We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
In 1912, a 20-year-old Polish immigrant living in Philadelphia borrowed $50 from a friend and opened an oyster house. Back then, Philly oyster houses were dime a dozen, but Frank Snock's joint would turn out to be special: 102 years later, it's still going strong.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the longevity of Snockey's Oyster and Crab House has been fueled by an unflinching work ethic and dedication to quality. Frank and his wife Rose passed on those values to their sons, who in turn instilled them in their own children, a pair of whom run the restaurant today.
Brothers and third-generation owners Ken and Skip Snock both now live in Cape May County, but commute to Philly nearly every day to make sure their Queen Village institution continues to run smoothly. There have been a few changes, over the century — the most drastic being a forced relocation thanks to a planned expressway that was slated to slash through South Philadelphia — but not many. Even prices haven't gone up all that much.
For example: when the restaurant first opened, a half-dozen raw mollusks could be yours for a total of 10 cents, but Snockey's still offers one of the best oyster deals in town — during daily "clammy hour," they go for 95 cents a piece. Last week, I had Skip crack open a few (Long Islands, plump, large, medium salinity) while I talked with him and Ken about their centenarian establishment and the resurging popularity of oysters in Philadelphia.
How did your grandfather decide to open a restaurant?
My grandfather was working as an oyster shucker. We know because we found a 1910 census, when he would have been 18 years old, that listed it as his occupation. Oysters were everywhere in Philadelphia then. There were probably as many oyster houses in Philadelphia as delicatessens in New York.
So Frank Snock noticed a restaurant that had closed down on 142 South Street, and went to his boss with the suggestion that he should take it over and expand. His boss said, "One restaurant is enough for me. Why don't you open up there?"
So he borrowed $50 — $50! — and did it. We found a mercantile license from 1912. It cost $1.75.
And you know the exact date the restaurant first opened.
Yes, May 3, 1912. We know because it's my aunt's birthday. As my grandfather was preparing to open, my grandmother Rose was pregnant. The very first day of business, she worked for a bit, went into labor, went upstairs, a midwife came in, and she had the baby. Two days later, she was back in the kitchen.
She worked in the kitchen all the way through 1991, 79 years. And not just a little bit. She worked. She was a taskmaster. She lived upstairs and was here seven days a week.
Are you here that often?
Last week I was here seven days. We're usually each here at least five days a week. We switch shifts: one week, one of us will work five night shifts and the other five day shifts, and the next week, we'll swap.
It's tough, but if you're going to be in this business, you've gotta be hands on. You have to be here. Someone has to make sure you're not being ripped off, but even more you have to keep an eye to the quality. Nobody is going to care as much as the owner. They're just not. In order to get the results we want, we have to be here.
When did Snockey's move to the location it's in now?
Well, in 1918, it moved to Second and Fitzwater. That's where my father was born and raised, in the apartment above that restaurant. Then in 1931, Frank and Rose moved the restaurant to Eighth and South, and it was there for 44 years.
Then, they were forced out. It was a matter of eminent domain, because the Crosstown Expressway was going to be built. [Note: It never was.] The highway was going to cut right through. For around six or seven years, our lawyers tried to fight it, but then all of a sudden, the order came down. Out by the end of the month! It was June, 1975.
What did you do?
We moved. No choice. We opened here, in this location at Second and Washington. It took a while for customers to find us again, because people didn't know what happened — we did put a sign in the window of the old place, listing the new address, but the building was knocked down within a week of us moving out! There goes the sign.
But it worked out well. This neighborhood is where Frank and Rose grew up. They knew this neighborhood. Everyone in this area was Polish. My grandmother came into this country two blocks away from here, at the foot of Washington Avenue. It's where all the immigrants came ashore.
Has this neighborhood changed since you came here in 1975?
Oh, yes. It's gotten a lot more upscale. It used to be blue-collar. Now it's gentrified. Younger, college-educated people with good jobs. I've never seen so many dogs and baby carriages.
Do they come in to the restaurant?
To some extent. Not as much as we'd like. I don't think we're as hip as everyone wants. What can I say.
We do a clammy hour that's pretty popular. Specials on clams, and oysters are only 95 cents each. That price just went up actually, they used to be 83 cents. After Hurricane Sandy, the price of oysters spiked. The prices went up and they just never went back down. Look, we're not in business to lose money. We don't mind making less, but...
What does bring people here?
People are drawn by the history, the fact that Snockey's is 102 years old. If I had a map of all the places people have come from, there would be little pinpoints everywhere. I mean — look, when restaurants say they're "world-famous" that's the biggest line of bull you've ever heard. And I don't think we're world-famous. But I do know we've had customers from more countries I can name, and definitely from every state in the Union.
Has your oyster selection changed over time?
Used to be, people were happy with any oyster. We served two kinds: Delaware oysters and Long Islands, and that's it. But now they want a more diversified stock. It's like how people used to just drink "burgundy" and "chablis" without being more specific.
Oysters are very similar to wine, in the sense of having "terroir." We probably offer 12 or 13 different varieties on any given day now, and every one of them is gonna taste a little different. It's all based on the waters that they come out of.
When did the recent interest in oysters spike?
It was probably around 20 years ago, in the late '90s. The health-conscious movement meant people started eating more seafood in general. And then sushi became a normal thing, everyone started eating sushi, so raw oysters weren't such a hard sell.
That's with the young crowd. Oysters never lost popularity with the older people. But now the younger people are really, really into oysters. Six or 10 years ago there was only a handful of places to get oysters in the Philadelphia. Now they're everywhere!
How many oysters do you go through each week?
Probably around two or three thousand. We'll sell two or three hundred a day just during clammy hour. I tried to calculate it out once; we've probably sold more than 10 million oysters over the last 102 years.
Do people come in who have never had oysters?
Sure. People will come in with friends and say, "Oh no, I don't want to try it, I've never had an oyster before." So I say to them, someday, somewhere, at some point in your life, you're gonna have an oyster, so what better place to try it than a 102-year-old oyster house?
I try to steer them to something smaller, to start — you don't want them to be overwhelmed. And I don't think I've ever had one person who didn't say, "Wow! That was great."
Some people give the advice that when you're first trying raw clams or oysters, "Just swallow it!" No, what's the point. You've got to chew them. Like your mother always said, chew your food.
You swallow medicine.
Right, that's it. Swallow your medicine, chew your food.
Do you eat a lot of oysters?
We taste them. It's not that we dislike them, but we're here a lot. I'll be sitting here eating dinner, and people will stick their head in my dish and look shocked and say "You're not eating seafood?" What do they expect us to do, eat fish 21 times a week?
Snockey's Oyster and Crab House
1020 S. Second St., 215-339-9578