Stamoolis Brothers: After 103 Years, It’s Still All About Family

By Maggie Pavlick

Traditional Greek music and the smell of spices from metal bins greet you and give you the feeling that you have stepped into a simpler time – a time when the man at the counter knew your name and your order by heart. It is a place where the old, wooden floorboards and glass display counter have seen three generations of the same families shop there weekly, and it makes you feel as though you are a part of that tradition, even on your first visit.

In a busy world where grocery stores are chains and food is prepackaged, Stamoolis stands out as a reminder of old-time business values, rich Greek heritage and most importantly, family.

“Now you need a contract,” owner Gus Stamoolis recounts. “Back then, you needed a handshake. Your word was the contract.”

Gus Stamoolis is the son of one of the original owners. He strives to retain the store’s original character and the legacy that his father and four uncles brought from Chios, Greece.

In 1909, the five Stamoolis brothers started the Stamoolis Brothers Company, which imported Greek specialty foods. They came to Pittsburgh from New York City in 1929, first opening on the Boulevard of the Allies, then on 16th street in the Strip, and finally in their current location on Penn Avenue, in 1936.

Gus, who has been working at the store since 1965, grew up in the family business. When he was younger, the store’s business was mostly wholesale.  They had no set hours and often, the store would be empty by noon. Then, the store had a crank register, and the refrigerated section was cooled with ammonia.

They now have a point-of-sale register with a scanner and modern refrigeration. The ammonia pipes still hang on the wall next to the old wooden grape crusher that Gus’s uncles used to make wine.

Both the Stamoolis Brothers Company and the Stamoolis family have grown and adapted to Pittsburgh, but the transitions from Greece to America were not always easy.

Growing up, Gus and his family spoke only Greek at home, so when he was in kindergarten, he would sit alone and not talk to anyone. Finally, the teacher called the principal, who called Gus’s mother. She answered the phone in her native tongue, and they then understood the issue. Gus quickly picked up English from his classmates and teachers, but at home, it was always Greek.

It wasn’t only Gus’ siblings and parents who were influential in his upbringing. The Stamoolis family averaged 18-20 people around the dinner table on a regular basis and twice as many during the holidays.  Gus fondly remembers fighting over their favorite meal: snails.

“My uncle would have to dish them out 10 at a time so no one would fight,” Gus recalls.

The store sold fresh snails before it was illegal to do so. One night, when Stamoolis received a

shipment of snails, they forgot to weigh down the lids of the snail crates. The next morning, the snails had escaped, covering the floor and the walls of the shop.

A more dire surprise later shook the business to its core. When Gus and his brother were teenagers, there was a devastating fire that completely gutted one of the store’s buildings.

“My dad and uncle, they weren’t totally prepared for something like this,” Gus said. “It was my brother and me, even though we were young, who said we need to move on.”

Gus and his brother filled out the paperwork and worked with the insurance companies, and sure enough, the store survived and was stronger than ever.

Today, the store flourishes, with shelves stacked with imported canned goods, such as peppers stuffed with rice and pre-made Greek dinners.  Behind a glass counter are over 60 types of feta cheese spreads, made fresh every day from Gus’s late brother’s recipes, as well as more types of Feta cheese than most people have ever heard of.  Varieties of Kalamata olives soak in plastic buckets in a center display, ready for customers to scoop into smaller containers and take home to enjoy, and Greek olive oil in all shapes and sizes line a neighboring shelf.

As the store expanded, though, some things were left behind. When he first got his driver’s license, he would make home deliveries to his parents’ friends from church, who always offered him milk and cookies. Now, there are no more deliveries, and the store has changed from a strictly wholesale business to a popular destination for shoppers in the Strip, reflecting the overall change in the nature of the Strip in recent decades.

“The scope of the business has changed beyond what I think my father would have seen,” Gus said.

Gus’s daughters, Connie and Catina, now work in the store alongside their father. Gus and Connie recount how all three of Gus’ children would hide in the metal spice bins when they were younger.

“We have a picture of it, the three of them sitting inside the bins,” Gus said.

“And kids still love them,” Connie adds. “Kids who come in the store will try to crawl into them, too.”

Connie and her siblings would work in the store over the holidays and grew up in the store, the way the generation before did. Though big family dinners are impossible, with much of the family dispersed all over the country, they try to still keep the old traditions alive.

“We do the best we can,” Gus said, “but it’s nothing like it was.”

But the store, at least, is everything it was – and more. The daughters helped to bring the business into the 21st century by creating an online store with over 1,000 items available 24/7. The physical store, however, with its small, family atmosphere, remains the heart of Staoomolis Brothers.

“A lot of people, this is why they come… We try to keep that atmosphere coupled with the modern,” Gus said. “[The Strip] was an ‘area.’ Now it’s a ‘destination.’”

Though many customers come to the store just to experience the warmth and personality of years gone by, the Stamoolis family still sees generations of the same families come in regularly for oil, olives, or feta. It’s as busy as ever, and even after working in the store his whole life, Gus wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A lot of my peers, my colleagues, are retired now. They ask me, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ and I say, ‘I am,’” Gus said. “And I am, because what I’m doing, I enjoy doing. Coming in everyday, talking to people… this is what I love.”