Tim O’Connelly (left) and Norbert Varga are the owners of Philading, the newest food stall in the Chestnut Hill Farmers’ Market that is earning rave reviews from customers. (Photo by Steve Ahern)

by Steve Ahern

On a recent Saturday afternoon Tim O’Connelly and Norbert Varga, the owners of Philading, a month-old wholesome food stall in the Chestnut Hill Farmers’ Market, were attending to a scattering of customers who in the last few moments had strolled up to peruse and/or taste the assortment of fresh and healthy desserts and meals. They sampled the soups-of-the-week (mushroom, bean and potato leek), scrutinized the scones (made from scratch by a few hours earlier by O’Connelly) and studied the mushrooms and their variety of shapes.

Each lines the butcher block around the refrigerator case that houses the guacamole, the hummus (Lebanese-style) and the meals (vegetarian chili and mujahardi pilaf, among others). Some customers perused politely for a moment and trailed away; others picked up merchandise and paid for it. Still others returned from earlier in the day offering praise for items they had eaten hours earlier.

“That crostini was absolutely stunning,” gushed one, referring to the mushroom pesto served schmeared on a toasted baguette that sold out earlier that day. “It was gorgeous.” O’Connelly, in the unaffectedly affable way he has with customers, thanked her and urged her to come again. “You can’t buy advertising like that,” he said.

O’Connelly, 43, and Varga, 46, established Philading in 2007. They met 13 years ago, while Varga was in graduate school at Michigan State. The idea to bake and sell cookies using O’Connelly’s Polish great-grandmother’s Christmas cookie recipe occurred to them in 2006, after moving to Chestnut Hill from Cleveland, when Varga, a pharmaceutical chemist by profession, accepted a job at a Philadelphia-area pharmaceutical company.

O’Connelly, who has worked in the sales and purchasing fields for most of his professional life, took a position as a buyer. But within months of relocating, both O’Connelly and Varga had lost their jobs. The entrepreneurial spirit that had moved them to establish a baking business went into hyper-execution in the hopes it would help ferry them out of unemployment.

They enrolled in the Self-Employment Assistance program, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Unemployment Office, which offers unemployed workers allowances to help them start their own businesses. The program helped them register and launch Philading, and they began selling their cookies at farmers’ markets throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. The positive response they received from customers at the farmers’ markets about their cookies emboldened them to expand the varieties of cookies and, over time, added scones, brownies, cooking oils, hummus, guacamole and nutritious meals to their product line.

Varga, who does most of the cooking, owes his culinary acumen for wholesome foods to a cancer scare he endured 12 years ago that changed his approach to life including what he ate. Rather than submit to the traditional course of cancer treatment, he opted for homeopathy and wholesome food. He remains in remission for over 10 years now, a combination he believes of luck and antioxidant eating. “At the farmers’ markets there are a lot of whole foods kinds of folks who want something wholesome and healthy, so we kind of expanded into those,” Varga says.

O’Connelly and Varga have also sought to accommodate customers suffering from food allergies, gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease (an allergic reaction to the gluten protein present in wheat, rye and barley). Offering gluten-free foods did not come without challenges and a lot of hard work, something both are used to. (O’Connelly put himself through college selling educational reference books door to door; Varga put himself through college and graduate school while working full-time and raising two young children.)

“Baking is chemistry,” O’Connelly said. “You kind of have to tweak around because gluten-free bakes differently, so we came up with something that holds together and tastes good. We found a way to mimic the fineness of wheat flour.”

O’Connelly, who was reared on mac and cheese, pot roast, spaghetti, margarine, instant coffee and some Polish staples including Kielbasa, has grown to enjoy the possibilities of gluten-free baking and wholesome cooking and their health benefits. He was raised in Waterford, Michigan, within geographical reach of several Middle Eastern communities, which introduced him to and stimulated his appetite for that cuisine.

Among the dishes they sell are the Mujaddara Arab Pilaf, a vegan dish made with lentils, bulgur, caramelized onions, olive oil and spices. For $10, their most expensive item, the 16-ounce portion provides a filling dinner (with a high likelihood for leftovers) and a moderately filling portion for two. A large soup sells for $6. The Hummus, which Varga makes fresh, is a Lebanese-style spread, a delicious combination of garbanzo beans, Greek yogurt, fresh lemon, garlic and tahini paste made from sesame seeds and olive oil. The cookies ($2.50) and brownies ($3) are moist and soft with a nice balance of sweetness. The scones ($3), available in gluten and gluten-free, are great tasting, nicely textured, sweet and soft. Philading also carries guacamole, which Varga says has sold well.

Both O’Connelly and Varga said they have already seen a lot of repeat business since opening a little over a month ago. For more information, call 267-779-9226 or email contact@philading.com