Like a country line dancer, Arian Hungaski moves back and forth between two prep areas behind the deli counter at Wanamakers General Store near Kempton in Berks County. She’s assembling an order of sandwiches that includes special wraps offered only in the spring. They’re made with chicken, fresh strawberries, feta cheese, mixed greens, balsamic glaze and a touch of mayo.
Wanting to make sandwiches like these helped inspire Arian and her husband Tim to buy Wanamakers in 2007. Then living in the Philadelphia area, Hungaski was visiting her native Kempton area and bought a sandwich at a nearby convenience store.
“It was ‘so-so,’ she said. “I knew I could offer something better.”
The idea of being self-employed played into Hungaski’s quest for work-life balance and spending time with her three children.
The same was true for business partner Kyra Hendricks, who first was a manager then became co-owner in 2013.
Both women worked at the store when they were teenagers. Both had moved to Philadelphia and its suburbs. Both returned to Kempton, drawn by the area’s simple charm and a dream of what they might accomplish.
Wanamaker’s legacy began with Civil War veteran Elias Hoppes. He built the store with handmade bricks in the 1870s, creating a 138-year-long livelihood for himself and two successive Pennsylvania families.
The future seemed assured by a strategic location near Hawk Mountain, WK&S Railroad, Lehigh Valley Zoo and Leaser Lake – and with no other grocery store within a 14-mile radius. But then Leaser Lake was drained in 1999 for repairs.
With the water went steady revenue from bait sales, boaters and lakeside picnics. Previous owners David and Deborah Bond closed Wanamakers in 2004.
A plan to refill the lake gave the Hungaskis courage to buy the business from the Bonds and bring it back to life. Water finally returned, and last spring the lake was stocked with fish.
“We started planning for the lake’s return three years ago by enlarging the deli and moving it to the back of the store,” Hendricks said. “The deli is literally our bread and butter.”
This year, a dining area with vintage 1950s décor was added, where customers are able to bring their own alcohol to consume.
While the back of the store has been altered for efficiency, the front room remains intact.
Two large, built-in counters and floor-to-ceiling shelves have been repurposed to display the work of local artists.
A small adjoining room is the toy department, offering everything from Star Wars goggles to retro jump-ropes and rubber-band-powered paddleboats.
Back in the deli, Hungaski lines up hoagie rolls for a standing weekly order at a local school. She layers meat, veggies and cheese, then a small heap of lettuce.
“Our customers like the fact that our food isn’t prepackaged,” Hungaski said, holding up the fresh greens. “This was a head of lettuce this morning.”
“Fresh” and “local” are equally important in the grocery section. Organic produce is purchased from nearby Red Earth Farm and bulk food items come from Lancaster County’s Dutch Valley.
The women prefer using and selling locally sourced goods to help sustain other small businesses. It also saves money on shipping and, absent vendor markups, keeps prices low.
Hungaski and Hendricks saw more customers in 2015, the first full season of lake activity, so they’re building on the momentum.
They even hired Angela Corrado of Against the Grain in Kempton, to fuel marketing efforts.
The store is holding a “Meet Your Neighbor” open house May 7, when visitors will be encouraged to turn off their cellphones and chat, Hendricks said of the all-day event that includes live music.
“We want people to know Wanamakers is a neighborly place,” she said.
Hungaski nods, noting this was always a primary objective for the business.
“When Tim and I lived in the suburbs, our neighbors would come home from work, put their cars in the garage, and that would be the last we would see them,” she said. “We’re changing that.
“We know the volunteer firefighters, local vendors, work crews and most of our neighbors. Businesses and spaces like ours are where community is formed, and we are forming one here.”