Klein’s Supermarket Keeps On Truckin’

Back row, from left: Shel Klein, Andrew Klein, Steve Klein and Ken Klein. Front row from left: Sid Klein and Myrna Klein.
Back row, from left: Shel Klein, Andrew Klein, Steve Klein and Ken Klein. Front row from left: Sid Klein and Myrna Klein. (Courtesy of Klein’s Supermarket)

It’s estimated that on Feb. 8, 2018, 700,000 people attended the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl parade. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, they gathered to hear the Birds squawk and celebrate.

Businesses in the surrounding area, particularly in nearby Fairmount, were overrun by customers in various states of inebriation. At Klein’s Supermarket, located at the corner of 24th and Fairmount streets, the shelves were cleaned out. Manager Andrew Klein had never seen that before, and didn’t think it was likely he would see that again.

“Just madness,” he said of that day.

Of course, he did see it again. And then again, for a few days in a row. In the first days of COVID-19-related food shopping, the shelves at Klein’s were stocked — then summarily cleared.

Andrew Klein is from the fifth generation of his family to work at the grocery store bearing their name. The store and the Kleins who have staffed it have seen a lot in their day, and with a little luck and a lot of Lysol, they’re going to keep at it.

The original location of Klein’s belonged to the younger brother of Simon Klein, who set up shop at 15th and Clearfield streets. According to family lore, Simon Klein, upon arriving in the United States from Minsk in 1892, asserted that, as the older brother, he would be taking over the store. The streets of North Philadelphia are a long way from Minsk, but filial traditions tend to travel well. Simon Klein took over the store. (Don’t feel too bad for the brother; he ended up with a successful food distribution company of his own.)

Klein’s Supermarket stayed right there for nearly a century, staffed by a steady succession of Kleins. Simon Klein begat Sam Klein, who begat Sid Klein, who begat Ken, Steve and Shel Klein. In 1979, Sid Klein and his sons decided to move the store to the base of the Philadelphian Apartment House, where they’ve been ever since.

Andrew Klein, Steve’s son, joined the crew in 2011. There was a time when he wanted to be a lawyer, but the profession did not take hold for him, and he could never take hold of it. He trained himself up at The Market at Lafayette Hill for a while, then went to work with his family.

Not that it was his first time stepping into the store. Growing up, he and his brothers and his cousins would frequently pitch in at the store, dropping in to help out during school vacations, snow days and weekends.

In the century and change since Klein’s opened, they’ve cultivated a loyal customer base, according to Andrew Klein. As Whole Foods and other conglomerates have moved in the area, the family feel of Klein’s has helped the store to continue. Customers ask after Andrew Klein’s grandmother, and reminisce about his grandfather, Sid Klein, who died in 2017. Some of them are on a first-name basis with the Kleins who roam the floor of the supermarket every day.

Shel, Ken, Sid and Steve, many moons ago.
Shel, Ken, Sid and Steve, many moons ago. (Courtesy of Klein’s Supermarket)

Many of those customers are Jews; the residents of the Philadelphian who shop at Klein’s are mostly Jewish, according to Klein. Though they have not made the leap to offering kosher food, he believes that an enterprising grocer in the city could find success in that area.

“Someone would absolutely make a killing if they opened up a kosher spot in the city and did it right,” he predicted.

Andrew Klein has his ideas about how to operate a successful grocery store. But, of course, so does his father, and so do his two uncles. He admits that there are days he wished he didn’t have to work so hard to get his elders to update their thinking, but he also can’t deny: It’s their old-fashioned thinking that’s gotten Klein’s this far.

“It’s great,” Andrew Klein said. “It’s always an easy atmosphere to come in and work, and we get along well with each other.”

The last few weeks have been hard.

Typically, the Kleins will rotate who gets the weekends off; now, there are no days off, especially as some nonfamily staff have become reluctant to venture out of their homes. Plexiglass dividers have been ordered, and employees are making their own face masks. They’ve begun to take phone orders, largely from inside the Philadelphian. Andrew Klein has begun to consider the idea of blocked-off hours for elderly people to shop; of course, he laughed, it is often de facto elderly hours at Klein’s.

Customers have frequently expressed their gratitude in the past few weeks, Andrew Klein said. He’s succinct on his feelings on his family’s continuing work.

“It’s what we do,” he said. “We’re happy to do it.”

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