a cup of coffee and a smile on his face: “I like to say that the Strip is the first place where Starbucks couldn’t make it. We have really good coffee shops here, places like La Prima Espresso, where they roast and brew their own coffee, or Prestogeorge, where they import tea and coffee from all over the world.” Starbucks gave it a try but didn’t stay.

    Joe came into the Strip in 1968, when he bought a building in the 1900 block of Penn Avenue, opening a wholesale candy and tobacco business. “In those days, we began our days at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. when the produce came in on the trains and the auctions began,” Joe says. The Produce Terminal, now largely vacated, was central for the wholesale produce business—power jacks and forklifts whizzing around, unloading boxes of produce that were sold and distributed before the sun came up. “We were like family. If anyone needed anything, they just called and we all helped out. I knew the dads and then their sons—Benkovitz, Wholey, Sunseri.”

    Joe continues: “But people would go home around one or two in the afternoon, and things got very quiet.” The Strip needed more foot traffic. In the 1990s, big-box stores popped up here and there, and nibbled away at the neighborhood’s businesses, both wholesale and retail. The small grocery stores throughout the city that relied on the Strip for produce and groceries disappeared.

    In response, the business-owners association, knows as Neighbors in the Strip, organized monthly festivals; soon people from the suburbs and beyond began to see the Strip as a tourist destination. “We did whatever it took to create business,” notes Joe. “I had a few other things going on, selling plastic bags—they were misprints, cheap bags, but they did the job—and I sold some office furniture.” He also owned some income-producing property in the Strip and other places.

    Joe hadn’t strayed far from his roots. He grew up on Polish Hill, a few blocks from the Strip, and had watched and helped his father run a grocery-distribution business, selling to Polish grocery stores throughout Polish Hill and other communities in the city.

    Joe knew about hard work, and so did his wife, Barbara, who helped him in the early days in the Strip. “Then she stayed home, and was able to do what she wanted,” says Joe. And that turned out to be raising a family.

    The Hermanowski family; Joe and Barbara are third and fourth from the left.

    The Hermanowski family; Joe and Barbara are third and fourth from the left.

    “We have seven children and they are all adopted,” Joe mentions offhandedly. In the 1970s, Joe and Barbara adopted their first two daughters from a private agency, and then started taking in foster children. Over 30 years, they took in more than 50 children of all ages, races, and backgrounds. Barbara often went to Allegheny General Hospital to feed preemie babies, and enjoyed caring for special-needs children, with patience, love, and compassion.

    “We couldn’t part with some of the foster children, so we adopted them,” says Joe. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me and my wife.”

    Joe and Barbara raised their family in Franklin Park until 1992, and the younger children grew up in Portersville and Harmony, north of Pittsburgh. They had a motorhome, and often took day trips on Sundays to Conneaut Lake Park, Lake Erie, and other local spots when Joe could get away from the business. Joe recalls, “I always told the kids, ‘Whoever is ready by eight o’clock in the morning goes along,’ and that included friends and neighbors. Sometimes we had eight or nine kids, and off we went.” They also took annual trips to Florida and Disney World. “Back in those days, Coca-Cola gave me tons of free passes for Disney. Can you imagine how much it would have cost with all those kids?” Joe laughs. “Big companies don’t do things like that for their customers anymore.”

    Now adults, the couple’s children range in age from 28 to 46. Jesse, their son with special needs whom Barbara nursed back to health when he was an infant, works and lives in a group home in New Castle, not far from their home. “My kids are my life,” says Joe. “They are all in the area, have good jobs, and some own buildings and have their own businesses.”

    Joe is gratified that the Strip continues to be a place where small businesses still flourish, where you’ll see a store’s owner behind the counter, and where, if you ask, you’ll hear a good story.

    Bette McDevitt lives on the North Side and finds that her out-of-town visitors all want to go to the Strip—they have no place to match it in their home towns.