For the second time this year, I’m meeting with one of the Wolff clan in the living room of Ken and Gennie Wolff. Their house sits right across from the recently cultivated Sunny Brae Farm.
I have spent a fair amount of time gazing out at this plot of land. Peter Wolff has great plans for this property and we all hope to see it growing fruit and produce again some day. Before I enter the house, I pause a moment to inspect the flower buds of an old Summer Rambo apple tree. It is the last remaining tree of the family orchard that once stretched as far as the eye could see.
My phone rings. It’s Ashley calling to tell me she has arrived and will meet me in the kitchen. Once again, I am warmly invited in as Ken and Gennie are making their way out.
Ken: What are you all going to do? Have a conference here?
Gennie: Chuck, I didn’t know you were a writer.
Gennie: Fran says you’re a good writer.
Well, these are interviews I’m doing for the website. Maybe one day I could interview you two.
Gennie: Oh, that’d be good.
Yeah? Would you like that? Would you be interested?
Gennie: The website would explode!
The WEBSITE would explode!
Gennie: All right, honey, we’re out the door.
Ken: Beginning. But not quite.
Ken and Gennie make their way out the door. In the wake of their presence, Ashley and I are met with the sudden stillness of the house. For a moment we watch her grandparents make their way to the car. Remembering why I came, my eyes once again pass over the many photographs placed around the room. This time, I notice Ashley’s face within the collection. It is a look of hope, or willfulness, or maybe even faith…
You spent some time growing up in this house, didn’t you?
I did. Yes. I, well, when I was born my mom and dad were living here. And then we soon moved to an apartment. But, on and off, my mom and I lived in this house. Gosh…a couple of times. It was always sort of my surrogate home. I lived over on Rose Tree road and every day I’d come to Grandma’s. Yeah, I came here and then would catch the bus to Glenwood School. So I was here before school and after school. And then when I was in seventh, no, eighth, ninth, and tenth grade I lived here by myself while my mother was living in Boston. So I’ve lived here on and off for quite a number of years. This, this is my home away from home. It’s more like my home than any other place just because where I lived changed, but this place was always a constant.
That’s cool. The farm was kind of your home too.
Where were you born, Ashley?
I was born in a birth center in Philadelphia…during hurricane Gloria.
The world was preparing for you.
And your parents are?
Andrea Wolff and my dad is Scott Trezise. He lives over in Parkside.
And, we know your grandparents. They were just here.
Should we get started?
What are your earliest food memories? And what were your favorite childhood foods?
Well, I know without question that my favorite childhood food was a hoagie. I mean I was infamous for loving hoagies. Fran always tells this story of the time we all got hoagies from Tiny T Hoagies. It was a tiny hoagie shop in Media. And it was only a dollar for a hoagie. And we all sat around and Fran had to eat really, really quick because he was going off to a volleyball game. So he was just devouring his hoagie hand over fist and I think I was something like four or five years old. And as he was finishing his last bite, he looked over and I was all done. I don’t remember that myself, but it’s a story that I hear. And I still like hoagies but I don’t have the taste for them like I used to. I think I might have gotten hoagied out over the years
Is there a specific hoagie. Or—
An Italian hoagie.
An Italian hoagie.
An Italian hoagie with hot and sweet peppers. That’s what I like.
And how does the WAWA Italian hoagie measure up? How is that?
Well, it’s OK. But it’s not as good as an authentic hoagie from an Italian deli.
Is there a deli that you guys like?
Well, There’s two places I like to go. My favorite is Roll-in deli. It’s in Brookhaven. They make really, really good hoagies. I used to love Tiny T’s but they went out of business. A new place opened up that’s called Really Tiny Hoagies, but I haven’t been there.
And their hoagies probably aren’t a dollar anymore.
What a great price for a hoagie.
We would get a bag of a dozen and feed the whole family.
Last Wednesday I heard there was a backyard hoagie thing over Nate’s.
Oh yeah. It was a BYOH. Bring-your-own-hoagie lunch. [laughs]
The Wolffs and their family food traditions.
Yup. We always have lunch on Wednesdays with the whole family. It just happens to be a day where most everyone can get together. It’s really, really nice. We have lunch somewhere or we go to someone’s house or to a park and hang out afterward for a couple hours.
I’m going to have to sneak in to one of these events one day and witness the Wolffs in action.
It’s always a good time.
Would you say that is also your favorite childhood food, the hoagie? I mean, how old were you when you devoured that hoagie?
I was probably four or five. I don’t really remember. But I also really like crab legs. They were one of my favorite things.
Like the king crab legs? The really huge ones?
Snow crab legs. Specifically snow crab legs.
Did you like to dredge them in the melted butter?
The melted butter and lemon. Oh, that’s another thing. It’s a thing in the Wolff family that we like sour things. So ever since I was a kid I liked to eat lemons and limes. You know? Just cut them open and go right at it. That’s something that I’ve liked since I was a kid as well.
So, I’ve talked to you a little bit about this, but I would really like it if you could talk a little bit about why you decided that you wanted to work at Wolff’s. And when did you decide that Wolff’s was the place? It doesn’t have to be any sort of epiphany. I would love to hear the story of what made you want to work here, and when.
Well, I’ve been around it my whole life. So, in a sense, it has always been a part of me and I’ve always envisioned myself working here at some point in my life. So, I think I was about twelve years old when I first started. I just moved back from Boston and I did simple things like bagging at the register. And I worked here until I moved to New York with my mother and Sebastian. My step dad got an offer from IBM, so they moved there and I moved up there with them. So there were two years that I wasn’t here. But as soon as I moved back I went back to work at the store. And I worked full time for a year. And then I went to Temple University and studied Philosophy. I did that for three years and I just found that philosophy was tough for me. I love philosophy but I’m also very, very scholastic. I like hard, nose-to-the-grindstone work. I really like hands-on work. I like being hands-on. I’m mean I’ve always loved cooking and crafts and working with my hands. So, I left temple and started working at the store again. At that point, I think I realized that the next generation wasn’t stepping up and taking a vested interest in the apple house. So, not that I felt that it was my duty, but it seemed like the next logical step for me. I love the store and I love everything about it. I love food and locally grown things and plants and flowers. I mean it all just sort of came together for me. And I love my family and family tradition. So everything sort of came together all at once and I decided that this is what I want to do. And I feel like I’m engaged in this and it’s almost like I can’t envision myself doing anything else. Because even though it’s tough and hard work, there’s nothing like working outside, working with your family, working with food, working with plants. You can’t beat that. And I have a baby on the way and I want my child to grow up experiencing and being part of the Wolffs family and the apple house. You know? It’s a wonderful thing.
Romantic for a lot of people, but a reality for you.
Yeah. It is romantic. But it can also be a challenge. It’s a challenge and it is really rewarding.
So, coming to Wolff’s as an employee, you had to work your way up through the ranks.
I did. I started by bagging and prepping and then I trained on the register. And then I was sort of a junior manager. So I’ve been there on and off over the years since I was twelve and I’m twenty six now. So it’s been a good seven years.
All the managers at Wolff’s wear a lot of hats, what would you say is your real title, your position?
[laughs] Oh, I like to think that, inside the store, I sort of make the days happen. I would call myself the floor manager. Writing schedules. Doing orders. Getting information to the correct employees. Getting people on to the correct task. Making sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. We are in a transition and I’m going to be assuming more of the order and procuring role in terms of making calls out to the local vendors. Some other employees are taking on the management of the inside, also. Since I’m going to be going on maternity leave.
What are we going to do without you?
There are plenty of people to help us get through that . I have faith that it’s going to be just fine.
For the record, I would love to get a sense of Ashley Wolff’s store philosophy. Like what is Wolff’s really about?
Wolff’s, to this day, is still the feeling I would get when I was five. It’s cozy, friendly, eclectic. There was always something cool or neat or new or different to eat or look at or play with. A lot of energy.
I feel like what your sayings is that the Wolff’s philosophy is to treat the customer like family.
Absolutely! Absolutely. That’s something that is really important to us. As a consumer, you can leave a place feeling really good or feeling really like you were just another number. I think we enjoy trying to provide that positive experience. Helping people feel welcome and part of the community. We have employees that grew up in the neighborhood behind the apple house and now work here. They work here through high school and then through college. There really is this greater sense of community and family pulsing throughout the store. And I love that. I love that.
So, times are changing and the Wolff’s team is trying to stay competitive, I would like to know what direction you want Wolff’s to go in?
If I had my way, I would love to see us become more of a café.
A place for people to come and sit down and eat.
A place for people to come and sit down and eat. I think that is very exciting. And I would love to be a farm market that brings together local ingredients and makes something delicious. All those things excite me and make me really happy. And I would love to see that happen. A decade from now, I would love to see a Wolff’s café or a Wolff’s restaurant where we’re preparing fresh stuff every day.
So it’s kind of like everyone has been coming over for tea for the past hundred years and now you want to invite them over for lunch, or have them over for dinner.
Let them spend more time in that environment. Soaking up that energy.
So we’ve already talked about this a little bit, but I think it would be a great way to finish the interview. You talked about your baby that is on the way, and feeling like you want your child to experience the Wolff’s environment in order to share your appreciation, do you think you would like your boy or girl to work at wolff’s?
Absolutely! I mean I wouldn’t expect my child to devote their life to the store, but if he or she is interested, I would love to continue that family tradition.
So, do you know if it’s a boy or girl?
No. We’re going to wait and find out when the baby is born.
And if it is a boy, you’re going to name it?
Oh, I have no idea. We’ve narrowed it down to a list of twelve names.
What are your favorites?
I think for a girl we would name her Willow, or Lorelai, or Juniper. Those are our top three. For a boy we’re looking at…um…I don’t even remember…
So we’re hoping for a girl?
[laughs] I don’t want that on the record. No. We have several boy names. Darius! And Aslan!
Like from the Chronicles of Narnia?
Yes. We’re both fans of the Chronicles of Narnia. So Aslan or Darius.
Those are really nice names.
So my last question is: What food are you most excited to introduce to the young Aslan or Willow? Besides Hoagies.
I guess initially, I’m looking forward to winter squashes and root vegetables. They seem like good first foods…
As I leave the house a light rain is beginning to dampen the asphalt. It is raining—though it is not raining enough to keep me from pausing once more in front of the old apple tree. Yes, this tree is a reminder of the past. But, it is also a symbol of the future. Like the many branches of a family, it reminds us of where we are from, and where we are headed…
I think it was Barbara Kingsolver who said, “Children are not commodities but an incipient world. They thrive best when their upbringing is the collective joy and responsibility of families, neighborhoods, communities, and nations.”