You can still buy cream cheese and olive or liverwurst and onion sandwiches at Spataro’s, though it’s not likely more than one out of the hundreds of cheesesteak-focused tourists who visit the stand order them.
“We keep those on to honor grandpa,” says Alexander Spataro, grandson of Domenic Charles Spataro, who founded the family business in 1947. Alex, 29, and his father, stand-owner Domenic “Dom” Mark Spataro, 62, will commemorate the milestone with a party from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 13 featuring 1947-era music and food, including miniature versions of their old-fashioned cream cheese and olive sandwiches.
Late stand founder Domenic Sr. actually began working in the Market as a 13-year-old, 15 years before he opened his store. It was an afterschool job at William Troelsch’s buttermilk stand to help support his 8 brothers and sisters after his father died. He returned after serving in the Army during World War II, married a Troelsch waitress and took out a GI loan to buy a competitive buttermilk business that ran the 40-foot length of the Market’s Fifth Avenue, now occupied by both Godshall’s Poultry and Terralyn soaps. The “Drink Buttermilk and Live Forever” and “Buttermilk Will Improve Your Health” signs that Domenic inherited from George Stevens still adorn Terralyn.
As those signs imply, buttermilk was then all the rage as a health elixir, and Spataro’s and the competitive Troelsch and Paulson dairy businesses were the health food stores of the day. In addition to buttermilk ladled out of a 40-quart metal can sitting in an ice-filled barrel, Domenic Sr. also sold fresh-squeezed papaya juice and Savita, a Vegemite-like paste that he dissolved in hot water and served by the cup — “sort of like vegetable broth except that it tasted more like brewer’s yeast. I think we threw away more than we sold,” his son recalled recently. His dad also mixed Savita with mayonnaise to dress minced, raw vegetable sandwiches.
In time, the menu expanded to include less obviously healthful heaping sandwiches of liverwurst, ham and cheese, and corned beef, and sweets like pie and gingerbread. Eventually these buttermilk accompaniments took over.
Dom began helping out at the stand when he was so small “I had to stand on a cheese box to talk to customers.” As he grew pushed his father to make changes to keep up with the times, including hot breakfast, hoagies and soda. “My dad had a great right hook. I had to make him realize that he had a left hook too,” he says. After countless go-rounds on the subject of soda, “I finally just bought 50 cases of Coke with my own money. Not long after I overheard a customer complement my dad for bringing it in and he said, ‘Yeah, we thought it was time for a change,'” Domenic says, the unfairness still fresh three decades later.
Dom introduced cheesesteaks — now the stand’s best-seller — in 2006, which was more than a decade after he intended to. Domenic Sr. didn’t so much walk as shuffle, hunched over since breaking his back in a 1975 tree-trimming accident and by 1994 “needed to hold onto things to walk around,” his son recalls. “The first day I had the grill set up, he touched the side of it. The next day I turned the gas off.” So Dom waited until their stand moved to a new space, now occupied by Flying Monkey, where the grill and the counter where his dad did vegetable prep work were safely separated.
Even with the frustrations and after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology by taking night classes, Dom stayed. “I didn’t think the business would survive without me,” he explains.
Despite drinking buttermilk almost every day of his life, Dominic didn’t live the sign-prescribed “forever.” He died in 2012 at age 94 as the Market’s longest-tenured employee two weeks after showing up for work at 6:45 a.m. for the last time. Now his grandson, Syracuse University grad Alex is the one pushing the innovations, including a soon-to-debut website and, after years of only 4 employees (two Domenics, a waitress and grillman Walt Lefflbine), a staff of 15. The longer hours and larger volume of business — a lot of it from tourists looking for cheesesteaks — as well as the quicker pace of life and increased competition for people’s food dollars from all over the city, necessitated the change from owner-cook to owner-manager model, both Spataros say.
“In the old days we might see one of our regulars four times a week. Now it might be once a month. And before we had a counter with 25 stools. Now we’re a takeaway — people don’t have as much time to hang out as they used to,” says Dom.
Still, anyone who’d like to chat can find a ready audience. Dom and/or Alex are there almost every morning kibitzing with customers, fellow stand owners, Market staff and recently, us, about their stand’s history and 70th anniversary party plans. It will include a raffle, the aforementioned swing band, cream cheese and olive sandwiches, and miniature gingerbread cupcakes with buttermilk icing made by cross-aisle neighbor Flying Monkey — but not the actual drink that started it all, which is too sour for most contemporary palates. With its roots in buttermilk, we all hope Spataro’s lives forever.
Spataro’s 70th anniversary celebration, including food samples, a raffle and music, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Fri., Oct. 13, free, Center Court.
Carolyn Wyman is the Market’s news correspondent and operator of the Reading Terminal’s bi-weekly Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour (www.tasteofphillyfoodtour.com).