Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

Tracing the story of the chain back to its roots — which, surprisingly, are not in Pittsburgh.




photo by chuck beard at heinz history center

 

Isaly’s Dairy Stores are fondly remembered throughout the region. It might seem counterintuitive, then, that the chain started in Ohio — and didn’t come to Pittsburgh until around 1930.

When Henry Isaly moved to Pittsburgh from Ohio in 1929, he first got a job at Donahoe’s, another legendary cafeteria-bakery-food-emporium Downtown, working at the deli counter. Like a spy, he wanted to use the gig to learn about this city and its people.

Born in 1905, Henry was the youngest of William and Louisa Isaly’s six children. Three years before Henry’s birth, William, an entrepreneur as well as a dairy farmer, had started the family’s dairy-distribution business in Mansfield, Ohio, with a milk plant and 26 delivery routes. The company soon expanded west to Marion, Ohio, and east to Youngstown, where in 1918, the Isaly Dairy Company decided to open franchised stores so the public could walk in and buy a really good ice cream cone — among other things. The business grew quickly. By 1924, Isaly’s boasted 25 retail stores.

When the family decided to expand into the Pittsburgh market, it was a risk; National Dairy controlled most of the dairy market here. The gamble paid off. Isaly’s built a plant on the Boulevard of the Allies in Oakland and opened dairy-and-deli stores throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

Henry, a charming and easy-to-like businessman who valued clean and attractive stores, was determined to sell quality goods and treated his workers as family. He arrived here with his family’s distinctive tall ice cream cones called “Skyscrapers,” made with special scoops. He also knew that folks in Ohio loved the chocolate-covered ice cream squares called Klondikes that his brothers had developed. 

All of this Isaly history is included in Brian Butko’s book, “Klondikes, Chipped Ham & Skyscraper Cones.” Butko says those three items helped to establish, consolidate and cement Pittsburghers’ affection for Isaly’s, creating the “magic” that endures. “The stores were just part of Pittsburgh for decades,” he says, “like the Terrible Towel, the fountain in Point State Park or even Fort Pitt, important parts of our history.”  

​Butko says Henry Isaly was lucky that another young man named Claire Hatch had come to work for Isaly’s, too. Hatch was more of a strict businessman; he helped to find good locations, set many of the standards for the shops and, in the early ’30s, became one of the people in Pittsburgh with a claim on creating “chipped ham.” Pressed ham, touted as “The Finest and Most Economical Sandwich Meat,” was not an especially popular deli product until someone (possibly Hatch) decided to slice it very thin. It quickly became a signature item in the stores, which numbered nearly 400 at Isaly’s peak.

Lots of factors slowed the company’s growth in the 1960s. Fast food was becoming popular. People started going to supermarkets. Henry died in 1961. Claire Hatch left the company as he started his own chain of Eat’n Park family restaurants. Valiant attempts were made to revive the business, but in the early 1970s, the company was sold. Although pieces of the business, such as Klondike bars, would go on to national distribution and fame, the Isaly’s empire disappeared, except in customers’ memories — and a few stores that carried on recipes and traditions, and occasionally the family name.

The iconic chipped ham (sometimes marketed as “chipped-chopped ham”) still is available and popular. The brand was recently sold to Conroy Foods in O’Hara Township, which — as “Isaly’s LLC” — is starting to revive several flavors of Isaly’s ice cream as well. 

Isaly’s may have started in Ohio, but we Pittsburghers seem intent on keeping it alive.   
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

New Venue Added to Pittsburgh's Cinema in the Park Series

See what's playing this summer in a Pittsburgh park near you.

The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Star Wars series experiments with telling an origin story, with mixed results.

What's a ‘Spark’ and Why Should Pittsburghers Care?

Sparks are relatively young — the concept for them first popped up in San Francisco in 2005. They’ve just recently appeared in other U.S. cities, including our neighbors on the other side of the state.

Third Place on 'American Idol,' First Place in the Steel City

Munhall high school student Gabby Barrett finished in third place last night on ABC’s reboot of “American Idol.”

From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

Local interior designer Lauren Levant traveled to Italy for the influential Salon del Mobile show featuring the latest innovations in the furniture and design industry. With an emphasis on quality over quantity, these are the kitchen concepts she says will be making their way stateside.

Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits offers a chance for brides- and grooms-to-be to explore libations before (or instead of) a night on the town.

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The careful documentary is a valuable document of the pontiff's philosophy. As of a film, there are issues.

Popular Peter's Pub Announces Final “Last Call”

The owners of the Oakland Avenue bar announced on Facebook they have decided to retire -- but are planning one last “hoorah.”

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

The Strip District restaurant draws a diverse community to its nightly ifṭār buffet.

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

The new escape room in Pleasant Hills is a great game for newer players.

Looking for a Royal Wedding Watch Party in Pittsburgh?

With the ceremony just hours away, several watch parties and live screenings of the nuptials have already sold out. But we found a few more places in Pittsburgh still taking guests whose invitations got lost in the mail.

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

For the time being, at least, fans continue to send owner Bob Nutting a message wrapped in apathy.

Sunrise, Sunset: Pittsburgh Playhouse's Second Act

The curtain is closing this month on the historical Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, but it will rise again when Point Park University this fall unveils its new theater Downtown, a space with a history of its own.

A Matter of Pride: Delta Foundation's Struggles with Success

Within the span of 10 years, the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh has brought the city’s annual Pride festival to previously unimaginable heights. That growth, however, has left some members of the community behind — and unhappy.

Remembering Bruno Sammartino: “The Italian Superman”

The storied grappler captured the imagination — and the hearts — of generations of Pittsburghers.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


New Venue Added to Pittsburgh's Cinema in the Park Series

New Venue Added to Pittsburgh's Cinema in the Park Series

See what's playing this summer in a Pittsburgh park near you.

Comments

What's a ‘Spark’ and Why Should Pittsburghers Care?

What's a ‘Spark’ and Why Should Pittsburghers Care?

Sparks are relatively young — the concept for them first popped up in San Francisco in 2005. They’ve just recently appeared in other U.S. cities, including our neighbors on the other side of the state.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

The Strip District restaurant draws a diverse community to its nightly ifṭār buffet.

Comments

Filmmaker David Bernabo Looks Beyond The Menu

Filmmaker David Bernabo Looks Beyond The Menu

He examines the visible yet unseen labor in the service industry with his documentary, "Eating & Working & Eating & Working."

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

When you see a show at one of these organizations, you may enjoy it as much as the children.

Comments

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

Looking to switch up your physical activity now that it finally feels like spring? We found four sports you can play locally that you may never have considered.

Comments


Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

The new escape room in Pleasant Hills is a great game for newer players.

Comments

Phipps Summer Show is Bizarre and Essential

Phipps Summer Show is Bizarre and Essential

At "Gardens of Sound and Motion," Phipps offers giants, living sculptures and more oddities.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

For the time being, at least, fans continue to send owner Bob Nutting a message wrapped in apathy.

Comments

Penguins’ Epitaph: So Close and Yet So Far Away

Penguins’ Epitaph: So Close and Yet So Far Away

To win the Stanley Cup Championship you have to be good, but you also have to be lucky. The Penguins weren’t enough of either this time.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Star Wars series experiments with telling an origin story, with mixed results.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The careful documentary is a valuable document of the pontiff's philosophy. As of a film, there are issues.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits offers a chance for brides- and grooms-to-be to explore libations before (or instead of) a night on the town.

Comments

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

It was always Ashley Watkins’ dream to have her grandfather perform her wedding ceremony — but a serious illness almost got in the way.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

Local interior designer Lauren Levant traveled to Italy for the influential Salon del Mobile show featuring the latest innovations in the furniture and design industry. With an emphasis on quality over quantity, these are the kitchen concepts she says will be making their way stateside.

Comments

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Thinking about starting a creative business but don't know where to start? From photography to interior design, Gamechangers, the new podcast from local textile designer Savannah Hayes, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the design industry from the female perspective.

Comments