Some of Philadelphia’s most motivated — and successful — business owners are those building upon their family’s legacy. Several of Philadelphia’s most iconic fooderies have been passed down from grandfathers to their grandchildren and, in at least one case, their great-great-great grandchildren.
Pop’s Water Ice
It’s unclear who invented water ice, an icy treat that tastes like a mash-up of a snow cone and a slushy, but it’s widely believed that it arrived in Philadelphia with the wave of Italian immigrants in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
“Pop” Italiano, who is considered the granddaddy of water ice in Philadelphia, started selling it from a pushcart in 1932. One hot summer day, even before Pop could get the cart out of his garage, a line started to form down his driveway. That’s when he realized that he didn’t have to keep pushing the heavy cart around South Philly, and he started selling the water ice from his home .
Six of Pop’s grandchildren run Pop’s today, in a newer building at the same location, 1337 Oregon Avenue, as well as from a second location in Havertown.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House
McGillin’s Olde Ale House, Philadelphia’s oldest continuously operating tavern, opened in 1860 — the year Abe Lincoln was elected president. The historic tavern’s long, storied past is filled with celebrities, ghost stories, and a tale of survival through not only the economic recession but also the Great Depression, and even Prohibition. Through it all, McGillin’s has been owned by only two families: Catherine & William McGillin, who raised their 13 children upstairs; and the current owners, the Spaniak/Mullins family, who have passed it down through three generations.
In 1958, the McGillin children sold the bar to brothers and experienced barkeeps Henry Spaniak and Joe Shepaniak. (That’s not a mistake, the brothers actually spelled their names differently.) Keeping it in the family, Henry’s daughter, Mary Ellen Spaniak Mullins and her husband, Chris Mullins, have run the place since 1993. In 2018, they’ll have run the bar for 25 years — longer than many of their customers have been alive.
The legacy of hospitality continues with their son, Christopher Mullins, Jr., representing the family’s third generation to manage the historic tavern on Drury Street, a tiny alley behind Chestnut Street.
Bassetts Ice Cream
In 1861, Lewis DuBois Bassett, a Quaker school teacher and farmer living in Salem, New Jersey, made his first pint of ice cream using a mule-turned churn in his backyard. He opened his first ice cream parlor in 1885 at 5th & Market streets. About seven years later, the production facility moved to Reading Terminal Market, along with another retail store, which is now the flagship store.
While the ice cream making is no longer mule-powered, it is still in the family. Today, L.D. Bassett’s great-great grandson runs the business and his great-great-great grandsons, representing the sixth generation, are learning the business. Bassetts Ice Cream is now available throughout the Philadelphia region, in major cities across the United States, and as far away as China.
Di Bruno Bros.
Brothers Danny and Joe Di Bruno emigrated from Italy in the 1930s expecting to find American streets paved in gold. Instead they found the cobblestones of South Philadelphia’s Italian Market (9th Street from Wharton to Fitzwater). The brothers, who had only a 3rd grade education but were highly motivated, opened a grocery store that soon evolved into a cheese shop.
The tiny 700-square-foot store is packed with wooden barrels of olives, shelves of olive oils and gourmet foods, and thousands of pounds of imported cheese and cured meats hanging from the ceiling.
Their grandsons, Emilio, Bill, and Bill Jr, took over in 1990 and have done their family legacy proud. They’ve added four more locations, where well-trained cheesemongers are happy to help guests create the perfect cheese plate with pairings. Di Bruno Bros. also has a thriving online store, something their grandfathers could never have imagined.
In 1947, Samuel Mink, purchased Kelly’s, a Philadelphia institution that attracted those in the legal industry and politicos from nearby City Hall. The former lawyer ran the restaurant until his sudden death in 1969. His son, David, who was born the year Mink purchased the restaurant and was by then 22 years old, dropped out of his Ivy League college and took over the family business. A year later he opted out and it was sold.
By 1976, David, regretted his decision and opened an oyster house a few blocks south, at the sight of the current Oyster House on Sansom Street. The same year, he had a son who he named Sam, after his father. Eventually, David was ready to sell the restaurant, but his then 24-year-old son was fresh out of college and opted out, so it was sold.
A few years later, history repeated itself. In 2008, Sam, changed his mind and bought the restaurant back from its failing owners. The third-generation restaurateur renovated and modernized the place and hung his collection of more than 100 vintage oyster plates.
Over the tides of time, the Mink family held on to a seafood restaurant that is a Philadelphia institution.
Irene Levy Baker is the author of “100 Things To Do In Philadelphia Before You Die.” The above is taken from “Unique Eats & Eateries,” which is scheduled to be published by Reedy Press in 2018. Know a restaurant with a great story? Contact the author.