Isaly’s: What We Did Before Fast Food

Jeff Sherry

Friday Feb 4th, 2022

Isaly’s logo. Note the red letters that spell Isaly’s.

In the days before the proliferation of fast-food restaurants,  hungry folks could stop at their local Isaly’s store for a meal, a loaf of bread, ice cream and milk. While there were no Isaly’s in Erie County, over 700 stores and dairy plants dotted the cities and towns of western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. This blog will look back at the not too distant past and certainly jog the memories of many readers.

Brian Butko’s new book, Isaly’s Chipped Ham, Klondikes, and Other Tales from Behind the Counter, published by the Heinz History Center in 2021 tells the tale of a chain of Isaly’s stores across the tri-state that is not only a fascinating read, but is a colorful and well-designed book that looks at the history of these establishments scattered, literally everywhere, and a nostalgic look back at our regional past.

In 1833, Swiss cheesemaker Christian Isaly immigrated to Monroe County, Ohio. Isaly had hopped to continue making cheese in the large copper kettle he brought with him, but soon changed to dairy products. Generations of the Isaly family sold dairy products door to door from wagons and carts but soon switched to retail stores bearing their name. By the 1930s, the Isaly name was famous locally for such products as chipped ham, “Skyscraper” ice cream cones and the famous Klondike bar.

Isalys sign
Isaly’s sign at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh

Isaly’s stores featured a deli where customers could buy fresh lunchmeats and cheeses as well as a menu full of favorites, including their barbeque chipped ham sandwiches and other staples usually found in diners, or in northwestern Pennsylvania, dinors. Ice cream was a favorite. The famous “Skyscraper Cone” was piled high with Isaly’s hard ice cream on a crispy cone and the still popular Klondike Bar-now produced by Good Humor-Breyers, a division of Unilever.


The 1930s brought a contest centered on finding a Klondike with a pink ice cream center. If  anyone found a pink center, they got a free Klondike! It later came out that some Isaly’s employees and workers at Isaly’s plants were unwrapping Klondikes, looking for the pink center in order to get a free one.

Chipped Ham, sometimes called “chip-chopped ham,” is simply super thin slices of lunchmeat ham. The ham and the barbeque sauce, still sold at a major grocery chain, is produced by Conroy Foods, Inc. is still using the Isaly’s name and label.

Chipped Ham
Chipped Ham

The “Skyscraper” ice cream cone was invented at Isaly’s Youngstown, Ohio, plant by plant supervisor Sam Jennings. Instead of the familiar round scoops of ice cream, a patented ice cream scooper was  designed that created the tall cone of a “Skyscraper.”

Isalys store
Isaly’s employee making “Skyscrapers”

Beginning in the 1930s, Isaly’s stores began to adopt the iconic white front and the trendy art-deco lettering of the day. Employees always wore white shirts, white trousers, apron and caps. The stores were neat and clean.

Isalys store front
Isaly’s storefront in West View, Pittsburgh, PA
PIttsburgh Isalys
Inside the same Isaly’s in West View, Pittsburgh.

All good things come to an end, it seems and Isaly’s was no different. According to author Brian Butko, Isaly’s had a loose structure when many larger national companies had a much tighter structure. By the 1960s and 70s, Many Isaly’s stores were closing because they could not keep up with large national chains and fast-food restaurants.

Today, there are still a few stores operating under the Isaly’s logo, but the chain of over 700 is gone.


See also:

Isaly's Chipped Ham, Klondikes, and Other Tales from Behind the Counter

By Brian Butko

Klondikes, Chipped Ham, & Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly's

By Brian Butko