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   March 27, 2008 Issue                                       

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Jonathan Best: An emporium for the gourmet cook and diner
by Kristin Pazulski

The eclectic selection of snacks, garnishes and more at Jonathan Best, in the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market, may be introduced to the Reading Terminal Market. (Photo be Erin Vertreace)

When you are talking with Dave Schieber, owner of Jonathan Best in the Chestnut Hill Farmer’s Market, among the shelves of eclectic gourmet snacks, sauces and other foods in his store, it is evident that he loves not only his business and you for visiting it, but also the city in which he works, lives and plays.

“I love everything about Philadelphia,” he said, repeatedly, during two interviews he had with the Local.

So it is fitting that he was invited to bring his eclectic gourmet shop to a part of the city that has become a staple for residents and visitors alike — the Reading Terminal Market.

Jonathan Best started about 25 years ago in its current location, 8229 Germantown Avenue, but it is better known as the first store you see when entering the Chestnut Hill Farmer’s Market and the only shop in the market that is open seven days a week.

The shelves are cluttered with a diverse selection of products — including flower pots and knife holders, sandwiches and salads, kitchen decorations and soaps,  as well as a wealth of gourmet food products — that you might not recognize it as a single store.

The free samples of Brie cheese and horseradish chipped beef are always lined up along the walkway to the market, seemingly there more for the customer’s convenience and pleasure than to promote a sale, and, knowing Schieber, that perception is probably correct.

Schieber runs his store for his customers and always has. Starting off as a cheese shop in the 1980s, he has increased his product line partly on the basis of his tastes and discoveries, but mostly by ordering products that his costumers have requested.

“See this,” he said during one interview, sitting among his 50s-styled dining court of four tables and holding up Tate’s Bake Shop cookies, “these are our best selling cookies, and were recommended by a customer.”

Remembering another product, he runs to the shelf — or, more accurately, he quickly saunters — distracting himself with jovial conversation with employees before returning to the table with a jar of peach-flavored chutney, a sweet Indian relish.

“We have about 20 different kinds of chutney,” he said. “Someone came in and asked for chutney 20 years ago, and it’s just expanded.”

He said many of the products on his shelves are there for just one customer. He will order an entire case of some brand of oil, salsa or jelly and leave the item on the shelf for the individual who comes in regularly to buy it.

This leads to a lot of expired items, he said, which employees seek regularly by scouring the shelves.

“We probably throw out about $100 worth of products a week,” he said, though he added that some of it, if it is still good, is sent to local homeless shelters. “We take that loss in order to keep a fully stocked gourmet store.”

Schieber wasn’t always into gourmet retailing.

Before opening his Chestnut Hill store, he helped his family operate fruit stands in North Philadelphia, his hometown neighborhood.

Talking to him about North Philadelphia, it was obvious that he was disappointed by the economic turn the area has taken since he grew up there. He eventually sold the two fruit stores because he said “there was not enough money in the neighborhood to support the store.”

He recalls the tension that crept into his community as residents who lived in the community clashed with their newer Hispanic neighbors. But he also remembers the prevailing sense of community in his neighborhood.

He described one particular night when “residents came down the street chanting about politics — some strife with the authority,” he said.

It was around 2 a.m. and, though he had a watchman, the crowd knocked over tables of covered fruit, which rolled all over the street. But as the group passed, turning over tables, two neighbors yelled at the group and they returned to pick up the fruit and clean the mess.

“Which I think is a testament that you are part of a neighborhood,” he said.

As much as it was a testament to his role in the neighborhood, it was likely a testament to his generosity also.

He admits that he has not always been the smoothest and most diplomatic of employers, noting that at the start of his business, when money was tighter and business was slower, he was a lot tougher and meaner with his employees.

“I made some enemies,” he said, but all that has changed.

With age, moderate success and more patience, Schieber seems to have become an understanding employer.

He can’t remember all their names, but any conversation with Schieber about Jonathan Best brings forth a string of stories about current and former employees and their strengths and successes.

One, he said, wrote her college application essay about working at Jonathan Best and got a full scholarship to Drexel University. Another made her own carrot cake, brought it into the store and told Schieber she wanted to sell it there.

One of his current employees is a self-employed massage therapist in Erdenheim and comes in to work between appointments, and another records with Milkboy Recording studio in Ardmore.

Schieber’s caring nature, sense of humor and generosity seems effortless, not something he strives for, and he chalks it all up to his mother.

“A lot of what I did and who I am was formed by my mother,” he said.

When business decisions arise, he said he still consults her. At 99 she just moved out of her home in North Philadelphia to move in with her sister in Royersford.

She helped him choose the type of shop to open when he first wanted to open a store, as well as select a good location and pick a name. (He went to her with two names, Jonathan Best, which is named for his oldest son, who was 6 months old at the time, and Julius Cheeser because it was a funny cheese shop name.)

So when Paul Steinke, general manager of Reading Terminal Market, called and asked Schieber about opening a Jonathan Best in the market, he called his mom.

Schieber said Steinke heard about Jonathan Best through an employee in the City Commerce Department. They suggested he contact the store.

When he called his mom, he said her advice to him was to follow his own desire.

“I told her I was confused and she said, ‘David, are you excited about it? If it excites you do it, because that’s what keeps you going,’” he said.

His sons are also encouraging Schieber to open a second location and said they will help by investing in the new store.

Jonathan, 27, and the store’s namesake, is a contract lawyer with Morgan, Lewis and Bockius in Philadelphia, and Michael is 25 and a physical education teacher in the Hatboro area.

“Your children don’t give you accolades for being parents, but now I can look at all the confidence my wife and sons have in me, telling me to do it [open in the Reading Terminal], and they have the confidence to want me to do it, and with all the money in their world,” he said, laughing.

His main concern with opening a second location at the Reading Terminal, though a dream come true for someone who takes pride in and lives the motto “City of Brotherly Love,” is that the customer base will be less familiar and the pace will be too quick.

He loves Chestnut Hill, and said working the Farmer’s Market allows him to meet and get to know the people in the community.

“Almost everybody comes into the Farmer’s Market even for just one little thing every once in a while,” Schieber said.

He said Chestnut Hill is reflective of the city, with a mix of retail and homes tucked into a community, as opposed to the suburbs where everything is so spread out. He said the Hill even reflects the city’s economic, social and even racial diversity.

“Chestnut Hill is the way neighborhoods used to be,” he said. “Everyone knew all the kids, knew the personal lives of people. People knew which kid you brought over to your house and had to watch because he stole, and knew which kid made good grades and you wanted your kids to hang out with him.

“People in Chestnut Hill, whether they like it or not, are like Philadelphia and speak their minds,” he said, referring particularly to the disputes within the community and business associations.

“The community associations are willing to fight with anyone, but they stay away from the little guys,” he said, pointing out that they prefer to take on the bigger “man.”

“That’s what Philadelphia is all about,” he added.

And the appeal of being a larger part of the Philadelphia scene is calling Schieber south to Center City.

Schieber is reviewing the lease and trying to decide if the market is right for his store. He is wary of the product restrictions that come with having a place in the Reading Terminal Market. Because of the number of shops and their proximity to each other, each business is usually restricted in the kind of products it can sell to avoid overlap. Schieber said he doesn’t want to limit his eclectic selection and said that the limitations may be a “deal breaker.”

But he feels excited about the prospect of adding a Reading Terminal location to his list of “homes.”

“I’m shy most places,” Schieber explained, which seems unbelievable when you meet him. But he said he is more comfortable and talkative when he is in one of his two homes — his East Oak Lane home and the Chestnut Hill store.

“When I meet someone at home, I’m emotional, I’m explosive, I let it hang out,” he said, explaining his friendly work persona. And he hopes to be able to do the same thing at 12th and Market streets.

“I’d like to make the Reading Terminal Market my third home,” he said. “My wife said that she sees a twinkle in my eye she hasn’t seen in years when I talk about it. I want the excitement.”

Contact staff writer Kristin Pazulski at 215-248-8819 or Kristin@Chestnuthilllocal.com.