Knocking on the Door of… Doug Nimmo
Doug Nimmo is the owner of Doug’s Market, a corner store located on the corner of Sampsonia Way and Arch Street in Pittsburgh’s Northside. Sampsonia Way magazine knocked on his door two weeks ago.
During our talk, Nimmo pointed out: “I know many of the people who shop here by their first names.” This small detail is telling: Nimmo’s business is rooted in personal interactions.
Distinguishing touches—like the store’s hand-painted tin ceiling, or the antique pop and cigarette signs that brighten the market’s walls—set Doug’s apart from larger, chain stores.
Growing up in Tennessee during the 60s, Nimmo used to visit his grandparents who lived in Pittsburgh. During the 70s, he worked as a butcher with his father-in-law, where he learned some “tricks of the trade from the old timer.” In 1983, a job delivering meat for Sears brought him from Florida to the Northside. Nimmo liked the place as much as he remembered from his childhood and decided to move to Buena Vista Street. Initially he found work renovating houses before acquiring the market in 1995.
Nimmo has respect for hard work and believes in its benefits: “When I lived in Florida, people who worked long hours would retire and do nothing,” he said. “In a year or two they’d be dead. You have to stay busy; that’s the key to staying young and on top of things.”
Indeed, Nimmo has worked hard to build the business at Doug’s Market; in the early years it wasn’t uncommon to see him there seven days a week, morning till night. Despite this—or maybe because of it—a youthful laugh bubbles out of Nimmo when he talks about how, at 58, he is still doing what he loves.
In this interview, “Doug,” as everybody calls him, also talked about why he loves the Northside, a ghost in the building, and his market’s opening day.
How did you come to open up Doug’s Market?
Old Joe Sabba and his wife had this little corner grocery on Arch Street for 35 or 36 years, and I kept talking to him about it. Randy [Gilson of Randyland] was the one who talked me into buying the place. He said, “You need to buy this from him, he wants to sell it.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know if I can pull this off…” It took almost a year to put a couple of my houses together as equity for a small business loan, but we closed on the place December 4, 1995.
What attracted you to the neighborhood?
I came here because of the people. I said, “Of all the places I’ve traveled through, Pittsburgh had the friendliest people.” I just love it here. I swore when I moved onto Sherman Avenue 25 years ago that I’d never move again, and I haven’t. I’m still there and I’ll probably die there. There’s nowhere else I want to go. The Northside is such a diverse neighborhood. You’ve got all walks of life here: rich, poor, welfare, doctors, everything in-between, every color and nationality. It’s just a nice little melting pot. Everyone seems to get along too. Nobody cares who you are or what you do or who your partner is. That’s what I like about it.
Was Doug’s popular immediately?
When I bought the place in 1995, the neighborhood was very underserved. There wasn’t a Rite Aid, there wasn’t much around. You had Giant Eagle and Kuhn’s, with us in-between, and that was our heyday. We did unbelievable business. We were working seven days a week, just killing ourselves.
After about seven years into it, my partner Luke got tired; he wanted to move back to Florida and be with his family. He sold out and sold his house across the street, so I took it all myself. But the business was doing too much for one person to handle so I had to do a major scaling back. I used to have a full case of meat. I used to cut quarters of beef down and everything, but it was so labor intensive I couldn’t keep up. In the last four or five years we’ve been moving more toward convenience.
Do you remember Doug’s opening day?
That sticks out in my mind so clearly. That was a crazy morning to start with. We had closed on the deal the afternoon before. So I come in, and it’s my first day in the store, but Luke had another week before he could come in. I’m overwhelmed. So I walked out the front door, ready to open up, and the door closes behind me and I was locked out! I said, “Oh my god! What a way to start the day!” The first day in my store, and I was locked out. Luckily, it was a very old store front, and I was able to get a credit card and pop the lock out.
The first day, I was just so nervous, I said, “Boy I hope I’m not doing the wrong thing. I just hope I can make it here.”
How many people do you employ?
About five. A couple are part-timers, three full-timers. But I’ve got a good crew now—probably the best crew I’ve ever had. I look for people who are good with customers. I hear that from so many people: “You have such nice employees; they’ve got such personality, we like coming here.” And that’s what it takes. You have got to have the edge on the bigger stores, and that’s something that I don’t see a lot of at chain stores. You’ve got to have an employee who, number one, is honest, and, number two, will look after your store. And number three—the biggest thing—is being good with people.
Do you have a particular philosophy about the kind of food that you sell?
I’m fussy about my meat. If I wouldn’t eat it, I’m not going to sell it. It’s that simple. I look at everything as it comes in off of the truck. You can have good customers, buying here for years, but if they get a bad piece of meat, they will never forget it.
Where do you get your meat?
Most of my meat comes from Albert’s Green Valley Packing Company in Washington, PA. They’ve got really nice fresh stuff and deliver twice a week. I’ve been with them for years; I used to get my quarters of beef from them when I still did my own butchering.
I will still cut some nice, thick Delmonico steaks if somebody wants a thicker steak than what’s in the case. I still have a lot of people who come in for a nice, big steak for the grill now and then. We try to cut stuff fresh every day, and if it’s in the case for a day or two, I vacuum pack it and sell it for a reduced price.
What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened at Doug’s?
They say there’s a ghost in here. I’ve seen things falling off the shelves; I’ve seen the clock start ticking—even the employees couldn’t believe that they were seeing the clock spin around… I heard this from the old owner, I can’t prove it, but he said that back in the 40s one of the butchers hung himself in the basement. We think it’s his ghost. Or I’ll come in the morning or late at night and I’ll hear things falling. We all know there’s a ghost here. He’s not hurting anybody, but he’s clumsy.
You’ve come a long way with Doug’s Market—do you have any plans to retire?
At the beginning we just gave it everything we had because you know that it’s all in your hands, and you just have to make it. The first seven years were the roughest, but then it started running smoother. We narrowed things down, saw what was selling, and tried a couple of things.
I’ve tried to scale it down to the point where I can keep tabs on everything, and now it’s right where I want it. When I first planned on doing this I figured ten years would be enough, but here I am, going into year sixteen now and I’m still at it; I don’t want to quit. This store’s been good to me.
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