Ninety-Four and Still Choppin' Video and Audio
A 94-year-old man has been making sandwiches in Reading Terminal Market for the past 8 decades. Produced by Shilpa Soundararajan, A.J. King, Tyler Knowlton, Elle Pfeffer, and Levi Sledd.
Ninety-Four and Still Choppin'
Text by: Shilpa Soundararajan
Under the neon sign flashing "Spataro's Cheesesteaks" in the heart of Philadelphia's indoor Reading Terminal Market, five employees rush around - taking orders, cutting up vegetables, chopping meat, creating sandwiches. It seemed like just a nice place to pick up lunch; instead, a very interesting story emerged behind the counter.
In the middle of the hustle and bustle, an elderly man slowly shuffles around, gathering materials and setting them on the vegetable counter. It is obvious that decades have taken a toll on this man. However, he continues to carefully work with the vegetables washing each lettuce under the rushing water.
Domenic Spataro started working in the market when he was a mere eleven years old. He describes himself as having been, "knee-high to a grasshopper." He started out by running errands and doing deliveries and occasionally working behind the counter. Spataro also recalls his first salary. "Four dollars a week," he proudly announces, "... in quarters." And he chuckles as he remembers spending quite a bit of cash on clothes, because, "in those days, you had to wear a suit even if you didn't have anywhere to go... [but] I enjoyed being dressed up and used to come to work in a tie."
However, what began as a simple after-school job, eventually turned into a lifelong career and livelihood. He climbed the ladder to becoming owner in 1947 and is continuing his work there now at the age of 94.
The obvious physical detriments of old age have definitely affected Spataro, but fortunately, his son stands alongside him to uphold the family business. "My son has been with me since he was two years old... he put an apron on - and he never took it off." His son, now fifty-eight years old, still works beside his father for fifteen hours a day, six days a week.
Spataro remains mentally sharp and is determined to keep his independence. "My wife had passed away and my son wanted me to move in with him. That was in '92 and I decided not to leave the house... And I kept pulling back, insisting, making excuses that I wanted to stay alone." Eventually, he had to relocate to his son's residence because he was unable to drive- but you can tell by the strength of his voice and the glint in his eye that he still strives to live self-sufficiently.
This strong spirit is evident in the fact that he has not yet retired. It is not like he hasn't run into problems. Spataro talks about how he developed Bell's Palsy - a condition that affects facial nerves - in his seventies.
It affected his eyes and he was forced to undergo surgery to remove his cataracts. He was then restricted to staying at home. During this time, Spataro realized what he wanted to do for the rest of his life - and it was exactly what he had been doing all along. "I was sitting home for 8 months... And that's when I decided I wasn't gonna retire. Sitting around the house wasn't for me."
As a result, he has devoted himself to his job at Spataro's; the only other time he had left his job was for a short stint as a cook for the army during World World II. This commitment to a single shop has paid off as Spataro's has flourished in the past years.
Unlike the other successful Philly cheesesteak shops, Spataro chose to just stick with one location. He exclaims, "This is the one and only. Thank God! I want to handle this one right. I was never interested in any other. If you have two places, you couldn't be at two places at one time."
Being around for so long, Spataro has undoubtedly witnessed the development in the area over the course of eight decades. The city, the people, and the prices have undergone transformation, but as far as Sparato is concerned, things have pretty much stayed the same for him - even through the different economic situations. "[The economy] doesn't affect anybody in the lunch business unless they don't know much about it. It hasn't affected me much, because the customers are steady."
He fondly discusses his customers and the unique relationships he holds with each of them. One in particular sticks out. "I knew him for 30 or 40 years, knew him by sight anywhere I go... and he'd holler out 'hhhaam sandwich!' and I knew it was one of my customers. [He] didn't know my name and I didn't know his; he knew me by the work I do."
Spataro admits that he has encountered some unpleasant customers, but immediately states that, "I always tried to be nice and it paid off and it's still paying off." But not all customers would reciprocate the kindness. "One would upset you, but another one would come and pay a compliment and your day was better."
When talking about the 'secret to success,' Spataro proclaims, "It's no secret - I came in early and went home late." He speaks with the same unmistakable gusto that has contributed to the creation of his sandwiches over the past 8 decades. "If you like your work, you customers enjoy your work... and they come back."