Gerri Kauffman needs broccoli. And not the fresh greenery bundled in the produce section of her Fairmount neighborhood grocery, Klein's supermarket. Her 13-year-old twin granddaughter hates that stuff. The teen will eat only broccoli preserved by ice. Without the frozen vegetable, Kauffman's plans for a hassle-free dinner are in jeopardy.
As Kauffman tells this to Ken Klein, at 57, the oldest of the three brothers who have run the store for decades, Klein stares at her apologetically.
He's got frozen broccoli. Plenty. In the store basement.
"It will be up by tomorrow," Klein offers, standing by the new, yet empty, freezer. The old one lasted 20 years.
Kauffman, 59, short and blond, sighs. Klein relents. He and his brothers, Steve and Shel, have known the twins since Kauffman wheeled them through the aisles in a double stroller.
It's things like fetching must-haves from the basement; special ordering that international-coffee patrons crave; and knowing when a customer is under the weather, had a haircut, has gotten married, or had a baby, that has kept Klein's supermarket in business since the early 1890s.
Such longevity, "it's unheard of," said John Stanton, chairman of the food-marketing department at St. Joseph's University.
"You have to feel like you can't wait to get to that store every day, and it's hard to pass that on to one generation after other. Obviously the Kleins did that, which is a good example of what doesn't happen today."
Facing rising food prices, the lure of Whole Foods about a mile away, and the family's fifth generation focused on its own pursuits, the Klein brothers are banking on tradition to keep the store going.
"If they need something special, or if they just want to stand and chat, we're here," Shel, 50, said one recent afternoon of his customers roaming the aisles. "Not only is it a business, but we're also a family. We treat everybody like family."
Ken, nicknamed "the talker," by his brothers, tells the family lore. When their great-grandfather Simon Klein emigrated from what is now Belarus in the late 19th century, he walked into his brother's North Philadelphia grocery store, at 15th and Clearfield Streets, and informed him: "I'm the older brother. I'm taking over the business."
The brother went on to own the largest potato and onion distribution company on the East Coast, Ken said.
For four generations, the Klein men, after they were bar mitzvahed, worked in the store, starting after school and weekends. Ken, Steve, and Shel, who grew up in Mount Airy, earned $5 day, plus tips on deliveries.
Their father, Sid, who long ago retired, expected a lot. The customer was always right, he drilled. "And always do what you can to make them happy," remembered Shel, "and not want to go somewhere else."
Ken and Shel then laugh about a regular, an elderly gentlemen, "prickly" about his cold cuts, Ken said. The Kleins are sure to wrap his meats and cheese in paper, never plastic.
Their father's lessons hold.
In the late '70s, overshadowed by a deteriorating landscape, the Kleins moved the market to 24th Street and Fairmount Avenue, a larger, 3,500-square-foot space, in what was then a "rougher neighborhood," Shel said.
The area is now surrounded by bistros, condos, and red-bricked rowhouses, many beset with potted plants. The old store is a Korean-owned takeout, advertising steaks, hoagies, and cold beer.
At Fairmount, the Kleins offer 22,000 products, including homemade roast beef, briskets, and fresh entrees.
Their North Jersey wholesaler has "very nice buying power," Ken said, which keeps their prices competitive with larger supermarkets.
However, business has been soft.
"It's not easy for any company to succeed in today's marketplace," said Bill Greer, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute. "People are price-focused, but that's not all they look for. Knowing your customers well, knowing their product preferences, that kind of connection is very effective . . . and inspires loyalty."
Even so, the Kleins notice customers splitting their shopping lists, surely taking advantage of discounts at powerhouses like Target and Wal-mart.
"People are definitely being more cautious about how they're spending money," Ken said. "But you can't look at the day-to-day. You have to look at trends. And we still have a viable business."
The Kleins employ 20 part- and full-time employees from the neighborhood. But they take pride that there's always a Klein in the store: stocking shelves, mopping up spills, tending to customers.
The brothers, partners, often finish each other's sentences. However, each has his specialty.
Ken is "the director of weird food," Shel teased, a common occurrence among the brothers.
"I call it interesting food," Ken countered, defending his appetite for international food, which he picked up while traveling after college.
For Shel, it's meats. Steve knows everything about dairy.
The brothers' outside interests are more distinct. Ken meditates with the local Tibetan Buddhist Center. Shel is a longtime volunteer firefighter with the Barren Hill Fire Company in Whitemarsh. Steve fixes up old British cars. His latest find, a 1976 Triumph TR6.
Balance is important.
"Retail is hard," said Steve, 55. "It's something you're married to."
Which is why, Ken added, although some of the family's fifth generation worked in the store as teens, "we've never pushed our kids to come into the business full-time."
The younger Kleins are mostly professionals, working in finance, IT, and marketing.
Shel's daughter is a college senior studying communications. Steve's youngest son works the deli counter at another supermarket.
"We don't know the real reason," Ken said, eyeing Steve.
Ken said he often tells his nephew there's better opportunity in the family business. "But I don't think he wants to work with his father."
To that, Steve responded with a shrug.
The brothers rarely discuss transition, although Ken has joked about his plans to retire at 60.
"Goodbye," his brothers deadpanned.
"We all have our dreams," Ken said. "What if someone offers us $100 million for the business? Well, that's not going to happen, but all of us have dreams of what we'll do. In reality, we have a business. And it's ours to keep."