Robert Wholey Co.: A Legacy of Fish and Family

By Alexa Veselic

Beneath the red-and-white striped awnings of Wholey’s lies an experience for all of the senses. Bright red crab legs fill the cases and the glassy eyes of fish stacked in the displays seem to follow you around the room. Children hurry through the entrance to the back of the store, dragging a parent along by the hand behind them, where live bass and lobster swim around in tanks.

Three men stand along a counter, joking and greeting customers as they glide long knives through each fish. The men hardly look down as they move from one fish to the next in rapid succession; this is clearly second nature. The lunchtime sounds and smells from the dining room waft downstairs.

This unique atmosphere and quality of products characterize Wholey’s. It is a Pittsburgh legacy and a landmark in the Strip District with a style and history that fit right in with the neighborhood.

“You feel that family energy when you come down here, that sense of community, that sense of history,” says Natasha Brody, who does marketing and events for Wholey’s.


Photo by Aaron Warnick

Robert L. Wholey began his business selling fruit from his wagon in the South Side. In 1912, he opened Wholey’s Butter & Egg Store in McKees Rocks. His son, Robert C. “Bob” Wholey, then took over the family business after returning home from the army after World War II. A few years later, Bob opened a store selling poultry and other goods in Pittsburgh’s Diamond Market, now Market Square. After a decade, the area was transformed into a city park and the business needed a new home. In 1959, Bob moved the company to the Strip District where it stands today on the corner of 17th Street and Penn Avenue. It is now operated by third generation Wholey brothers.

That entrepreneurship is what Dan’s father, Bob Wholey, relied on to develop Robert Wholey Co. into the seafood destination that it is today.

“He came to the Strip District still as primarily a poultry stand. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter asked him if he could sell a bushel of crabs that he had brought back from Maryland,” Dan says, proudly pointing to a small black-and-white photograph from the early days of the store hanging on the wall. “That kind of gave him an idea.”

According to Dan, the Strip was much different then and when he was a kid growing up in the business.

“There were very few shops. No one was selling Steelers jerseys, none of that stuff,” Dan said. “There were no entertainers on the street playing the guitar. There were no nightclubs back then.”

When Wholey’s moved into the Strip District, merchants in the area were mostly wholesalers. Wholey’s was the first market targeted at retail customers.

Today, Wholey’s sells over 500 types of fish and seafood to a growing clientele of residents, visitors and tourists to the area. Wholey’s is able to offer such a variety in landlocked Pittsburgh,by bringing in seafood from several ports both nationally and internationally, including the New England region,

Alaska and the Caribbean, shipped into the store whole where it is then filleted on-site. To keep all of these products cool, Wholey’s makes 40,000 pounds of ice each day!

Wholey’s isn’t just selling seafood. The store boasts a well-stocked deli, produce section and a selection of grocery staples for customers, making

Wholey’s a one-stop shop, especially for the growing number of customers who live in the neighborhood.

What is perhaps most striking is the variety of products the market offers.

“We like to think of ourselves as a mainstay in the community, one of the anchors of the Strip, providing the community with good value and quality,” Sam Wholey says.

As a Pittsburgh institution, Wholey’s is generous to local causes. A life-size bronze piggy bank, named Rachael, stands near the store’s exit. As customers leave they can drop change into the bank, which Wholey’s then matches before donating it to the Children’s Institute.

According to both Dan and Sam, their father is responsible for instilling in them a strong work ethic and teaching them to always treat customers well. A Duquesne University graduate and member of the Duquesne Century Club, Robert Wholey recognized the importance of making the customer feel welcome and satisfied.

“We have a stone outside the door that says: ‘Rule number one the customer is always right. Rule number two if the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule number one,’” Dan says of Wholey’s business philosophy.

This sense of customer appreciation extended to Wholey’s 100th anniversary celebration held at the end of September. A Celebrate-the-Strip parade marched down Penn Avenue before Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dedicated 17th Street as the new Wholey Way.

“It was exciting. It was fun,” Dan said. “It was absolutely a blast.”

More importantly, the anniversary festivities were a way for Wholeys to express their gratitude to the city and their customers.

“It was a great way to thank our customers,” Natasha said. “Without them, who could make it 100 years? It was a way of thanking Pittsburgh for being able to provide them with our services.”