The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia had its struggles in 2020, so JerseyMan and I gave it some well-deserved props for the January 2021 issue. You can see it on JerseyMan’s website here, or see the magazine article here.
The Resilient Terminal Market
The Reading Terminal Market was hit hard by the pandemic, losing over half its foot traffic throughout the tourist season in 2020. The merchants, locals, and even some outsiders came together to help keep the lights on, but the quality of the goods is ultimately what keeps the Market going.
A visit to the Reading Terminal Market is well worth any travel expense and hassle, but it always presents an exasperating conundrum:
“What the hell am I gonna eat?”
Human stomachs are insufficiently sized enough that in every trip to Philly’s venerable marketplace, it’s impossible not to miss out on something amazing. It’s particularly rough for tourists, who may only manage one or two visits.
The Market sometimes seems to cause more culinary heartache than pleasure. Sure, have one or three of Beiler’s doughnuts…but unless you have a committed sweet tooth, that means foregoing Dutch Eating Place apple dumplings, Flying Monkey whoopie pies, or Termini Bros. torrones.
If you’ve ever experienced this distress, you’re not alone.
You’d think the Market’s general manager would have sound advice for this situation, but unfortunately Conor Murphy isn’t much help. Murphy visits the Market every day, and even he struggles mightily with the question.
“There’s just so many great sandwich options,” he says. “You’ve got a fantastic sandwich at Smucker’s, DiNic’s is obviously incredible. I’m an unapologetic carnivore, but there’s great sandwiches too at Luhv Vegan. Whether you want a chicken sandwich or a beef sandwich or a fresh deli sandwich…Hatville Deli does a great job…there’s just too many choices almost.
“It can be a challenge sometimes to choose your lunch. Phenomenal options, the classic Philadelphia specials, and also obviously great healthy options too.”
London Faust is the digital media manager at Bellevue Communications, the firm that manages the Market’s PR. She is a bit more willing to risk choosing a go-to vendor; she recommends Olympia Gyro.
“It’s well balanced and a good bang for your buck,” she shares. “Their gyros are really good and fresh, and don’t fill you up to the point where you’re so uncomfortably full, but they also have the biggest, freshest salads I’ve ever seen.”
Okay, that helps a bit. Murphy also offers a small but valuable piece of advice: Don’t look over your shoulder.
“Sometimes if you’re standing at DiNic’s, and then you look over your shoulder and you see Hershel’s, well then suddenly the decision just became much harder. You go to Olympia where London likes to go, and you turn over your shoulder and there’s Kamal’s.
“You kind of have to come in with your blinkers on almost. Make your decision and get it done. Because if you turn your shoulder, you might have to change your mind.”
This extreme gastronomic agitation is the true appeal of the Reading Terminal Market. For locals, the substantial selection of food staples keeps one returning, again and again. For frustrated tourists, it may inspire a better-planned return visit to Philadelphia. The Market is equal parts tourist attraction and favorite local destination, and it does both very, very well.
That balance has been key to its survival in the toughest of times. Which 2020 unquestionably was.
Throughout the history of the Reading Terminal Market, it seems to have been positioned to survive world instability. That doesn’t just include a depression and two world wars. The Market has weathered other storms too, like the decline of the railroad industry.
The “Reading Terminal” part of the name comes from its location, as a key hub for the Reading Railroad. The rise of the automobile drove the Railroad into bankruptcy by 1971. The Reading Company remained overseeing the Market, but they instituted higher rents for already struggling merchants, driving many of them away.
Decline and crumbling infrastructure continued until the Convention Center Authority purchased the Market in 1990. With that deal came $30 million of public funding for upgrades. To secure that kind of cash, you’ve probably got some clout with the locals.
So where does a worldwide pandemic rank among the tribulations the Market’s endured in its 128 years?
It’s probably top three.
“The Market has been through a lot,” Murphy says. “But I’m looking back through history, talking to different merchants and historians, and there’s a general sense that this is certainly up there with those past experiences.
“Usually from April through Thanksgiving, food and beverage options around the city get a lot of foot traffic. On a Friday or Saturday the Market would have anything from 35-40,000 people a day coming through. This year, it was anything from 55-60% drop in those numbers.”
The difficulty of social distancing in a tight city venue doesn’t help. “As an old train station, you can imagine the building is equipped for lots of people coming through,” Murphy adds.
Like every establishment in the country, the merchants have had to adapt to survive. But just as every difficult period in our history has revealed the strength of the Market, the challenging times caused folks to rally behind Philadelphia’s favorite food destination.
Even from as far as Boston.
As efforts grew to help the Market stay operational, including adding a GoFundMe page, it attracted the attention of Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports. Despite being a Beantown area native, Portnoy is a Philly food enthusiast and passionate about supporting the cause. He arranged for Penn National, the owner of Barstool Sports, to donate $100 for every $100 deposit made by fans in the Barstool Sportsbook app.
It was a significant factor in the GoFundMe campaign’s success, which has totaled $211,597 as this sentence was written, contributed by 4,773 Market fans. The funds will be enormously helpful for day-to-day operations.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic,” Murphy explains, “we’ve offered support to merchants in the form of rent deferments. One of the other things that we do a lot is events, and we are able to cover a lot of our costs through some of those events. So without the events, and with some deferments in place for merchants, we wanted to make sure we were able to remain available and open seven days a week.
“Simple things, being able to pay utility bills, and all the extra sanitation costs that we now have to keep customers safe.”
Murphy is overwhelmingly appreciative at the reminder of how beloved the Market and its peddlers really are.
“The Market has such an incredible presence for everyone that lives in the city,” he says. “Some of the personal stories were really, really fantastic. I think ultimately the Market is here because of Philadelphia, and because of the loyalty that shoppers have to us.”
Speaking of what he calls the camaraderie and spirit of the Market, you can hear the emotion in Murphy’s voice.
“With the essential service designation for public markets…nobody at the Market had to be told what that meant. They all just love to serve people. They fundamentally understand what it means to serve customers.
“I grew up in a small business in Ireland. People who run small businesses, they’ll always be my first heroes. They’re just fantastic people, you know, they really are. Small business is so, so important, especially now.
“I moved here six and a half years ago, and it’s amazing to see how people have been so supportive. It’s fantastic to see Philadelphians wanting to support the Market so much.”
Faust shares Murphy’s reverence for the outpouring of civic pride. “The Market’s really a family,” she adds, “and it’s really heartwarming to see everybody support each other.”
While 2020 was as tough on our favorite marketplace as it was on everyone, the difficulties may ultimately become growth opportunities. Murphy says merchants have greatly improved their ability to take online orders and deliver the goods for hungry fans. The virus may have revealed how much these iconic vendors underestimated their popularity outside of the building.
“We have worked really hard to get people onto delivery platforms. We’ve got a great partner, Mercato, that helps us on the food delivery side. Then the lunch counter merchants, trying to pivot their businesses to delivery apps, the Caviars and the Doordashes of this world.”
Murphy admits, however, that the ability to order delivery from so many wonderful vendors can’t match actually visiting a Market so abounding with edible excellence that you can’t even look over your shoulder. That exasperating whirlwind moment of indecision between Carmen’s and Keven Parker’s is the Reading Terminal Market at its alluring best.
“Pandemics end,” Murphy reflects, “and I think there is some light at the end of the tunnel with all the great news recently about vaccines. The best experience of the Reading Terminal Market is to come and visit us yourself. Ultimately, what we love to see here is people come through our doors to visit, because it is such a great food experience.”
That it is, even if it’s a torturous dilemma to choose from dozens of world-class eateries. Fortunately, Murphy is confident we’ll have many more opportunities to experience it all.
“There’s obviously a very clear love for the Market. That love has been built over 128 years, and our plan is to build it for 128 more.”
And Down Home Diner’s scrapple alone could keep us coming back until 2149.
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The Market Sampling Tour
The Taste of Philly Food Tour people can help you a tiny bit with the agonizing challenge of what to get at the Market. You can book an inexpensive tour of the Market on Taste of Philly Food Tour’s website, although as of this writing tours are still suspended.
Author Carolyn Wyman runs the site and tour, and she knows a bit about food in our fair city. She’s the author of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book, the definitive guide to classic vendors of Philly’s signature sandwich. The very well done book even mentions 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry’s costly cheesesteak faux pas.
The tour is not actually through Philadelphia but is simply a tour of the Market itself; Carolyn or one of her friends leads visitors through the Market and shares stories of its history…along with, of course, tastings.
According to Wyman, samples that patrons get to try (based on group size and dietary issues) can include:
– A piece of a Miller’s Twist pretzel
– Scrapple from Down Home Diner or Dutch Eating Place
– Snapping turtle soup from Pearl’s Oyster Bar
– Butter cake from the Flying Monkey Bakery
– Jewish apple cake from Hershel’s deli
– Butterscotch vanilla ice cream from Bassett’s
– Wilbur Buds and Goldenberg Peanut Chews from the PA General Store.
Wyman adds, “The tour definitely includes ideas on other great foods and best finds in the Market…the most popular donut at Beiler’s, the unique Philly cream cheese cheesesteak at Carmen’s, the summer-only lemon cooler cake at Termini’s etc.”
Certainly enough to assist in that blasted decision process, and samples are small enough that you’ll still have room to order a full version of what you liked the most.
The Market’s website calls it “fun history that has nothing to do with government”. Something to consider for the next field trip with the kids.
A True National Treasure
The Market has made a few appearances in American cinema, most notably in the 2004 hit National Treasure.
You may remember the scene: Abigail (Diane Kruger) and Riley (Justin Bartha) temporarily escape from villain Ian Howe’s (Sean Bean) henchmen in the Market, and Abigail temporarily hides behind the counter of Martin’s Quality Meats. The woman working behind the counter, after initially informing Abigail that she doesn’t belong there if she’s not a steak, lets her stay believing that she’s running from her ex-husband.
The movie crew brought in close to 50 extras to pose as customers (the woman behind the counter was an actress named Sharon Wilkins) and spent 14 hours on two Sundays filming the scene. Gabrielle Giunta, daughter of Martin’s owner Martin Giunta, told JerseyMan about it.
“The market was closed on Sundays, and they asked us to open and set the case on a Sunday to do the filming. The producer put an actress behind the counter for ‘customer service’ and they had to film the scene a bunch to get it right.
“A lot of people did ask us about that in passing – was pretty cool as a kid to hear people ask my dad about being in National Treasure.”
The chase scene, like the rest of the movie, turned out superbly. But the movie makers seriously screwed the pooch on feeding the crew. They brought in a trailer from an outside caterer, rather than letting the crew dine on the countless offerings from the Market itself.
If you’ve never seen the movie, you can view the scene on YouTube. (But check out the whole movie…it’s good.)
Bringing The Market To You
As Conor Murphy points out, the Market has partnered with Mercato, the online grocery delivery service. Thanks in part to the pandemic, you can now order food from most any Reading Terminal Market merchant, and have it delivered within a reasonable radius.
Be warned; the process of choosing isn’t any easier…but at least you can take some time to think about it. The merchants’ logos are featured in a rotating slider, enabling you to choose one and view their delivery offerings. Order a blackened chicken platter from Beck’s Cajun Café, a vegetable lasagna from By George, and a pound of smoked wings from Dienner’s. Add three chocolate swirl banana puddings from Sweet Nina’s for dessert, and you’ve got a few days’ worth of fantastic food in the comfort of your own digs.
It’s not cheap; the shopping excursion just described will set you back just over $75 if you’re sending it to Turnersville. But it spares you the gas, tolls, parking, and travel time, and Mercato will bring the fabulous flavors of the Market to your front door. Mercato offers discounted delivery when you join their Green service.
It’s a great way to experience the Market without leaving your home, which, as we’ve all recently learned, is something that could afflict anyone.
Philbert, The Reading Terminal Market Mascot
If you’ve visited the Market, you may or may not have noticed Philbert, the life-sized pig statue that sits on a box of coins in the center of the market. Philbert is named for Filbert Street, one of the streets adjoining the Market.
Philbert was sculpted by Eric Berg, who passed away of heart disease in May of 2020, at the age of 74. Other Berg structures in the city include the Drexel dragon, the panda at the Children’s Hospital, and the African Warthog at the Philadelphia Zoo. You can view his impressive body of work here.
In addition to being a popular Market meeting spot, Philbert is in fact a piggy bank; visitors can drop coins in its mouth, which eventually lands in the glass box on which Philbert sits. The money in the box is then donated to a different charitable organization each month, as determined by the Philly Food Trust.
You can rub his snout for good luck too, as many do; maybe it will help you make that all-important food choice at the market.
Source: Atlas Obscura
Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo make a substantial profit helping ordinary Joes raise money for causes. JerseyMan asked me to cover them for the December 2016 issue; you can view the PDF of the article here.
The Kindness of Strangers
Not very long ago, arranging a benefit involved considerable footwork.
You organized a golf tournament or pancake breakfast to raise money for the ailing and downtrodden. Or sold candy bars to pay for your kid’s Little League uniforms. Or peddled raffle tickets that people bought with internal groans, knowing they weren’t going to win the cruise.
It was difficult enough fundraising for people with genuine, maybe even life-threatening needs. Everyone wants to help the sick child. Try inviting folks to an overpriced spaghetti dinner to subsidize your drifter nephew’s musical career.
Today, if you have enough Facebook friends, you can raise money to help a blind man keep a retiring seeing eye dog, lessen the medical bills of Boston Marathon bombing victims, or finance the first new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in almost 20 years. All without leaving your doorstep.
It’s called “crowdfunding”, and it’s booming.
Out of dozens of crowdfunding sites, GoFundMe is arguably the biggest household name…it was valued at around $600 million when the founders sold it in June of 2015.
Like most such outfits, GoFundMe collects a portion of each donation, usually 5%, as the fee for its services, plus a payment processing fee of about 3%. For the $7.8 million (and counting) raised for victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting alone, GoFundMe took in a cool $624,000 in fees for one campaign.
GoFundMe is not a philanthropic entity. Nor does it pretend to be. It is a profit-driven company; the majority of donations are not tax-deductible.
If users and donors have a problem with this, most of them haven’t said so. Probably because it works: the profit motive benefits the philanthropists. It’s in GoFundMe’s interest to increase donation amounts. That they do very well.
GoFundMe has an easy-to-use interface to create a page and tell one’s story, the ability to easily share it on social media, and a secure donor payment system. They offer a primer with fact-based advice, like how sharing a campaign on Facebook increases donations by 350%. If your tale is particularly touching, GoFundMe will feature it on the front page, to be viewed by thousands of altruistic-feeling types.
GoFundMe is phenomenally successful because of the stories themselves…like making a home accessible for an Annapolis woman who defeated Hodgkin’s twice, only to become paralyzed by treatments. Or finding a residence for the homeless Boston man who discovered a bag containing $42,000 and returned it to its owner. Or enabling an 89-year-old Chicago gentleman to finally retire from selling popsicles on the streets. Anytime you think the world is full of selfishness and greed, visit GoFundMe and see countless stories of tragedy, inspiration, and astounding human generosity.
However fabulously wealthy that makes the owners of GoFundMe, 8% of donations going to expenses is better than most philanthropic organizations manage. According to Charity Watch, American Red Cross uses 10% of donations for overhead, while the ACLU sets aside a full 24%…which is still good enough for an A- rating. Few well-known charities operate at less than 8%.
GoFundMe’s focus is generally helping the less fortunate, but if you are looking to finance your new invention or book project, Kickstarter is more up your alley.
Aspiring entrepreneurs approaching venture capitalists may make for entertaining television, but there’s a reason ABC’s hit show is called “Shark Tank”.
In the show, naïve hopefuls strut into a room of wealthy businessmen to menacing music, as if they have no inkling of the psychological carnage in store for them. Mere minutes after executing an entertaining introduction of their product, resourceful inventors flail helplessly as the Sharks pounce on their weaknesses and one by one bow out of supporting their lifelong dream.
Imagine bypassing hat in hand encounters with tycoons whose only interest is becoming wealthier, and going directly to the masses to evaluate the market instead…which would probably show you whether a product will sell better than even the owner of QVC could.
Thanks to Kickstarter, it’s now just as easy to ask 1,000 people to contribute $25 to your project as it is to ask one person to contribute $25,000. All you need to reach that niche market is a description of your ultra-cool product with a few videos, and maybe some sweet perks for larger donors. Set a goal; if you reach it, the demand is probably there. What could be more free market capitalism?
Kickstarter shows that there can be an audience for almost anything one enjoys creating, no matter how off the reservation it may seem. One current project is an album of jazz interpretations of Nintendo NES video game themes. Before you ask what kind of nostalgic screwball pines for a jazz version of Legend of Zelda music, you should know that that campaign has raised $7,725 as of this writing, and is under $1,000 away from being fully funded. Yes, someone wants that.
Enabling dreams helps Kickstarter do pretty well with their bottom line too. At any moment, a visitor can view how much money has been committed to projects and how many projects have been successfully funded in the company’s history. As this sentence was written, those numbers are $2,707,572,645 and 114,642, respectively. Not bad for a company that employs just 115 people.
While GoFundMe allows users to keep all of the donations received whether a goal is reached or not, Kickstarter requires users to reach their stated goal or collect nothing. Kickstarter stresses that this is a good thing…it attaches motivation to get to the finish line when one is facing a fruitless campaign otherwise. And as a Kickstarter rep explains, “not reaching your goal can be very useful information.”
Kickstarter also deliberately avoids the type of charitable fundraisers that appear on GoFundMe…a potential donor could be conflicted seeing a disaster relief campaign next to a film idea they like. Indiegogo, which bills itself as “the largest global crowdfunding and fundraising site online”, doesn’t seem to mind this.
Does GoFundMe’s keeping a twentieth of what you raised for the cancer patient trouble you? If your cause is a charitable one, Generosity by Indiegogo collects only payment processing fees and charges no other fees. Your only challenge to keep that 5% is convincing your Facebook audience that Indiegogo is as reputable as GoFundMe, which isn’t difficult.
Otherwise, Indiegogo’s focus is entrepreneurial ideas. But unlike Kickstarter, Indiegogo isn’t “all or nothing”; should a goal be reached, users collect all of it minus a 4% fee, as opposed to 5% on Kickstarter. Users can also cut their losses…should the goal not be reached, they can keep what they have raised, this time for a 9% fee. The pressure is still there, but it isn’t as great…and might not be as motivational.
That doesn’t stop people from using Indiegogo, partly because of other advantages the company offers. Indiegogo, for example, allows a campaign to continue raising money after its end date. According to John Vaskis, Indiegogo’s head of Hardware, Technology and Design Outreach, “Entrepreneurs can raise more money on Indiegogo than anywhere else, because we are the only platform that provides pre-sales and retail options even after their crowdfunding campaigns end.”
One great example of this is Solar Roadways – yes, roads made from solar panels that melt snow and are lit with LEDs. Even in the face of some scientifically-based skepticism, Solar Roadways has raised over $2.2 million, and is now an ongoing “InDemand” Indiegogo campaign.
Should that one work out nationally, it would probably be worth Indiegogo’s four percent cut.
Crowdfunding eliminates a great deal of fundraising stress…not just by avoiding face-to-face rejection from humans with a lifetime of practice saying no, but also eliminating the fatigue from repeating a troubling story or elevator pitch.
When Tina Ottaviano of Mantua Township learned that her son Braison was diagnosed with a brain tumor (which has since, thankfully, stabilized – Braison is doing quite well), she set up a webpage through CaringBridge.org to tell his story and raise money for treatments. CaringBridge is not a crowdfunding site per se, but they do link journals to GoFundMe pages if users desire.
“As much as I appreciated people asking me about Braison,” she says, “it was draining on me. Sometimes I just didn’t want to talk about it.”
With CaringBridge, Ottaviano could “just give people the link, which would send email notifications when I made an update. Then people would tell other people, etc. I set up an external fund account to help raise money with all the costs.
“It was very successful.”
It takes a special kind of personality trait to coax hard-earned money from people, even for an undeniably worthy cause, that many of us lack. We’re too proud to ask without offering a chance to win a ski resort vacation in return. We’re all aware how irritating telemarketers are.
Sites like GoFundMe, Kickstarter and Indiegogo almost effortlessly target the audience for raising needed dough, and they enable a campaigner to agonize over the story just once.
Their balance sheets reflect a spectacularly grateful world.
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The “Benefit Corporation”
Remember when President George W. Bush ran as the “compassionate conservative”? The term implied that conservative = heartless. It was Dubya’s outreach to that “middle ground” voter. It might have been disingenuous or paradoxical, but the compassionate conservative did win two terms as president.
Similarly, the term “corporation” doesn’t have a great connotation these days; the words “corporate America” are usually enough to create those visions…a heartless board of directors caring only about stock prices and paying CEOs multi-million dollar bonuses after laying off hundreds of employees.
Kickstarter recently submitted the paperwork to become a “Benefit Corporation”, a seemingly paradoxical appellation that actually has some literal meaning. A Benefit Corporation is a real type of business, not just a feel-good phrase to direct attention away from the size of the profits. A Benefit Corporation must not only abide by laws of corporations, but must also follow standards based on the common good.
According to Wikipedia, a Benefit Corporation must consider the impact of its decisions not just for the stockholders but also the society and the environment. How that is determined varies by state but is usually judged by an independent third party.
As Kickstarter notes on its website: “Benefit Corporations are for-profit companies that are obligated to consider the impact of their decisions on society, not only shareholders. Radically, positive impact on society becomes part of a Benefit Corporation’s legally defined goals.”
GoFundMe and Indiegogo haven’t made the jump yet to following a stricter standard for the public good. But the move of states to create additional statutes is increasing.
A Glimpse Into The Future
With all of the advances in technology in the last 20 years, imagine what life will be like 20 years from now. Indiegogo can give you at least a potential idea with some of the ongoing projects featured in their tech section:
Moka 360 – The Moka 360 is the “world’s smallest 360 camera”. It is a camera that looks to be about two inches square, and it can take a full 360 video of its surroundings at the touch of a button. It has a magnet and can be mounted onto any metal surface, and can stream live video to your tablet. Private detectives will love this one. Current amount raised: $88,668.
Fizzics Waytap – This one’s already available…John Vaskis at Indiegogo mentioned it to me: “I own one and love it”, he says. It’s a device that takes bottled or can beer and uses sound waves (!) to create “from the tap” style beer, with a nice foamy head and much denser bubbles. The company says that the foam “creates a seal for the body of the beer, locking in the carbonation so the flavor stays fresh from the first sip to the last.” Current amount raised: $1,180,444.
Acton Blink eBoard – Remember the hoverboards from Back To The Future II? That might not be very far away. The Acton Blink is an electric skateboard…it can go 22 miles per charge and has 4-wheel drive for hill climbing power. The Blink is actually designed for commuters…it’s got bright wheels to enable you to “stand out in style”. Ever go 23 MPH on a skateboard? The Acton can do it. Current amount raised: $409,031.
Travelmate Robot Suitcase – Wouldn’t you love to use the Force to move your luggage through the airport instead of dragging it? The Travelmate suitcase can cruise along and follow you wherever you go. It can move at a clip of 6.75 MPH, which is probably faster than most people can walk, and it’s smart enough to avoid tripping people in the airport. The best part? You can put another bag on top of it. Current amount raised: $8,361.
Silent Partner – You knew this one would top a million bucks raised. It’s a smartpatch that quiets snoring by creating a “quiet zone” around the snorer: it senses the snoring sound and creates a counter sound to cancel the snore sound. There is a physics name for that phenomenon – destructive interference. The company calls it “subwavelength active noise cancellation”. Current amount raised: $1,424,086.
There’s a whole plethora of cool products like this…you can check them out in the “Tech” section of Indiegogo’s website.
Photo credit: Forsaken Fotos on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: Cinetics on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: juhansonin on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: TravelBakerCounty on Best Running / CC BY-ND
Crowdfunding dollar sign photo courtesy of JerseyMan Magazine.
Fizzics Waytap photo courtesy of Fizzics Waytap.
Aaron Cox, Millville area baseball star and best friend of MLB superstar Mike Trout, was drafted by the Angels in 2015. JerseyMan sent me to interview Cox for the Spring 2015 issue, and talk a little bit about his baseball superstar buddy too, for the Spring issue. You can view the PDF of the article here.
Sadly, Aaron Cox passed away in 2018 at the age of 24. I was devastated to hear that. He was a really nice kid and a great interview. R.I.P. Aaron.
Baseball’s best player is from a small town in South Jersey, and his high school buddy has just been drafted by the Angels. The two friends are still just Jersey kids.
On a baseball field, Aaron Cox has shown an uncanny ability to focus on the task at hand.
Even if that task is, say, pitching a no-hitter on his school’s Opening Day.
How focused was the Gannon University ace in shutting down opposing bats? He didn’t even know he was firing blanks until his team swarmed him after the victory.
“My teammates ran out of the dugout like we won the World Series,” Cox says. “And I was like, this is the first game of the season, what’s going on here? ‘You just threw a no-hitter!’
“I don’t know if it would have jinxed me if I started thinking about it or not. But it worked out.”
That story must be embellished, you think. Most of us would be aware if we were pitching a no-no in a backyard wiffle ball game.
Well, the Millville High alumnus had an additional distraction. He had to help his cause on offense. Cox was one of those multi-tool players that could hit, too.
“It was a tight game. I didn’t come into the dugout and think about what I had to do next on the mound. I was just as much in the game on the offensive side, so I think that was the biggest thing that kept me from realizing it.”
He has that mentality that coaches long for in a player. “I just wanted to get the win,” he shrugs.
Cox has a future in baseball. The young power arm has shown enough promise to be selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 19th round of this year’s draft.
It’s a fairly deep pick to assume that he’ll be on the mound at Angel Stadium anytime soon, but he’s already gone to work improving his chances. He’s ditched the hitting and expanded his pitch repertoire. According to his scouting report, his fastball touches 96, his slider has a big break, and he’s developing a change-up. If he can learn to throw all three for strikes at any time, he could turn out pretty nasty. The Inside The Halos blog mused that he could be a “quiet steal”.
A three-time All-Conference selection in high school. Ace of his high school and college staffs. The single season strikeout leader at his university—breaking his own record. A no-hitter to his credit. Now in the Angels farm system.
Not bad for a small town South Jersey kid. In fact, Cox was the best ballplayer to graduate from Millville High in, well, about three years.
You’ve probably heard of Millville. Especially if you’re a baseball fan. The town produced a ballplayer that now plays outfield for those Angels, a player whose nickname is “The Millville Meteor”.
You could say he’s pretty good. A .304 lifetime batting average. Led the league in RBIs in one season and in stolen bases in another. He’s been an All-Star in every season that he’s played. He’s also undefeated in winning Silver Slugger Awards. He was the American League MVP in 2014 and hasn’t yet finished lower than second in MVP voting…a guy named Cabrera had to win a Triple Crown to overtake him in 2012. At just 24 years old, he’s already clouted 139 home runs. He’s no slouch with a glove, either…YouTube has a few pages of videos of his negating pitcher mistakes with awe-inspiring catches.
You’ve heard of that WAR statistic? “Wins Above Replacement”? That all-encompassing number that no one understands but is supposed to define a player’s ultimate worth? Without a deep explanation (we have space limitations, but you probably know the depth to which statisticians go in baseball), FanGraphs states that he’s been worth more in Wins Above Replacement by age 23 than any other player in the history of the game.
Oh, and online voters on Topps’ website just named his baseball card to be #1 in the 2016 series. Collectors know. The stats are, after all, right there on the back of the cards.
So yeah, maybe he’s better than pretty good. He’s really, really good. Ludicrous good. Schizoid good. The phrase “best baseball player on Earth” is used to describe him fairly often, and it doesn’t lend itself to much argument.
Here’s how big a superstar Mike Trout is.
In the early weeks of spring training, there isn’t much to write about other than overly optimistic quotes from players and managers about the coming season. So blogs and websites looking for traffic need attention-grabbing headlines.
Maybe something like “Should the Angels trade Mike Trout”?
Yes, they said it. And believe it or not, there is a case to be made, however absurd the notion may seem. The Angels, you see, don’t have much of a farm system. ESPN writer Keith Law not only ranks it dead last among 30 teams, he says it’s the worst he’s ever seen. The team badly needs a future, so writers publicly ponder the sacrifices they’ll need to make. Or at least speculate a scenario that generates a must-click headline.
In response to the sudden wormhole in the baseball space-time continuum caused by the notion of a Trout deal, Grant Brisbee from SB Nation wrote a column with this headline: “The Angels Will Never, Ever, Ever, Ever, Ever Trade Mike Trout”. Yes, four “evers”. Here’s the quote from that article that best explains why: “It’s like selling a Honus Wagner card on the playground. Even if the 7-year-olds empty out their toy chests and video game collections, you’re still not going to be happy with the return.”
One can imagine going back in time to 1918 and reading a newspaper story with the headline “Should the Red Sox trade Babe Ruth?” Or even going back to 1991 and reading, “Should the Orioles trade Cal Ripken?” GMs who value their ability to avoid being hung in effigy know better.
“We like our chances” = zero traffic. “Trade Mike Trout” = web firestorm. Mission accomplished.
How does a mega-superstar from a town of 28,000 adjust to skyrocketing fame and wealth beyond recognition? By all accounts of those who know him, you wouldn’t even know the difference. The word “humble” is thrown around so reflexively that it’s almost his unofficial first name.
It’s remarkably difficult to find a Millville resident who doesn’t know Mike Trout personally. At the counter at Jim’s Lunch, the iconic 93-year-old Main Street diner, waitresses and customers all still refer to him as simply Mike, or even Mikey. As if he were a regular at the diner, which he still is, rather than the greatest baseball player in the known universe.
It’s the same at Millville High, where coaches and athletic directors talk about his senior year and the scouts regularly visiting town. The longtime baseball coach, Roy Hallenbeck, clearly has experience with journalists. He shows Trout’s locker, inspirational signs in the locker room, and the glass enclosure that displays his jersey and other gear. He has a picture of the scoreboard sign on the baseball field…now “Mike Trout Field” after Trout contributed to a renovation…stored on his phone ready to be texted. Like everyone else, Coach has nothing but praise for the local star.
It’s almost as if the townsfolk gather together to get their story straight about Millville’s most famous son for whenever reporters visit. But you know it’s real. Best case in point: the 2014 AL MVP is worth over $100 million now, and he’s still dating his high school sweetheart…who happens to be Aaron Cox’s sister.
Mike and Aaron are close, and the younger prodigy doesn’t dispute any of the hometown accolades for his mentor and friend.
“As long as I’ve known him, since he was a freshman in high school, he’s never taken anything for granted. Whenever I have a question I go to him, and we’ll sit down and talk. Whenever I need him, he’s there. In the off season he likes to be with friends and be a kid again. If you ever hung around him, he is a kid, trust me.”
Hallenbeck laughs at the humility attribute so frequently ascribed to Trout. The coach was quoted in an MLB.com article referring to Trout as a “killer”. He means it as a very flattering joke.
“To be clear about that, he really is a humble kid. He truly does appreciate everything he has. Just don’t compete against him, because it isn’t going to work out well for you…if you’re playing golf with him, or if you’re playing pickup basketball, or if you go bowling with him, he is going to beat you.
“I still have visions of him leading off of second base, just absolutely terrorizing pitchers. Not that he was doing anything demonstrative, just that he was so good, and so aggressive, and so competitive, everyone just knew he was gonna go and that they couldn’t stop him.”
Cox shares a story about the killer. “Out of the blue one day, we said, let’s go bowling. That was a month ago, and I think we went 25 times in the past month. I was better than him at first, and he didn’t like me beating him. We just kept going back, and now the guy at the bowling alley doesn’t make us pay because we come there so much. He has lanes reserved for us.
“It’s fun, because he’ll stick with something until he’s better than you at it. And I won’t let that happen!”
The trademark humility may come from being raised in a small town…or in a state with no shortage of people who will gladly bring you back to earth. The killer mentality probably comes from a father who scratched for every hit as a ballplayer himself.
Jeff Trout’s baseball career ended where the overwhelming majority of them do…in the minor leagues, where players are either shown to be insufficiently skilled or made so by increasing bodily wear and tear. Drafted by the Twins in 1983, Jeff played four years in the minors as a second baseman, hitting .321 in his last season in Orlando before finally growing weary of waiting for a promotion from the Twins. With a torn plantar fascia and worsening knees, Trout gave up baseball to raise a family.
The elder Trout doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s admitted to his defensive inadequacies in interviews, and at 5’9”, his size was probably a handicap too. He succeeded as a hitter, to a point, through guile and scrappy dedication.
Cox testifies to how Jeff instilled a work ethic in young Mike. “His dad would make him hit every night, do push-ups, do everything, eat the right things. He may have gotten by on just talent, because he was blessed with a lot of talent. But he wouldn’t be where he is today, how good he is right now, if he didn’t have the work ethic that he has.”
Jeff also learned Mike about dwelling on failure, as he once did. He told Ben Lindbergh at Grantland that “I really, really overthought the game at times…some of the things I struggled with I tried to give to Mike and teach him that’s not the way it should be done. He can shake a bad game off.”
No one can better teach a youngster how difficult baseball is, or how to appreciate God-given talent, than a player whose dream died in AA. Thanks partly to his father, Mike Trout is baseball savvy enough to stay grounded and determined.
Because as even Babe Ruth learned, sooner or later the game will humble everyone.
As Dave Lagamba, the athletic director at Millville High, shows this observer around the school grounds, he briefly chats with a groundskeeper about fixes needed to get Mike Trout Field ready for the coming season.
It’s a sudden reminder of what should be obvious…that Millville isn’t Mike Trout Central, or even Mike Trout Sideshow. Not even baseball’s biggest star can fix the town’s struggling economic conditions. Like in any other town, people go to work and raise their families and live their lives. As proud of the All-Star as Millville is, he and the locals still treat each other the same.
Of course he’s the same humble guy. Why wouldn’t a kid from a South Jersey small town be? All the money and fame one could ask for doesn’t change who someone’s parents are, the town they grew up in, their favorite food or who their high school influences were.
On a major league baseball field, there’s no denying that there’s something special and unique about the Millville Meteor. He plays baseball like a very small number of humans can. But back home, Mikey will likely always remain a guy who spends his spare time hunting and golfing with his buddies, challenging them to yet another round at the local lanes.
It’s not hard at all to imagine Mike Trout being enshrined in Cooperstown someday.
Or celebrating his induction with a burger at Jim’s.
College and minor league teams have been known to retire the numbers of major league greats, but Millville High decided on a better way to honor their greatest player…by using his #1 jersey as a motivator. Trout was asked what they wanted to do with the jersey, and according to Roy Hallenbeck, he gave his stock answer: “Coach, whatever you think is best.”
The #1 jersey is now awarded to the player best seen as the team leader…not necessarily the best player, but the player coaches want other players to look up to…someone who works hard, hustles, and stays grounded. The first player to wear the jersey after Trout’s departure? Aaron Cox, by winning the championship final against Lenape High.
Hallenbeck tells the story. “My assistant coach, Kenny Williams, said to Aaron, you win this game and we will give you the #1. Aaron was like, don’t you think you should check with Coach? Kenny said, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.”
It was no easy ride. Cox gave up a three run shot in the first but then blanked Lenape the rest of the way. “That Lenape team that we beat was just loaded,” Hallenbeck says. “They jumped on us early, and Aaron settled in the rest of the way. One of the most exciting games I’ve ever been a part of. That could have gotten away from Aaron. And it didn’t.
“We talk to our guys about leaving a legacy here, be that guy that we’re gonna refer to years after you’re gone. And we refer to that a lot. He absolutely earned the jersey that day, without a doubt.”
The “Millville Meteor”?
If you’re wondering how the nickname “The Millville Meteor” got attached to Mike Trout enough to be listed on his Wikipedia page, it’s probably because you’re not old enough to remember Mickey Mantle’s playing days. Don’t feel bad; most of us aren’t. This author’s father never even made the connection, and Mantle was his hero.
Mantle was and still is far more popularly known as “The Mick”, but he was also sometimes called the “Commerce Comet”, for his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma. The nickname was probably a nod to his running speed…something fans don’t always notice right away when a player can jack a ball 500 feet. In his autobiography, Mantle quoted Ted Williams as saying “If I could run like that son of a bitch, I’d hit .400 every year.”
Like Mike Trout, Mantle set the baseball world on fire early in his career with both his crushing bat and blazing speed on the basepaths, and like Trout, Mantle was from a small town whose notoriety quickly became about a baseball star.
So the “Millville Meteor” nickname, see, is a tribute to The Commerce Comet…another speedy power-hitting outfielder who was considered among the best of his generation.
Jim’s Lunch – Millville’s Other Great Institution
If you’re doing the Mike Trout Millville Tour, be sure to stop at Jim’s Lunch, the Main Street diner that has been serving locals for nearly a century. It’s still today a favorite of the Trout family, and the waitresses and customers know them well.
There’s some memorabilia, but the restaurant is thriving on the special sauce that is constantly being slathered on burgers, not the connection to the MVP. As one customer puts it, “They come here for Trout, they stay for the sauce.” It’s somewhere between chili and gravy, but not too close to either. The owners refuse to sell it in jars, lest anyone figure out the secret recipe.
Jim’s is perfect for Millville…an inexpensive, venerable, character-filled diner in the heart of an economically struggling town. Trout still frequents Jim’s in the offseason, and he’s been known to down six burgers in one sitting. (The burgers aren’t mammoth, but six still seems like a lot.) Burgers are even served on wax paper…as authentic as diner food gets.
Jim’s is no slouch in food quality, especially in a state where diners are barely distinguishable from one another. Not only is the secret sauce addicting, the home fries and Nana Rochelle’s caramel apple pie both perform well above expectations. Patrons will tell you that you can’t go wrong with anything.
Rochelle Maul, the owner, tells the story of Mike Trout’s first appearance at Jim’s…as an infant. Debbie Trout proudly showed her new son to the waitresses, calling him ‘our little Angel’. “True story,” Rochelle says with a smile, “and here he is playing for the Angels.”
When asked if she’s relieved that Debbie didn’t call Mike “our little Yankee”, Rochelle laughs and nods.
Unfortunately, you can’t stop at Jim’s on the way to Wildwood in the summer…it’s a longtime tradition that the owners take summers off. But an offseason trip is still worth it.
Precision Pistol shooters are phenomenal at focus…it’s quite a feat to be able to consistently nail an eight-inch wide target from 50 yards. JerseyMan sent me to cover the annual State Outdoor Pistol Championship for the December 2015 issue. I learned some amazing stuff. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
Shooting For Greatness
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols.”
At the end of “Rocky III”, Apollo Creed challenges Rocky to a rubber match between the two of them…to settle the score of who is the best, once and for all. As Apollo explains to Rocky, it’s only to prove it to himself…“no TV, no newspapers, just you and me.”
Because in the end, that is all that matters to a true competitor, at any level. Self-respect.
Rich Kang, a surgeon from Maryland, has had his picture added to the New Jersey Pistol website, as the Winner of the 2015 State Outdoor Pistol Championship. His name is now engraved on the Madore Trophy.
And that’s pretty much the extent of his recognition for this exceptionally difficult achievement. The top result of a Google search for “Rich Kang” is the LinkedIn profile of a California product developer with the same name.
Precision Pistol excellence isn’t something one pursues for stardom, applause or financial gain. There wasn’t much in the way of an audience or media…other than a lanky, curious writer for a popular men’s magazine…present at the championship event. Shooter Frank Greco likens it to golf: it may not be the most exciting spectator sport, but among participants, there is an unwavering admiration for the best.
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols. In the shooting world, badass is snipers,” he says. “In the pistol world it’s precision shooters.”
Greco is the Regional Vice President of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, based in Highland Lakes. A portion of this event took place at the Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club in Jackson. Greco didn’t participate in the competition, but he was there to explain the mystique of it, right down to the effect of donut consumption on shooters. True.
“The sugar raises the blood pressure and affects the steady hand,” Greco says, while offering a donut to this observer. “Sugar and caffeine in excess can be Kryptonite to a shooter.”
It’s that demanding?
To say the least.
Picture how far 50 yards is. 150 feet. Half of a football field. Now fathom being able to steadily aim and fire a pistol from that distance and consistently hit a target eight inches wide.
That’s just for an eight-point shot. For a 10-pointer, that target is just three inches wide; for a bull’s eye…which is used as a tiebreaker if two shooters have the same score…it is just an inch and a half.
Can that even be done with normal human vision? Yes, and the shooters on the firing line this day are proving it. With multiple types of firearms and various types of shooting…moving targets, rapid fire, timed firing.
It’s a three-gun match, with .22, centerfire and .45 caliber pistols. With each type of pistol, a shooter takes 90 shots. Those 90 shots are broken down into four matches: Slow Fire is two strings of ten shots each over ten minutes; National Match Course is ten Slow Fire shots, followed by two strings of five shots each at 25 yards; Rapid Fire is two strings of five shots each over ten seconds; and the Timed Fire Match is four strings of five rounds each, with 20 seconds per string.
All day long, the barrage goes on. Casings litter the ground. Wisps of dust float from the dune behind the targets. The unmistakable odor of gunpowder fills the air. Wrists snap back in recoil with larger pistols. The noise is thunderous and deafening at times, but that’s the only aural distraction allowed. No talking or other sounds behind the line. During one match a ringing smartphone is immediately shut off; only in church could that be more embarrassing.
It’s grueling, this full day of shooting. Comfortable footwear is a must.
Between rounds a horn sounds and a red light begins flashing. When the light is flashing, guns must be down, and must remain untouched until the flashing stops.
Ed Glidden, the director of the match, calls out instructions to the shooters, obviously with safety as the top priority. Cease fire, magazines out, make the firing line safe. Empty chamber indicators installed. Check your gun; check your neighbor’s gun. And so on, dozens of times. Glidden’s role looks boring to someone witnessing the action. But needless to say, it’s an essential one.
Part of Glidden’s occupation is training shooters in gun safety, including teaching youngsters in the club’s highly touted junior program. “Individual training,” he says, “is keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction at ALL times and treating every gun as if it were loaded. Constant awareness of the range officers and other shooters, to prevent and/or correct the slightest infraction until safety becomes a habit. Any unsafe practice will result in expulsion from the match and the range.”
The Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club people have a reputation for their focus on safe handling of lethal weapons. They are frequently praised for it in online reviews. It is particularly impressive to see younger people on the firing line, some barely in their teens, completely comfortable handling firearms. Partly because of Glidden’s repetitious direction, safety is second nature in this competition.
Besides, with the concentration required at tournaments like this, competitors have more than enough to occupy their minds.
Watching the shooters it appears as though they are cool as ice, with the focus, the concentration, the steady hand. But as one of the better shooters on the line can tell you, it takes years to develop this composure. And even he still grimaces at the occasional subpar shot.
Lateif Dickerson is the master instructor at the New Jersey Firearms Academy. His resume of other titles is very impressive: Certified Pistol Instructor, Range Safety Officer, Combat Handgunner at the School of Defensive Firearms, the list is long. He’s been training civilians, police and military for 19 years in various weapons usage and self-defense.
Dickerson can tell you a bit about becoming adept enough for this competition. There are three stages, he says…know how, physical conditioning and mental conditioning.
Know how is mastering the fundamentals… like stance, breath control, and recoil management. Stance “should be as comfortable but as stable as possible. Think like a crane; your legs are the outriggers, your arm is the boom.” Breath control is “basically holding long enough so you aren’t moving.” Recoil management is the ability to “consistently recover to the same place when shooting.”
Then there’s the physical conditioning.
“A match can go from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM, or longer. If you start fatiguing during a match your performance will fail. You must be able to hold the weight of your arm and gun up all day – and steady. Holding steady requires an isometric tension that needs to be developed also.”
But the mental preparation is by far the toughest part.
“The ONLY thing that should exist in your mind is that your sight is where it’s supposed to be as the trigger moves rearward…this is very hard. We all have a lot of noise and distractions, so conditioning your mind to focus is a process. That process is largely the challenge in shooting.”
Frank Greco emphatically agrees, sharing a story of his own self-defeat in the mental aspect of the game.
“When you’re in it, on the line, loading, in the zone, improving your score, it’s incredibly intense and extremely difficult mentally.
“One of my first times I experienced the ‘mental game’ was in the NY State Championship. The match director came over to me and asked me if I knew I was shooting better than most of the Experts and Masters. I said no, and got accidentally sidetracked, thinking I was going to win the match. The lost focus immediately showed; my shots were random and my scores went down.
“It’s vital to maintain a positive outlook and to speak to yourself in positive statements. It’s important to train your subconscious mind and create a positive self-image.”
He pulls out his smartphone and shows this observer a picture of a target, the high-value section of it riddled with bullet holes. Sometimes, he says, he needs to look at it during a match, to remind himself what he’s capable of.
It’s all undeniably worth the effort.
The true reward of Precision Pistol, as Greco relates from his own personal experience, is self-respect…the realization of one’s hidden abilities and the ability to meet the most difficult of challenges. Once a person can hit that one-and-a-half inch bull’s eye from half of a football field away, it’s hard to imagine how monthly bills could faze them.
“Great shooters have an almost Zen-like approach to shooting and how they approach their daily lives, jobs, etc. Since I started, my ability to focus has sharpened dramatically, and it’s positively benefited other areas of my life. The ability to focus on what matters, and disregard unimportant matters, literally frees your mind.
“The benefits are real, and to that extent, shooting has made me a better person.”
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Get Started With Precision Pistol Shooting
If you’d like to try Precision Pistol Shooting, there is a website dedicated to helping you get started, with several informative pieces from top shooters. The site is called “The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol”.
Among the articles is a piece by site owner John Dreyer about essential equipment. There’s a lot to know when laying out the considerable funds for pistols…like whether they are mass-produced or hand built, or the differences between high performance and convertible pistols. Not to mention other necessary equipment, like eye and ear protection, scopes and cleaning supplies. Pistol shooting is not a cheap sport, so spend wisely.
Another piece by Dreyer quotes several Zen philosophies and describes the achievements in pistol shooting in how they relate to such quotes. One example: “A man who has attained mastery of an art reveals it in his every action.” Dreyer compares this to pistol shooting in the sense that once a shooter can sustain an “empty mind”, he can see “underlying principles in everyday life and life in all things”.
Another piece from top shooter Jake Shevlin reveals the “secret” to shooting high scores. It’s the same secret one learns about how to get to Carnegie Hall…practice, practice, practice. The shooter must sacrifice…sacrifice time, money, convenience, and priorities in life to excel at just one thing. Top marksmanship requires a level of commitment unmatched by few endeavors. That, says Shevlin, is the “secret”.
The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol website also features a discussion group, e-mail updates, and links and maps to shooting clubs and ranges.
Multiple Champion Dave Lange on Dry-Firing
Dave Lange’s name appears a lot on the NJ Pistol website. He has won the overall state outdoor championship nine times since its inception in 2001; the only other shooter who has won it more than once is Ron Steinbrecher, who has captured the title just twice. Lange was also the NJ resident champion in 2015, though he lost the overall title to Rich Kang.
Lange is the author of a piece for Shooting Sports USA, linked to the NJ Pistol website, detailing the benefits of dry-firing…firing a weapon without ammunition. With dry-firing, a shooter can focus on weaknesses, like maintaining consistent grip. Lange states in the piece that he practices his dry-firing three times a day, 15 minutes each time.
With dry-firing, a shooter can run a mental program through his mind of executing a successful shot; Lange’s program involves picturing a red dot in the center of the bull’s eye and then picturing the bull’s eye with the bullet hole in the center.
Dry-firing can address any shooter’s specific problem, Lange says. The key is being willing to commit to it until a shooter’s scores improve. Given his success, he’s probably got a point.
The Best in the Nation
The NJ State Outdoor Pistol Championship, according to Frank Greco, is the 3rd largest of such events in the nation; the national event, known as the “World Series of the Shooting Sports”, takes place in Camp Perry, Ohio, 40 miles east of Toledo. Events have been held there since 1907.
The overall National Pistol champion for 2015 is Keith Sanderson from Colorado Springs. He scored an incredible 2,655 points out of a possible 2,700. Second was Brian Zins with a score of 2,641. Sanderson is an Olympic gold medalist; Zins was the 2007 NJ State Champion.
To put those scores into perspective, do the math: 2,655 divided by 270 shots equals an average shot score of 9.83…so Sanderson’s average shot was almost always in that three-inch range for ten points, with maybe one or two in a hundred falling outside of it for a nine-pointer.
The difference between Sanderson’s and Zins’ score was just 14 50-yard shots out of 270 that covered a five inch range instead of three.
One wonders if Zins thought about having a donut the week before the match.
The Phillie Phanatic is the greatest mascot in sports…largely because original Phanatic Dave Raymond simply put on the costume, went out and had fun. I had a chance interviewed Dave, who now creates team mascots as the owner of Raymond Entertainment Group, for the April 2015 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
The Power of Fun
Imagine being a business owner who is looking to improve your marketing. You want a smart, polished, exciting campaign to bring life into your adequate but unmemorable image. You want to target a younger audience that otherwise might not discover your product.
Needless to say, this problem requires professional expertise, so you call in a consultant.
A consultant who, for much of his adult life, made his living wearing a furry green costume, recklessly riding around in an ATV and thrusting his ample hips at sports officials.
Because if your company is a minor league baseball team, and the idea is to bring more kids to the ballpark, and you want to create a mascot on that basis, hiring the original Phillie Phanatic to handle the design is a no-brainer.
As the man behind arguably the most beloved mascot in sports, who today is the “Emperor of Fun” at Raymond Entertainment Group, Dave Raymond understands the marketing value of a fun diversion.
Even if he learned it by accident.
“The joke was that the Phillies got the kid that was stupid enough to say yes,” Raymond says with a laugh. “I was a student at the University of Delaware. I had my fraternity brothers telling me, ‘they’re gonna kill you, they’re gonna hang you in effigy and set you on fire, and that’s when the Phillies win! When they lose you’re really gonna get in trouble!’
“That first day, I went into Bill Giles’s office and said, ‘Mr. Giles, what do you want me to do?’ A smile came across his face and he said, ‘I want you to have fun.’ I was tearing out of his office thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be easy,’ and he screamed, ‘G-rated fun!’
“The first night I fell over a railing by accident, and people laughed. So I was thinking, I have to fall down more. Slapstick humor was something I loved, I was a Three Stooges fan, I watched all the cartoons. It was Daffy Duck and Foghorn Leghorn and Three Stooges because that’s what they laughed about.”
Dancing with the grounds crew quickly caught on, too.
“The first night I did that, I tripped one of the guys by accident, the kid tripped and fell, and people laughed. That turned into me running around the bases and at each base I would knock one of the kids over, and then we would all gather behind home plate and dance. Fans were giving us standing ovations, because they’d never seen the grounds crew animated!”
In a rabid and brutally unsentimental sports town, it also didn’t hurt that the Phanatic could so effectively taunt the opposition. Tommy Lasorda, who could often be described as a cartoon character himself, once even wrote a blog post titled “I Hate The Phillie Phanatic”.
Raymond gets along with Lasorda and has read the post. Their feud was usually friendly, but it could escalate: “One night he just snapped, and he came out and tried to beat the ever-lovin’ you-know-what out of the Phanatic.”
The two smoothed it over, but Raymond retains his proud Philadelphian perspective towards the Dodgers icon. “He’s a wonderful ambassador for baseball; the only problem with him is that he’s a Dodgers fan from Philadelphia. Worst type of traitor we could ever have,” he laughs.
“I understood the psyche of the Philadelphia fan. I was one of them! I hated the Mets, I hated the Yankees, I hated the Celtics. And the Dallas Cowboys, to this day, I see Tony Romo in a commercial about pizza and I run and turn the TV off. I knew the fans would cheer when I stepped on a Mets hat or made fun of the Dodgers. I wanted to do that, because I hated the Dodgers, and I hated the Mets!
“It was that type of thing, and you put all those together and make a cartoon character out of it.”
Today Dave Raymond brings a lifetime of experience as a world-famous character to Raymond Entertainment Group, which designs and builds mascots for sports teams and even corporations.
REG focuses on marketing the Power of Fun. It’s not an easy trick to blend two seemingly opposite concepts like fun and business, but Raymond can speak from solid experience.
“I watched my kids become Phillies fans because of the Phanatic. They wanted to go to games because they had fun. And they learned how to watch baseball and appreciate baseball. My daughters fell in love with the players because they looked cute in baseball uniforms. And now they are not letting me leave when I want to beat the traffic. From a marketing standpoint, the Phanatic’s building baseball fans.”
So in dealing with clients, Raymond emphasizes how valuable—to their bottom line—their furry representative can be. The goofy character in a bird costume is a worthwhile business investment, and for it to pay off, it needs to be done right.
“The first thing we do is make sure they understand the difference between a kid in a costume and a character brand. A character brand is a living, breathing extension of your brand, and a kid in a costume is just that.
“We research who they are in terms of the organization’s history, and who their community is in terms of the history. We help sketch out a back story that becomes the story of the character.
“They look at designs and they play Mr. Potato Head, they tell us what they like or more importantly what they don’t like, and then we go back and continue to draw until we get a design, we assign the copyright to that design, and then build multiple costumes for them. We help prime performers and train them.
“Also, what are you doing with the character brand? How are you rolling it out? How are you trying to get sponsorships? By the time we roll out the character, they should already know when they’re going to make all their money back, and when they’ll start making a profit.
“If they don’t do due diligence, frankly, I don’t want them as a customer. If they don’t want the best, they’re not gonna value the best.
“There are people saying I need a kid to get in my suit; right away I know that’s probably a client I don’t want. This is a character costume, it’s not a suit. It’s not a kid, it’s a trained performer. If you don’t want that, we’re not the ones for you. It’s a good thing not to waste time trying to make people buy from me. You’re not going to be able to service everybody.”
That’s not to say that REG doesn’t have a long list of satisfied clients; happy customers include the Cincinnati Reds, whose mascot “Gapper” is an REG creation, the Toledo Mud Hens, the Delmarva Shorebirds and the Phillies affiliate Lakewood Blue Claws, among many others. Raymond estimates that REG has created over a hundred characters, including at least ten for corporations.
“What separates us is that no one has the track record of success that we’ve had for not only designing and building, but also helping clients make money, drive revenue and brand, find performers and train them.”
It’s a seemingly natural progression for Raymond: from being an eager young intern who spent sixteen years bringing an inimitable brand of fun to a community, to now supporting a family by showing others how they can do it too.
“I’ve been to a lot of business training seminars, and they always ask what your ‘why’ is. My ‘why’ is, I want my marriage to be great, I want my kids to have good parents, and I want them to grow up and get married and have a great family. Every time I get a check for something, I’m going this is great, now I can pay my salary, and I can invest in what’s important to me, which is my kids and my relationship with my wife.
“Also, I’ve been delivering this presentation, which is the life lesson that the Phanatic has taught me, how powerful fun is to building a family and raising kids or whatever you’re doing. Using fun as a distracting tool is so powerful.
“That’s truly what I love doing more than anything else, getting in front of people and telling these stories and hopefully giving them something that helps them. I’m focused on going into Philadelphia, in the corporate community, and preaching the Power of Fun.”
If anyone knows how to appeal to sports types in the City of Brotherly Love, it’s Dave Raymond. After all, he’s lived it.
“One of the things I miss the most about not working as the Phanatic is the connection to the Philadelphia fan base. Once Phillies fans love you, they love you forever, and it’s almost impossible to do anything to get to the point where they don’t love you.
“That was the beauty of being the Phanatic.”
“This Costume Stinks!”
One service that Raymond Entertainment Group offers is costume cleaning…a surprisingly neglected aspect of mascot performance for many teams. The cleaning includes a “State of The Fur” analysis. A performer in a smelly costume is not a pleasant one, as Dave notes.
“The Phanatic opportunity for me, it truly was the best job you could ever imagine. But there were things about it that I hated. I hated that costume getting beer spilled on it, for example. I’m very anal retentive, I can’t stand things out of place, and it just drove me crazy. So I was meticulous about how I cleaned that costume.
“The first year, the people in New York that built it said they couldn’t wash it. You couldn’t even imagine what it smelled like. I finally just threw the thing in my bathtub with Woolite. I thought, I don’t care if I ruin it, it can’t smell like this anymore. When I got done cleaning it, it smelled great, and I wrote a note to the people in New York saying hey, this is how you clean it, and they were like, wow!”
Dave actually will frequently take on the cleaning tasks at REG. “This is what small business is about. I’m cleaning a lot of costumes myself. It’s just something that doesn’t require any great skill; you just spend a little time doing it. I have people that help and clean and restore the costumes. But I jump in there and do it a lot. It’s one of those healthy distractions for my mind.”
The “State of The Fur” analysis is for advice on cleaning and storage. “We try to give them feedback on what we all think they’re doing based on what is wrong with the costume. We want to have our eyes on it, because then our costumes last longer. Then people will say hey, when you get a costume from Raymond Entertainment it lasts for ten years.
“We prefer that rather than make money on rebuilding costumes, although we do that. It’s better that they know that their costume lasts three times longer than the competition.”
Mascot Boot Camp
Although Raymond Entertainment Group trains performers as part of their character creation package, Dave Raymond also hosts “Mascot Boot Camp”, where performers spend a weekend learning all about the business of being a character in a costume and non-verbal communication. It’s for everyone from new mascots learning the trade to longtime performers looking to rehabilitate their skills.
“It’s a great reality experience. If you want to experience what it’s like to be a mascot, come and experience mascot boot camp,” Dave says. “We’ve never marketed it for that, but it’s a lot of fun and they learn to move and communicate non-verbally, they learn how to take care of their costume, and learn how to take care of themselves physically.
“It’s a deep dive into mascot performance, there’s a real method to it now, where once it was Bill Giles telling me to go have fun.”
There’s another important rule of mascot performance: keep it safe.
“Lighting yourself on fire and jumping off a building and crashing into the ground might be something that people will talk about from now until the end of time, but you’re gonna kill yourself. And you’re gonna ruin the costume.”
REG’s “Angel Investor” – Sir Charles
Every business needs capital to get off the ground, and when Dave Raymond sought an investor for his idea to design and build characters, he found what he calls an “angel investor” who is well familiar with Philadelphia sports…Charles Barkley.
“When he would come to the Phillies games,” Raymond says of Sir Charles, “he would have fun with the Phanatic and we did a couple of routines here and there, where he was smacking the Phanatic around. It was fun. Charles invited me to hang out with him and some of his friends in Birmingham when I was doing minor league baseball in Birmingham one weekend.
“I just called him up, and he said my financial guy likes it, I’ll be happy to do it. His financial guy said listen, people haven’t paid Charles back over the years. I said, well, I’m dedicated to paying him back. I haven’t paid him every cent back, but he keeps telling me don’t worry, it’s no big deal. Charles just wanted to help. In the description of an angel investor, Charles Barkley’s picture should be in whatever dictionary or manual that is talking about angel this or that.
“Nobody knows that sort of thing. Charles has done that hundreds of times, he’s just a generous guy, one of the best people on the planet. I’ll be working until I close the business down to make sure he gets every penny back.”
Dave Raymond did some consulting for the 76ers in the rollout of their new mascot, a blue dog named Franklin. The humorous back story of Franklin on the 76ers website shows Franklin’s “ancestors” throughout Philadelphia history, including a missing bite out of Wilt Chamberlain’s “100” sign following Wilt’s 100-point game.
Raymond believes Franklin will be a success, despite the recent “controversy” surrounding the character—that Darnell Smith, who wears the Franklin costume, was a Knicks fan.
“One of the things he said to me was, I really need to be a Philadelphia fan, you gotta help me with who the Philadelphia fans are. He worked for MSG, and he was a mascot for the Liberty, the WNBA team. He’s done a lot of work with their performance team, the dunk team, all of that for the Knicks.
“Darnell is an awesome human being and an unbelievably gifted performer. I went to the first game that he was at just a couple of weeks ago and brought my kids, and he was kind enough to come up and interact with us. All the fans in our section were screaming for him. It was for kids by kids, which is what Tim McDermott said he wanted to do.
“What’s nice about it is that he recognized that getting in touch with the psyche of the Philadelphia fan was important. That just shows what a good performer he is. He’s an asset to the 76ers organization, I’m glad they got him.”
The story of the founding of the HEADstrong Foundation is both heartbreaking and inspiring. I interviewed Cheryl Colleluori, the president of the Foundation, for Winter 2019 issue of JerseyMan. She is a remarkable, exceptional human being…a true warrior and survivor. You can read the article on JerseyMan’s website or you can view the PDF of the article here.
The HEADstrong Foundation is the brainchild of Nick Colleluori, who lost his life to cancer at the age of 21. Like Nick, the Foundation is relentless in helping patients and families affected by the disease.
Nick Colleluori sketched out the HEADstrong Foundation logo on his way to an operating room, in the midst of his battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
His mother, Cheryl, remembers it well.
“He asked me for a piece of paper and pencil. I didn’t have a paper and pencil, but I gave him a napkin and he just started doodling. I wasn’t even paying attention. My husband and I were sitting there talking, trying to remain calm, giving him that assurance that this was going to be okay.
“They’re wheeling him in, and he turns the napkin around and said, ‘here’s the logo.’ I said, what are you talking about? He said ‘the logo for the Foundation. I’m starting it.’
“I thought to myself, man, this kid is relentless!”
When the 19-year-old three sport athlete was diagnosed with the disease that ultimately would take his life, he wouldn’t spend a minute letting anyone feel sorry for him.
“He made it really easy for us,” says Cheryl, who is now president of the Foundation. “He made the whole journey just very bearable, if you can imagine that. He was so upbeat, and you would never ever see a frown on his face. I felt very privileged that I was his mom.”
Nick spent his 14-month fight…which was 11 months longer than doctors initially anticipated…noticing every resource that was lacking for cancer patients and their families. Challenges like financial help, a place to stay during treatments, and the need for understanding and support. As his mother says, at a time when he could have been selfish, he chose to help others instead.
Today the HEADstrong Foundation he founded is doing just that, in a huge way.
They connect patients with survivors to speak with and mentor them through the ordeal. They host events and provide entertainment for patients throughout the year, including an annual Thanksgiving feast at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. And patients coming to Philadelphia for treatment can stay in Nick’s House, in either of two locations in the Philly suburbs.
The idea for Nick’s House was born out of the Colleluoris visiting NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, for a clinical trial.
“We were in an 8×10 room and there were seven of us,” Cheryl remembers. “We were on sleeping bags. We were so grateful, but it was not conducive for a long term living arrangement. We met a family living out of their car, which is not unusual. We thought, let’s do something.
“Our first Nick’s House was born seven years ago, and we refinanced our house to purchase this house. It took my husband six, seven months to renovate. The second home in Swarthmore opened in February after one year of renovation.
“We’re not just children, we’re all ages. Pediatric, geriatric. We are all cancers. And the common theme is that they’re traveling a distance of 50 miles or more, and they’re coming here for an extended period of time. Nick’s House becomes their home. They can read a book, be part of the neighborhood, go for a walk, you know, they’re in a safe and secure environment.
“I just love it. I’m so proud of it. The greatest gift for me is seeing complete strangers become one family.”
That the Colleluori family has been there is their greatest asset in helping other families.
“When people come to Philadelphia for treatment, they’re leaving behind everything they know. We become their family and their support system. We are very family rooted, hands on, in the trenches with the families. We are that family. We were that family. We understand everything that they’re going through.
“I get this a lot: When will I know, when should we make the decision, if things aren’t going well? And my response is, you’re going to know. I also say, don’t go there until you have to.
“A lot of times the minute you hear the diagnosis, oh my God, my child’s going to die. Well, guess what, we have seen hundreds of children that are still here with us, that have made it, that have survived. My message to other parents is keep positive no matter how bad it gets, and don’t go there.
“That little bit of information was shared with me, because I went down that path too. You hear the word cancer and you’re just in such a tailspin. You don’t even know what to do next.
“One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was from a mother of a terminally ill child. She held my hand and looked into my eyes and says, you are my role model. Those are the only five words that I ever need to hear, to know that she can see me standing still. I’m still standing.”
Cheryl Colleluori is never afraid to be human. She has no problem choking up and occasionally pausing to gather herself, even while speaking with a writer she’s never met over the phone. But in mere seconds she is back in the game, speaking of the goals of the Foundation. “Be relentless” is its motto.
JerseyMan has profiled dozens of successful entrepreneurs. They almost always speak of the importance of getting back up again. That there is no substitute for perseverance.
If you want to see an example of someone who relentlessly gets back up, it’s Cheryl Colleluori. She is still going strong every day, meeting with patients, consoling them, supporting them every way she can. Like her son, she’s as great a teammate as you could ask for.
There are, of course, moments. The blow life dealt her was enough for her to faint dead away in her first visit to a hospital, to distribute “Comfort Kits” to cancer patients.
“I stepped out of the elevator and passed out,” she remembers. “Because all of a sudden what hits you is the smells, the sounds. You know when you’re walking into the room. I was thinking, I don’t know if I can do this.”
But she did. Because her son’s relentlessness still gives comfort and hope to thousands. Cancer may have taken his life, but even now, he won’t let it beat him.
After Nick’s passing, the family was so heartbroken that they sought a medium to possibly bring them some comfort. Cheryl says that to their surprise, the medium knew things that no one could have known, including details about Nick and his girlfriend of eight years, Jordan, exchanging wedding vows the night before he passed.
“The medium said to me, ‘your son is telling me that you are his mouthpiece.’ When I got the phone call two days later to speak, my husband said you can do this for our baby. That was the start, and the rest is history.
“He is guiding us. There’s no doubt in my mind that he is still providing the direction and my inspiration.”
When the doctors could do no more for Nick and sent him home, he took the car keys from his devastated father and let his mother drive. On the way home, he spoke with her about his final wishes, including for Cheryl to take HEADstrong as far as it could go.
“He said, Mom, look into my eyes and tell me that you can do this for me. His exact words to me were, ‘I want other people to benefit from my life.’
“How do you say no to that?”
Helping The Foundation Stay HEADstrong
The HEADstrong Foundation has been an enormous success since the passing of its founder Nick Colleluori in 2006. They have raised over $14.4 million and have assisted over 15,500 families affected by cancer. In addition to two Nick’s House locations that can simultaneously host eight families, they served Thanksgiving meals to five floors of patients in 2018, have hosted dozens of fundraising events and have delivered hundreds of their “Comfort Kits”.
But as Cheryl Colleluori will tell you, it’s not without challenges. Nick’s House requests are frequently coming in, as more families travel from hundreds of miles away for specialized treatment that is only available here. She notes that there are 280 families a month in need of housing just in Philadelphia.
Families at Nick’s House are charged nothing for their stays, which can often be 50 days or more. This is in addition to their financial grants for families struggling with costs, dinners and events, and the multiple other services HEADstrong provides to families.
“We want to have the greatest impact we can in Nick’s name,” Cheryl says. “We want to help as many people as we can, and make sure we have the right people in place that bleed like we bleed, that breathe like we breathe. We have a lot of people that we’ve helped that have lost their loved one and they now have an opportunity to set up fund in that loved one’s name, and paying it forward for the next family. And that’s been a nice opportunity of growth for us.”
Nick’s House and the HEADstrong Foundation subsists entirely through volunteers, partnerships and donations. If you’d like to contribute or volunteer, you can find out how at https://headstrong.org.
The Comfort Kit
One of Nick’s innovative ideas for helping cancer patients was borne out of the experience of being on call for hospital visits. It’s called the “Comfort Kit”, and the HEADstrong Foundation regularly delivers them to cancer patients.
“A lot of times when someone’s admitted to the hospital,” Cheryl says, “you need to report right now because there’s a room available. Or, you’re in the emergency room and you’re admitted on the spot. You don’t have anything with you from home.”
The Comfort Kit includes a set of items that people without experience in this realm probably wouldn’t think of, as she explains:
A journal and a pen – “2:00 in the morning you wake up and ‘oh my gosh, is this normal? I have a question for the doctor. Am I going to remember?’ There’s your journal, jot the question, write it down.”
A blanket – “It provides warmth and comfort and it personalizes the room.”
Tissues with aloe – “Tissues in the hospital are so paper thin.”
A toothbrush and toothpaste – “A soft bristle toothbrush, because toothbrushes in hospitals fall apart when you use them.”
A gift card – “I don’t have any money and I need to get out of the parking lot. Or, I could really go for coffee, let me run down to the cafeteria. Oh darn it, I don’t have any money. Well, don’t worry about it, because there’s your gift card.”
Information about HEADstrong’s Peer Support – “You just never know when somebody’s losing it on the floor and they want to talk to somebody.”
Comfort Kits are hugely appreciated by patients, Cheryl notes. “It’s just a great way to enter somebody’s room and say, hi, how are ya? I’m Cheryl Colleluori with the HEADstrong Foundation. I’m thinking of you today and I hope this makes you smile. I hope that you know that there’s somebody here fighting for you that you don’t even know. A lot of times people are like, I was hoping you were going to come, I heard about this!
“I get great reward out of bringing a smile to someone’s face and my team. We go down with about 15 volunteers, and every one of those volunteers are survivors that I met as I handed out their comfort kit.”
The Mental Game
The HEADstrong Foundation’s Peer Support program connects survivors and family members to share their deepest and most private concerns. Generally they will find a survivor of the same age group and background to speak with a patient or family member.
“My sons are very involved,” Cheryl says. “They talk to siblings, my husband talks to dads, I talk to moms and dads, and the peer support is not over when someone passes. If the person’s gone a couple of years, it doesn’t mean the relationship with the HEADstrong Foundation is over. We’re still very highly involved with families.”
HEADstrong is relentless in helping people stay as upbeat as possible. But Cheryl absolutely understands that it’s almost impossible for patients not to get down sometimes. “There’s a lot of sadness. We cry right with people.
“We try to talk about other things. We try to get people’s minds off of the fact that their health is declining. If somebody wants to talk about it, I will, we understand. Nick was tired, we know. But if we get somebody’s mind off of it, they forget. A lot of it is a mental game.
“In two weeks, we’re going to the Sixers game, and we’re taking 26 people with cancer with us. We do the programs in the hospital, we have people in wheelchairs and oxygen, and IV poles. They’re getting blood and getting chemo and we bring them into the room and have a magic show, or we play bingo. Or we have jazz night and they’re singing and clapping. If it’s for an hour, we’ve just improved their mental state.
“We’ll do art therapy. One guy, I’ll never forget, he was so weak. We took him back to his room and the next thing we know, he’s back. The nurse has got him back at the door and I said, are you okay? He’s like, ‘I have to finish this for my daughter.’
“He finished the painting, and I took him back and he said, ‘can you place it right there for me? I’m going to take a picture, I’m going to send it to her.’ He said, ‘you’ve given me the motivation I needed to get the heck out of here and get home to my daughter.’ We still keep in touch with him today.
“It’s just those little things to help people get through the darkest days.”
Andrew Einstein is one of our nation’s true heroes, yet he was driven to the brink of suicide resulting from a head injury and lost sense of meaning. JerseyMan sent me to interview him as he told me what real strength was to him. You can read the article on JerseyMan’s website here, or view the PDF of the article here.
Surviving Until Tuesday
Camden County Police Officer and U.S. Marine Sergeant Andrew Einstein speaks openly about being on the brink of suicide, pulling himself out, and living a life with purpose again.
On August 5, 2011, in the Sangin Valley region of Afghanistan, Sergeant Andrew Einstein of the U.S. Marine Corps sustained a brain injury from a grenade attack.
He didn’t think it was a big deal at the time.
“Kids would throw rocks at patrols and stuff to mess with us,” Einstein says. “I remember looking down and going, it’s just a rock. I saw there was an Afghan soldier, and his eyes were just like…I looked back down and said, oh, that’s not a rock. As I went and turned to get away from it, I got a couple of steps and it went off.
“I remember grabbing my ear, my ear hurt so much. I yelled, I fell into one of the rooms. I crawled out and that same Afghan soldier, he was wearing a white shirt, he fell to where I was and his white shirt was red.
“I remember being really confused. I said, why is his white shirt red? He obviously had received some shrapnel, and I put a tourniquet on one arm and then I went to put a tourniquet on another arm. They took care of him, and I sat back and lit a cigarette.”
He wasn’t bleeding, he didn’t lose any limbs, and he had no bullet holes. Just migraines. To Einstein, it wasn’t a “real” war wound…especially happening on the same day that fellow Marine Daniel Gurr was killed.
He was, he knew, ready to get back to the fight.
A country that values freedom never has enough people like Andrew Einstein wearing military uniforms. But as it turned out, the injury was a big deal. Less than a year later, it was a contributing factor in his decision to end his life.
That, and a lost sense of meaning back home.
“Coming home feels great,” Einstein says. “Then you realize that life went on, and you’ve got to figure out how to get back into your old life. And then comes a time, at least for me, where I said, I want to go back. I need that responsibility and that purpose that I had over there.
“I know the head injury really caused a lot of issues. The biggest issue was the hearing loss and then the memory issue. I was afraid that if I got help, they would take my badge and gun and say, sorry, you can’t be a cop anymore. I’ve been a cop since I was 18. That’s all I know. And I love being a cop. Aside from being a Marine, this is my life.”
As Einstein increasingly saw it, it was a no-win. Fight your losing battles alone or give up the responsibility. As time went on, the stress of what he perceived to be a meaningless life continued to mount.
By May of 2012, he couldn’t take it anymore.
“I wrote letters to my family. I’ll never forget what I wrote to my youngest sister. I apologized. Because up until that point, she looked at me as this hero. I was her brother, a police officer, a Marine who went over and fought for our country. I said, I’m sorry for lying and making you think I was so much stronger than I actually was, and I’m not a hero. I’ll never forget writing that because those words were the hardest.
“I put the bottle of pills next to my bed. I went out and drank so much that my friends plopped me on the couch. No one knew that 15 feet into the bedroom there was a bottle of pills that I’m planning to kill myself with. I remember waking up the next day, and I was disgusted. I couldn’t even kill myself.”
The date Einstein picked to be his last was fortuitous. He wanted the new dog he had agreed to pick up the following morning to have a loving home, and not be his family’s responsibility. After failing his suicide attempt, he went to pick up the dog.
It turned out that Gunner, his new Silver Labrador, didn’t need a loving home. He needed a purpose too.
“As soon as I picked the dog up, I said, ‘I can’t kill myself, because I’ve got to be there for this dog now.’ All of a sudden I had responsibility again. Even when I was still doing the things I was doing, he was there for me. He didn’t judge, he didn’t care; he loved me. He would lay right on me.”
Einstein gives Gunner credit for saving his life. But he soon caught another break when his chief at the Riverton Police Department, John Shaw, could see he wasn’t well.
“He said, I don’t want you to lose your job, and I want to help you. I said, well, if he’s reaching his neck out for me, who am I not to try and get better.
“I went to doctors, I started going to groups and talking about the issues. My dog and I went into training, so he could become a service dog for me. It was definitely two steps forward, one step back, but each step, it got brighter and brighter. It took time, but we just started getting better and life became better.
“You always say, if you could talk to your 18-year old self. If I could talk to my 2012 self, I’d say, ‘Get off the couch and go get help. You can do this.’
“I’m telling you this is strength…raising your hand and saying, ‘I am not okay. I need help.’ One of my biggest things that I speak to now is with the first responder community, when there’s bosses or administrators to understand how or what to do if they have one of their personnel go: ‘I’m not okay.’
“However bad it is in your life,” he adds, “I can’t tell you when it’s going to get better. Hopefully it’s the next day. In reality, it’s not going to be the next day, or the day after that. But if you fight to get better, I promise you at some point, it will get better.
“I tell people, if you’re going through something, not just suicidal, you’re going through a gray dark time. If there’s something in your life that you enjoy doing, whatever it is. If once a month, every second Tuesday you’re going to play basketball with your friends, and you know that in that hour you’re totally relaxed and everything is great?
“Live to that Tuesday. Because you know each second Tuesday of the month, you’re going to have that hour of peace. No matter how bad your life gets in between, live for that Tuesday. And then live again for the next Tuesday.
“If you only have that, live for that Tuesday.”
Andrew Einstein is no longer surviving until Tuesday. He is now an officer in the Camden County Police Department, where he uses war and post-war experience to break trust barriers with city residents.
“One of the first things they said was: we know about your story and we want you to tell it, because we want you to help others.
“In this city, we have people in crisis every day, and these people have lived hard lives. I have to break the barrier, the same barriers I had to break in Afghanistan, to show them, look, I know I can’t relate to your life. But let me in, open the door a little bit, let me show you that I’m here to help.
“We try to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible, and when someone’s in that moment, I can say, hey, hold on. I’ve been there. Guess what, May 5th, 2012, I was where you were.”
“I love getting the bad guy off the street. But I also love talking to the person in crisis or the person who just wants to talk. Dealing with the people here, it’s not all about busting the bad guys. Sometimes it is about throwing the football with the kid on the block or playing basketball. It’s showing the people that you serve, that you’re a person.
“I don’t say being suicidal helps you become a better person in the long run. It’s you take what life dishes at you and you learn from it.
“What I’ve dealt with in life, I’ve been able to use to mold into a better life.”
Today, the city of Camden has Officer Einstein and Gunner to thank too.
I was fortunate enough to interview him for the June 2016 issue of JerseyMan, and he couldn’t have been cooler, giving little ol’ me almost an hour and a half of his valuable time and even sharing a Firesign Theater reference. You can view the PDF of the article here.
The World’s 7th Most Interesting Man
John O’Hurley doesn’t sit still very often, but when he does, he has an extraordinary life to reflect on.
The first time John O’Hurley read a Seinfeld script, he instantly saw the genius of the Show About Nothing. Even if he didn’t consider it genius at the time.
O’Hurley had to be nudged to play off-the-reservation catalogue owner J. Peterman…a role that, given his own eccentric demeanor and storytelling ability, he seemed born to play. When he gave in and read the script, he couldn’t believe that Seinfeld was the number one show on TV. Because the show didn’t read funny.
Imagine reading a classic Seinfeld dialogue and it becomes obvious what O’Hurley means.
“It was the un-funniest show to read,” the portrayer of the now iconic character remembers. “There’s no setup. If I showed you, say, a Golden Girls script, you can see, setup setup setup, punchline, setup setup setup, punchline. Generations of script writers lived off of that form.
“Then Seinfeld came in, it grew out of standup comedy, observational humor. It was basically the notion of being in an elevator, that is New York, the sense of small spaces and rudeness and everything is always on edge, relationships or whatever. It was all about conversation, because everybody talks in New York. That’s why Peterman existed, because he was not only about language, he was about the long form. The writers got to write monologues every week, rather than writing one or two lines for each character.”
If you’ve ever looked at a J. Peterman catalogue (yes, J. Peterman is a real person), you can see why it appealed to sitcom writers whose strength was dialogue. A typical entry reads like this one, for the “Grace Under Pressure” cotton T-shirt: “MI6 operatives sat at noirish watering holes with Gestapo and Portuguese secret police, all waiting for the other to reveal the whereabouts of the Nazis’ cache of gold or an allied shipping lane. Wealthy refugees negotiated the sale of their art collections. Prostitutes doubled as informants. You’ve heard of Casino Royale? That’s this place.”
That’s the real J. Peterman. It was as if the character’s lines wrote themselves.
“They wanted him to sound the way the catalogue was written,” O’Hurley recalls. “They didn’t even have the full script written, because it was the most disorganized show on television. So all they had was the catalogue and a couple of lines. I’m going through this and thinking, OK, this is 40s radio drama and bad Charles Kuralt. So it had this sort of Centurion poet standing on a cliff type of feel about everything. Even a walk to the men’s room was an adventure. (imitating Peterman voice) ‘I have no idea what I’m going to find serving a basic desire!’”
The J. Peterman catalogue not only still exists, it’s part owned by O’Hurley now. The two men have walked on Madison Avenue together and heard New Yorkers shout “Peterman!” at O’Hurley, ignoring the in-the-flesh Peterman.
One of the catalogue’s newest offerings is the Urban Sombrero, in an ongoing and humorous Kickstarter campaign that has raised $96,000 as of this writing.
In case you haven’t seen that episode, the Urban Sombrero is an invention Elaine conjures up when the chronically unstable Peterman breaks down and runs off to Burma, leaving the company operations in Elaine’s hands.
The Urban Sombrero…a hat that combines “the spirit of Old Mexico with a little big-city panache”…turns out to be a colossal flop, to the point where Elaine overhears men on the subway talk about how the Urban Sombrero ruined their lives. In the show, Peterman himself reacts to the idea with similar distress, muttering “the horror…the horror”.
Indeed, if you were working for a clothing firm and heard someone suggest the idea of an Urban Sombrero, you might imagine you were in a Seinfeld episode. It took 20 years of cajoling from the fictional Peterman to persuade the actual Peterman to make this essential skypiece available.
What caused the eventual change of heart?
“I think he finally realized that at some point he was going to have to embrace the Seinfeld audience of 80+ million and try to draw them across the aisle into the Peterman world. There was a little bit of unconscious reluctance to accept them. When you think about it, I’ve basically stolen his identity; I’ve become his company. All of a sudden this poor man has nothing left, he’s lost his identity. He never understood, I don’t think, the Seinfeld phenomenon.”
Pop culture reverence aside, for us Philly area folks, O’Hurley points out the advantages of the Urban Sombrero as an ideal Jersey Shore accessory.
“It’s the absolute answer to the SPF problem. When you can’t decide between 15, 30, 60 or 70 and you go, oh my God, what do I choose? The Urban Sombrero. And not only that, it says, I think I’m gonna take a nap. Why not do it with a little bit of a panache?”
O’Hurley spends time in the Philadelphia area each year, hosting the National Dog Show in Oaks that has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving Day tradition as the Macy’s parade. The National Dog Show was created way back in 1879 by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia; O’Hurley has been hosting it since 2002.
Like the Peterman character, it seemed an obvious choice to make O’Hurley the emcee of the show. Coupled with his game show host experience, he has an exceptionally thoughtful appreciation for canines. He’s authored three books about dogs and their impact on our lives; “It’s Okay To Miss The Bed On The First Jump” is a New York Times bestseller, and “The Perfect Dog”, a children’s poem, has been adapted into a children’s musical that is now part of National Dog Show Week.
“If you have a dog in the room,” O’Hurley relates, “everyone comes and pets the dog. If there’s a dog in an elevator, everyone is looking at the dog. Whatever the natural behavior of the dog is, everyone is going, awww. They calm us down; they round the edges in our lives. They take the brittleness out of things. That’s what dogs do.
“If you’re around 2,000 of them, and they don’t care if they win, everybody else seems to be happy so they’re happy. And they’re appreciated, and they know it, and there’s a sense of energy that they know that something important is going on. All of those things lead to just a great environment for everybody.
“It is the happiest day of the year. It’s as simple as that.”
The well-traveled host not only says nothing but nice things about visiting Philadelphia, he can do so without even dropping the name of an iconic sandwich shop.
“My favorite thing about Philly is the authenticity of the history there. The actual documents, walking around and actually being in arm’s reach from some of the most important legislation that was ever done in this country, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“I did the musical ‘1776’ many times, and I think that every time I pass that building, that they all stood in and sat in, and how sweaty that must have been and how miserable they must have been, and yet to put their names on any one of those documents was basically signing a lynching mob. I think of that every time I pass that building…my goodness, the courage they had to do what they did.
“On top of that, I love walking up and down the streets, and seeing the preservation of the areas. I love staying in some of the little boutique hotels. We love Oaks too, mostly because my wife refers to Nieman Marcus as the mothership out there in the King of Prussia Mall, which is the best place in the world to shop.”
You don’t have to be a Seinfeld fan or a National Dog Show viewer to have seen John O’Hurley’s visage frequently.
He is a theater star who has played King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spam-A-Lot and currently still plays Billy Flynn in the long running musical Chicago. On stage, he possesses a fine singing voice. Tom Williams of Chicago Critic opined it best: “John O’Hurley brings a big voice and a commanding presence.”
He is a self-taught classical pianist who has released several acclaimed CDs, and is now starring in his own creation called A Man With Standards. “It’s my one-man show of the music of the period when I grew up, a period of time when men had standards. It’s basically piano, and I expanded it all the way up to a full orchestra. It’s fun. I have all these melodies in my head, I’ve got to get rid of them somehow. It’s a dangerous place up there.”
He has ballroom dancing skills too; he made it to the finals of the first season of Dancing With The Stars, and winning a dance-off following a hotly disputed (to say the least) loss in the original final.
And he was probably the most elegant host of Family Feud in the history of the show.
“I’d worked with them on a show previous, called To Tell The Truth. You remember, will the real so-and-so please stand up. They were looking for a new host for Family Feud and I said yes. It’s a different style of hosting; with To Tell The Truth I sat down, I had a nice little thing to read with a story, panelists, that type of stuff. With Family Feud, there’s no script, you are literally out there hoping the net will appear.
“That was when I began what I call the prayer. I say God, let me be surprised. That’s all I say, and that’s what I say before I go on stage. It relaxes me to say that I’m not in control of this thing, so I can go out and relax. It was like hosting a cocktail party, we really cared about the fact that all these people came to your party.”
Last but not at all least, he’s the father of the first ever third-grader Vice President of his school. According to O’Hurley, at the age of nine, his son had already mastered the art of persuading people to eschew politics as usual…which at the school meant voting for a sixth-grader…and won in a landslide.
On his Twitter account, John O’Hurley proclaims himself to be the World’s 7th Most Interesting Man. When asked who #1-6 are, his answer is no one specific. Just that there’s probably only six people in the world having a better day than he is.
It’s a humorous worldview of a good-natured optimist whose attitude has taken him far. But truthfully, it’s a challenge to think of many people who have led more interesting lives. Not many of us have been a recurring character in the most popular sitcom in history, hosted national game shows, emceed a National Dog Show, made it to the finals of Dancing With The Stars, written three books, played leads in traveling hit musicals, and released several CDs of classical piano music.
Someone hosting a success seminar could paraphrase that old cliché: You have the same 24 hours as John O’Hurley. Or they could attend one of O’Hurley’s own motivational speeches; he does that too. He calls his presentation The Peterman Guide to Living an Extraordinary Life.
“I wake up every day with this goal: I have to find a way to stay relevant every single day of my life. And what I live by is this premise, and this is what I speak about: you have two choices in life. You can have an ordinary life, or you can have an extraordinary life, and it has nothing to do with power or money; it has everything to do with the power of your choices.
“God speaks through imagination. He puts pictures in your mind of what you’re supposed to be doing. Your rational mind knows everything you’re afraid of, and it has an agenda, but your imagination? No agenda. It only knows the best of what you are capable of, and it always pushes you forward to the next thing you’re supposed to be doing.
“I’ll talk to hedge fund guys on Wall Street, two thousand people in the room, and every one of them is taking notes, and I love that. And I say, if you do not believe that what you imagine has value, what I would ask you to do right now is put your pencils down, get up out of your chair, drop to the floor, curl yourself in a little fetal ball, and wait there for the sweet embrace of death. Because you will not improve your life one iota unless you value what you imagine, not what you know.
“And everyone picks up their pencils and starts writing again.”
“I’m very, very lucky, I’ve been in the right place at the right time, but all of those things I did, I did because my imagination said, I’m supposed to do this.”
With all respect to Jonathan Goldsmith, it’s a shame that O’Hurley didn’t star in the ‘Most Interesting Man In The World’ spots. The Dos Equis people would have had a lot to work with.
“He was once asked to star on Seinfeld…and proclaimed the script unfunny.”
The Peterman Monologues
For many years the Seinfeld audience didn’t get to see much of J. Peterman at his maniacal finest…delivering a lengthy monologue.
“Every show was ten minutes too long,” O’Hurley says. “The first thing to go, we’ll cut the Peterman monologue. These things that I’d spend two and half hours on. I used to orchestrate them musically, because having studied opera I could play with my voice, and I would take it and rise (raises pitch of voice) and then hold, and then fall (drops pitch of voice).
“I would do that because this man was always a piece of walking poetry. Mr. Magoo-style poetry, but poetry nonetheless. He was a walking literary time bomb all the time.”
O’Hurley’s all-time favorite was in an episode where he incorrectly suspects that Elaine might be having a fling with a co-worker, and he encourages them with tickets to a circus. He still remembers the monologue verbatim:
“Don’t worry, Elaine. I too am no stranger to love on the clock. As a young man, my father apprenticed me to a honey factory in Belize. The chief beekeeper was this horrible hag of a woman with nulled teeth and a giant wart that she called a nose. She was not attractive, even by backwoods standards. But love is truly blind, Elaine, and as the days went on, working closer and closer together, that sweet smell of honey in the air; I knew I had to have that horrible creature. And I did. So you and Bob have a good time tonight.”
It may be an exception to the show’s script not reading funny, but that classic, sadly, was also cut from the show. O’Hurley says you can watch some of the monologues on the Seinfeld DVDs.
“They put a good many of them back in, because they’re funny. I actually hosted the presentation of the DVDs. They decided when I talked about that, oh we gotta go back and add that.
“It was just lunatic stuff.”
The ‘Dancing With The Stars’ Debacle
Most Dancing With The Stars fans remember O’Hurley from the finals of the first season, where he lost to General Hospital star Kelly Monaco in a firestorm controversy that resulted in a dance-off. O’Hurley and his partner, Charlotte Jorgensen, won the rematch easily.
O’Hurley was, in fact, the first ever contestant secured for the hit show.
“I’m the guy that would go to a wedding reception with a glass of wine, and as soon as the music and the dancing started I’d go back and raise a glass and say, ‘Knock yourselves out, Shriners!’ But again, I go back to imagination. I said, I’m 50 years old and I don’t know how to ballroom dance. Shame on me. So I said, all right, I’m gonna do it. I said who else have you got? They said, now that we have you, we can get Evander Holyfield.
“All of a sudden it made so much sense to me. That they were just using this series to give America what they’ve been asking for, for more than two decades: the Evander Holyfield vs. John O’Hurley matchup. Finally! On the level playing field of ballroom dancing! It’s clear as day to me.
“I took him out in the third round with my foxtrot. All it took was my foxtrot and he was gone.”
The finals were a bit more of a mess.
“They boxed themselves into a corner with Kelly Monaco. Because she was on an ABC show, and in 2005 all of that stuff was brand new, active stuff, sign on to the network. Well she’s on a show and she’s got 3 million followers on the website. So she won the online vote every week. There were people that would call, but that was only the hour after the show, and then all week long you could vote online as many times as you wanted to, but you had to have an ABC password to vote.
“You see the dilemma. So when we did the finals and she fell three times during her final dance and I had gotten two 10s and a 9, they had to give her three 10s because she had won the online vote from the previous week. My partner was through the roof. She was so angry about that, that it was never about the dancing. We didn’t have to say anything about it, there were 43,000 complaints the day after. They ended up doing a two-hour dance-off, and I ended up winning.
“I got to rule the roost on that, because I said basically, you screwed up your own series, I don’t give a rat’s a**. I said, ‘I want you to give Kelly’s charity and my charity, the winner’s share, $150,000 or something like that.’”
As O’Hurley often says, you have no idea when you do things the good that’s capable of coming from it.
“We finished it, we won, yadda yadda. We all got the $150,000 for the charity. However, that $150,000 was matched up. CBS did a golf competition, because they were trying to cash in on it. They did a matchup between Annika Sorenstam, the #1 female player in the world, and me. It was a “wolf” competition, more of a gambling game…on certain holes you feel you might be able to beat the person, on other holes not.
“I’m playing the #1 woman in the world, for a pot of $350,000. I won. So that was half a million dollars. My charity was Golfers Against Cancer. I had Michael Milken, with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, match it. It came up close to just shy of a million dollars.
“We started nine projects out of that money. Four of them today are still accepted cancer regimens. And that’s unheard of.
“I always look back on the time with Dancing With The Stars, and I see that four cancer regimens started out of that silliness of everything.”
The world’s best bread? Maybe. JerseyMan sent me to write a piece about Sarcone’s, the fifth-generation Philadelphia bakery. A lot of fun to write, and an iconic place to visit and pick up some truly amazing bread. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
It’s All About The Bread
Sarcone’s Bakery is in its fifth generation of baking bread for Philadelphians.
If you’re wondering just how good the bread is from Sarcone’s Bakery, consider that the winner of the Travel Channel’s “Best Sandwich in America” changed their rolls to Sarcone’s…after taking the prize.
In 2012 Adam Richman’s popular show spent ten episodes—with several elimination rounds—deciding which offering of meat on bread was the best in the nation. DiNic’s Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market won the hotly contested honor.
“The day after he got that trophy,” says Louis Sarcone Jr., the fourth generation owner of the venerable bakery, “the first thing he did was switch his bread to Sarcone’s.”
A bold move, to say the least.
“People were blown away by it,” Sarcone remembers. “You just won best sandwich in America. Not Philly, America! His answer was, we want to stay the best. How do you improve our sandwich? We improved our bread.”
To those familiar with Sarcone’s Bakery on South 9th Street, though, DiNic’s switch isn’t as earthshaking as it appears. The irony is that in changing a national award-winning formula, DiNic’s turned to an institution that hasn’t changed anything in 96 years.
At least they went with someone who has the technique down.
Sarcone’s has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and every recession since. But perhaps more remarkably, it has survived what can be the toughest challenge several times…the next generation.
Sitting relaxed on the store’s window ledge, Lou Jr. shares the secrets of the family’s continued success. His son, Louis Sarcone III, stands patiently nearby, occasionally offering his own thoughts but seemingly more to learn the art of the interview from Dad…who is clearly versed in giving them.
“If you don’t listen to the generation before you, something gets lost,” Lou Jr. says. “You have to pay attention, and that’s the hardest thing for generational businesses, listening to the one before you. Even if you disagree with that person, you can really screw up a family business if you don’t listen.
“My grandfather, the first thing he told me was, if you put too much food in your mouth, you can’t chew. The younger generation sees a business, they see financial, they see money, they see an opportunity for the brand. If you try to expand too much, you lose something. You lose control of a business, you may lose a recipe, you may lose the quality of the product.
“But if you keep your product the same and keep trucking along, your customers will always come in because you make a great product.”
This isn’t to say that there’s never been attempts to expand the name, or even ill-advised ones. Sarcone’s Deli just up the street uses the bakery’s bread, and they are doing just fine. But opening delicatessens elsewhere proved a challenge. Possibly with his grandfather’s words in the back of his mind, Lou Jr. pulled back the reins.
“My first cousin, Anthony Bucci, was an executive chef for the Wyndham Plaza. He got tired of working for big companies. He opened his own deli in Limerick; he’s been there 28 years. We opened the deli about 12 years ago. I let him run it. The only thing I’m involved in is paperwork and making bread.
“We expanded; we had five delis not including our own. My father had gotten sick at the bakery, and my cousin had a heart attack and was out for a year and a half. I couldn’t do day-to-day operations for two businesses. We put too much food in our mouth, I did.”
The younger Sarcone adds: “You have to keep an eye on the franchises, because you want everything to be the same. They’ll start adding things that don’t belong.”
Lou Jr. agrees. “We use Di Bruno cheese. They might go to the supermarket and get it a dollar cheaper. Stuff like that happens. You don’t want it to happen, but it could happen. So before we had that black eye, we closed the deli.”
So while Cherry Hill residents may have been disappointed, Lou Jr. was content to go back to running the bakery. No reason to change what worked for four generations, be it the nature of the business or the recipe for the bread.
“I’ve never changed the recipe,” he notes. “Sometimes the quality of the flour may change, maybe protein levels aren’t there and you have to add a little bit of protein. We do have to adjust for that. But as far as changing the recipe, no. It’s water, flour, salt and yeast.”
But lest anyone think they can bake bread as good as Sarcone’s once they know the ingredients, Lou describes the craftsmanship of the baking process. The real secret? Time.
“It’s a six hour process. We have a guy that comes in at 12:00 every night. The dough sits for two hours. The bakers start coming in at 2:00 AM, processing the dough, the various shapes, sizes, and measures. It takes two hours to do that, so that’s four hours. Then they have to turn it into a loaf of bread, turn it into a roll, so by the time the bread is mixed and comes out of the oven, it’s six hours.
“No commercial bakery shop is going to wait six hours; they’re going to put in preservatives and meet the demand.”
Brick ovens make a difference too, as the younger Sarcone points out: “What also makes us unique is our ovens. They were built in 1920; you can’t find them anywhere anymore.”
Dad continues. “The alternative is metal, an oven that revolves. The only thing that revolves in a brick oven is our bakers. We go in with 15-foot sticks and move the bread around ourselves, to the hot spot in the oven.
“Ever see trucks that say ‘hearth-baked bread’? That’s baloney, because nobody uses brick, especially in a commercial bakery. Ours is hearth baked, there’s no metal in between the bread, the dough, and the hearth.
“It’s an art. There’s no timer, no thermostat on the oven. Well, there is, but they’re untrue. So it’s all knowing the dough, how loose it was or how cold it was or how warm it is out, how long it’s gonna take. And the sound; you pull a loaf of bread out and tap the bottom, you hear a certain sound, you know it’s done.”
It takes time to master the craft, so Sarcone keeps people around that do. “Bakers have been here at least ten years or more. They like what they’re doing, so they stay. I treat everybody like we’re family. Morale is good here, considering people are getting up at 2:00 in the morning.”
As Lou Jr. freely shares, the secret isn’t an ingredient or brand of yeast…it’s taking the time, sticking with what works, and not putting so much food in your mouth that you can’t chew. That’s the family formula that has kept the store in Philadelphia for nearly a century.
There have been plenty of awards and gushing press through the years, but Lou Jr.’s proudest moment was the locals’ response to a debilitating fire.
In October of 2000, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window, burning the front of the store down. The culprit was never captured nor the motive revealed—“there’s a million stories out there, pick one,” Lou says—but the city came together to literally lift the bakery from the ashes as quickly as possible.
“The fire department, the city council, the mayor, they came here to help us get open because they didn’t want to see us leave. Contractors, electricians, inspectors, zoning people, they were all here the next day. We didn’t have to wait. They were waiting for us.
“We were open a week next door. We moved our storefront into the packing area. It wasn’t pretty, but people actually liked that better. They saw men work, they saw the flour, they saw everything. We spent thousands to replace the store; they wanted the old way!
“That was something I’ll never forget, the way the neighbors and the city came together to help us.”
Fourteen years later, Sarcone’s remains a beloved institution in Philadelphia—and a must-visit for tourists. Customers gather daily outside like music fans once waited for concert tickets before the Internet. Lines begin forming at six in the morning and sometimes extend for blocks.
To Louis Sarcone Jr., it’s the definition of success.
“Remember Springdale Road and Route 70 in Cherry Hill, used to be called the Point View Inn?,” he asks. “A little house. That guy had lines for years back in the 70s. He turned it into what it looks like now. Because he got massively big, he closed within a year, then it was Pizzeria Uno, now it’s a PJ Whelihan’s. That place, I could always remember, it was the longest lines ever for a family restaurant.
“You want lines. You want people to have a hard time getting in. Why is that line two blocks long? We gotta try it!”
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Sarcone’s Bakery has been a Philly institution longer than…
…the Flyers, Eagles, and 76ers
…the Ben Franklin Bridge
…the 215 area code
…the Daily News
…WIP, WFIL, and WCAU radio
…the PSFS Building
…30th Street Station
…the Schuylkill Expressway
…Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks (and all of their successors)
Accolades for Sarcone’s from Yelp Nation:
In 64 Yelp reviews, Sarcone’s averages four and a half stars out of five. Some quotes from the bakery’s fans:
“In footie pajamas I offer night time prayers thankful that Sarcone’s exists and it’s so close to my house…’cause good bread they got…you seriously could put just about anything on that seeded Italian bread and it would be glorious.” – Kathleen D., Philadelphia
“It’s that alluring smell that makes you just want to rip off a piece and eat it. It doesn’t need butter, it’s perfect as is.” – Vinny P., Philadelphia
“My local farmer’s market has a small place in it that sells sandwiches. My Dad found out they were using rolls from Sarcone’s and asked to buy whatever they had leftover at the end of the night, and offered over triple what they originally paid for them. The Best Bread. Period.” Michelle M., Wilmington, DE
“You, along with many others, will line up to hopefully buy a long seeded roll, sandwich rolls, or anything else that comes fresh from their ovens. It’s a work of delicious, crispy crunchiness that cannot and will not be denied.” – Tyler R., Philadelphia
“Dear Sarcone’s – I miss you dreadfully. Whether I ate your bread fresh as I walked home, turned it into a hoagie or slathered it with garlic butter and baked it to soft yet crispy perfection, it always made the meal. There is no way to express the sadness I feel in my heart and in my mouth at now living so many states away…Love, Amelia” – Amelia L., Brighton, MA
“This place is why Philly can make a case for being the sandwich capital of the world.” – Chris W. Philadelphia
“I don’t even consider a Hoagie a Hoagie unless it’s made in a Sarcone Roll.” – Bruce B., Philadelphia
Staples of Sarcone’s:
Seeded Italian Bread – “We’re known for putting seeded Italian bread on the map,” Lou Sarcone Jr. says. “If I stop making seeded bread, if I only made plain bread, Liscio’s would have to change their bread to plain bread. They couldn’t fake it out being Sarcone’s.” Primo’s Hoagies started out with Sarcone’s seeded Italian bread, until the expansion made it impossible for Sarcone’s to keep up the supply. “Once they establish their name they leave me,” Sarcone says.
Tomato Pies – Sarcone’s tomato pies on their garlicky baked Sicilian crust are actually a popular breakfast item with locals; as the Zagat website mention of Sarcone’s describes it: “The end result is almost like what you get when sweeping up leftover spaghetti sauce on your plate with the end of your bread.”
Pepperoni Bread – The pepperoni rolls (or sausage rolls, if you prefer), contain a generous amount of meat for such a delicacy, and the soft crust of the bread contains just the right amount of olive oil. If they’re out of pizza slices in your next visit, try one of these.
Bread Crumbs – There isn’t often leftovers in a bakery that usually sells out its products in the early afternoon, but Lou Sarcone knows what to do with them. “We let it get stale for four or five days, then grind it up and sell it as bread crumbs. Restaurants buy them by the hundred pounds; walk-in customers buy it by the pound,” Lou says.
My article about the amazing Duck Donuts and their history was published in the Summer 2018 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. Click here to see the article on their website, or click here to see the PDF magazine version. Thanks for reading.
Duck Donuts began franchising just five years ago. Today they have sold more than 200 stores, including new openings in Marlton and Avalon. The donut-buying public is ecstatic.
We should all love our jobs as much as Ted Gill does.
It’s refreshing to hear a business professional, with franchise ownership aspirations, unashamedly spout three “really”s describing his product.
“People really, really, really love the idea of fresh, made-to-order donuts,” he says, when asked how business has been since the opening. “Business has been great.”
There’s no measured, calculated tone with Gill. His enthusiasm leads to unabashed exaggeration. “There is a little bit of a wait, but it’s definitely worth it. You get a warm donut, and it’s a million times different than if you got one just sitting around the shelf somewhere.”
Ted Gill is the general manager at one of the newest Duck Donuts locations. He runs the show in the recently opened Marlton store in the Marlton Crossing strip mall, as the rapidly expanding chain of made to order donut shops makes a splash in the Garden State.
A former owner of an East Brunswick pizzeria, Gill found the opening for the Duck Donuts position on Facebook. He spoke with the franchise owners, who probably had an easy time deciding to give him the job. In an age where one bad customer experience gets halfway around the world before a good one gets its pants on, Ted Gill gets it. “People want a fresh, delicious product, and customer service is key. We want everybody to leave here with a smile.”
He plugs his employer like a winning racecar driver. “That’s what we strive to do at Duck Donuts.”
Duck Donuts President Gary McAneney, who is overseeing the company’s ludicrous-speed expansion, shares Gill’s enthusiasm for customer happiness as part of the big picture.
“It is a detail-oriented business. You have to pay attention each and every day to the small stuff,” McAneney says. “I think that’s with any food business, but ours is a little different…we’re discretionary spend. People have choices on whether they’re gonna buy donuts or not. It’s not a must have, so we need to be on top of our game with each and every experience.
“Our franchisees have to understand that. They cannot take their success for granted. Even if the first month or so, lines are out the door and sales are going great, they can’t take their foot off the gas pedal delivering that customer experience.”
During the interview with Gill, customers filter in and are greeted warmly by the staff. Employees behind the counter assist them in the challenging decision of how to coat their donuts, send the brand new donuts through the fryer, and carefully cover them with the requested toppings and drizzles, creating dazzling donut artwork that looks as great as it tastes. All in full view for customers…many of them excited children…to watch.
It’s fair to believe that the experience is rehearsed enough that it isn’t just a show for a writer of a popular magazine. It’s also fair to say the experience is different from well-known large donut chains, who have rested on “acceptable” customer service laurels for decades.
So yes, the quality of service at Duck Donuts is noteworthy. But let’s not discount the quality of the donuts as part of the business plan.
Sitting on the counter is a cake container filled with cinnamon sugar donut pieces, which patrons are welcome to try. Usually the taste results in approval for the complete, paid version, with any of a “duckzillion” combinations of coatings, toppings, and drizzles.
Your fresh and warm donut can be coated with strawberry frosting, Oreo crumbs and hot fudge drizzle. Or try peanut butter frosting, with shredded coconut and blackberry drizzle. And so on. Imagine choosing a dozen combinations like this for your team at work. Imagine your suddenly improved stature within the company as you open the box to display them at the meeting. Can’t think of the right combo? Duck Donuts suggests favorites: maple frosting with chopped bacon (bigger than bacon bits) is beloved of course, as is the Key lime frosting donut with graham cracker crumbs, which is only available in the spring.
When this writer’s arm is twisted enough to try one (resulting in a fairly easy “uncle”), he opts for a breakfast sandwich…a maple covered donut sliced in half, with egg and cheese inside and bacon pieces on top. After some thoughtful consideration of the additional bicycle miles required to work it off, I follow up with the aforementioned Key lime edition.
The verdict? Let’s just say that with Duck Donuts in Marlton now, you’re within an acceptable radius anywhere in South Jersey. Go try them. If you can find a better donut, contact me so I can ask Ken to let me do a story on them too.
The fresh coffee is no slouch either, in case one still thinks that’s a reason to frequent the “leading brand” donut stores.
Duck Donuts founder and CEO Russ DiGilio simply wanted to make the world, or at least the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a better place.
DiGilio, who at the time owned several assisted living facilities, frequently spent vacations with his family in the resort town of Duck (you see where this is going, right?), which, according to Wikipedia, offers “outdoor recreational activities, summer events and concerts, watersports, fine dining, shopping, art galleries, and a nationally known jazz festival.”
The only thing missing from that list, DiGilio noticed, was a fresh donut shop. And so the first Duck Donuts was born.
Well, okay. Don’t quit your day job thinking it’s that simple. DiGilio and his family spent months developing the right combination of batter and shortening…“from absolute scratch”…and researching the market before opening the first store in 2007.
“There are a lot of different food options out there,” DiGilio notes, “and if someone wants to come up with something, they need a niche. They need something unique, a hook to bring people in. You can’t just be any Joe Schmoe hamburger shop. There’s just way too much competition.
“In our days as kids, going to boardwalks and hole in the wall places, we used to get donuts, and they were made to order. You walked up to the window, they made some donuts and you go on your way. Our reminiscing of times when we were on vacation prompted us to do this in a much different way.”
“Fortunately for us, made to order wasn’t very prevalent.”
Nor did it become prevalent in Duck for the first couple of years after the store’s opening. As every business owner knows, success doesn’t come without a struggle. It took some time.
“The first year out of the gate…nobody knew what we were about. On vacation you’ve got a lot of options. It took word of mouth. The third year was the first year we broke even, that’s when it kicked in and we said this has legs. By the fourth year, we knew we had something special.”
To say word of mouth has been an effective marketing tool for Duck Donuts would be quite the understatement.
It’s one thing to inform your soon to be vacationing friend about the amazeballs donut shop on Osprey Landing. It’s quite another level to repeatedly pester the founder about franchising. Duck Donuts gets so many such offers that there is a prominent page on their website about how to do just that.
“It was surprising to me how much a donut impacted people,” DiGilio recalls, “but when you think about it, the whole idea is family based. People were on vacation enjoying themselves, and it just elicited these memories of while people were on vacation of an enjoyable time.
“It was almost like we had a cult following. We had people write in all the time, telling us how much they love our concept, the donuts were out of this world, and they just loved it. They prompted us, year after year, to come to their hometown or teach them how to do what we do.
“Over time it became so overwhelming that we said, we’re gonna kick ourselves if we don’t test the waters and try to franchise this concept.”
Today Duck Donuts is operational in 13 states, with contracts to open in ten more. The actual number of stores is growing so rapidly that an exact number listed here would likely be inaccurate at press time. There have been 200 locations sold since 2013, with 30 stores likely to open this year alone.
Some pretty impressive numbers in just five years of franchising. But to DiGilio, that first franchise opening, in Williamsburg, VA, is still arguably the proudest moment.
“That couple dipped their toes in the water before anyone else and took a huge risk, which we’re eternally grateful for. But the fact that that store opened with such fanfare and has done so well and continues to this day, in the big picture, set us on our way.”
And if Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme aren’t looking over their shoulders yet, they ought to be.
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Quack Gives Back
Duck Donuts didn’t invent the Chemo Duck, as is easy to believe when one initially views the Quack Gives Back page of their website. Which is why the two entities are a perfect fit for each other.
Chemo Duck is a program dedicated to helping children with cancer overcome their fear and anxiety through the inevitably trying therapy. Children are given a “Chemo Duck”, a stuffed yellow duck with hospital scrubs and a chemotherapy port. Parents can use the Chemo Duck to help their children see what their therapy entails and to help ease the child through treatments.
“Obviously what caught our attention was the duck,” DiGilio explains. “Their whole program is based on childhood cancer awareness and education. They’re not really working for a cure, but they are helping the families who are dealing with this type of illness, who need a lot of support and comfort and education.”
This last September (September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month), all of the Duck Donuts stores gathered together and raised $75,000 for Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program.
“We deal with families, they’re one of our primary customers, mothers with children. This was a nice tie-in, because it’s children dealing with an illness, and they have a duck as their mascot, so it just seemed like a natural relationship. And all families can benefit from what we have to offer and this is our way to give back to those struggling with illness.”
Duck Donuts strongly encourages franchisees to give back, which they are happy to do, through their Quack Gives Back program. The King of Prussia store alone raised over $4,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We challenge our franchisees to be connected with their local community,” DiGilio says. “We want our stores to be connected with whomever, nonprofits, baseball teams, high schools, churches, etc..”
If you’d like to learn more about Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program, you can find the website at chemoduck.org.
The Staff’s Favorites
With all of the duckzillion combinations available to choose from, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. But the management team at Duck Donuts is willing to offer their opinions. It’s a testament to the Duck Donuts recipe how even the people running the show sometimes just love the naked cinnamon sugar Duck donut.
Russ DiGilio, Founder and CEO: Personally, when I’m on vacation, I get pretty basic. I like a cup of our coffee, a cinnamon sugar donut and a crossword puzzle. That’s what I do when I wake up in the morning. When I want some fun I’ll do vanilla icing with coconut shredding and raspberry drizzle. Or lemon icing with coconut shredding and raspberry drizzle, they’re my favorites.
Gary McAneney, President: I’m a little more traditional, I just like the lemon with the raspberry drizzle. When I am, on vacation I’ll do the chocolate just with the rainbow sprinkles are traditional. I think that’s one of our best, to be honest.
Kristin Kellum, PR Manager: It’s really simple, but it’s the cinnamon sugar with vanilla drizzle. That warm donut with the cinnamon sugar is just the perfect combination in my opinion.
Nora Branconi, Co-Owner of the Marlton Store: S’mores, which is chocolate icing, graham cracker crumbles and marshmallow drizzle.
Ted Gill, Marlton Store Manager: My favorite is the cinnamon sugar…it’s simple, there’s a million choices you could choose from, but when the warm donut comes out, and the cinnamon sugar sticks to it, it is absolutely delicious. Now, I like all the donuts. The bacon maple donut is delicious. What’s not to like about bacon?
The Critics Rave!
Just a few months into the opening of the Marlton store, Yelp has 37 reviews as of this writing, averaging four stars. Here’s what a few of the customers are saying:
“They don’t make the cheapest donut or the fastest donut, so if you want that, Duck Donuts isn’t for you. But if you want the best donut you ever had, no doubt partially because you got to pick the topping and drizzle on it, Ducks is for you.” – Matt W., Williamstown, NJ
“Trust me when I say you are in for a treat when you come to Duck Donuts. The staff is friendly and the donuts are amazing! This is my favorite donut place in South Jersey!” Nicci G., Burlington, NJ
“I’m so glad you’re a part of the neighborhood. Really. Your donuts are made fresh, on the spot, and your staff is so nice…GREAT DONUTS. GREAT PEOPLE. Thank you!” – Ashley T., Philadelphia, PA
“I had the pleasure of first trying Duck Donuts but from their KOP location. Last year when I found out they were moving into a Marlton location I couldn’t control my excitement. I have been counting down the days to the grand opening and here it is.” – Abigail W., Evesham Township, NJ
“This is a hot new location that will be buzzing for months! Yelp will assist in blowing this up even more and bringing attention to these amazing holes of deliciousness!” – Jason D., Marlton, Evesham Township, NJ
“If you gave this place any less than 5 stars, I don’t think you actually went here. It was busy at 5pm, on a Thursday, in the rain! C’mon people, this place is off the hook. Come one, come all, put all the Dunkin Donuts in the area out of business!!!” – Christopher C., Marlton, NJ
If you were apprehensive about a South American vacation because of the absence of Duck Donuts, that’s no longer a problem for you. As this article goes to press, Duck Donuts has recently announced an expansion into the Southern Hemisphere, with ten stores opening in Chile.
According to the official press release, Duck Donuts has signed an international franchise agreement with OBX Alimentos SpA. Their CEO, Marcial Dieguez-Acuna, is quoted as saying “We look forward to having Chileans adopt this new concept with open arms and for Duck Donuts to become a significant player in the sweets industry in Chile. We will offer a superior product to current market standards and with the highest level of quality service.”
Given that the business model is working pretty well in America, it’s not hard to imagine that Chileans will take to Duck Donuts just as quickly. Russ DiGilio says the company is pursuing more international franchising opportunities.
In a few years, you may be able to get a Duck Donut wherever your vacation plans take you.