We recently traveled to Levittown, Pennsylvania to visit the area’s largest aquarium superstore. To give you an idea of the size of this store, the building was originally a supermarket and then a ballroom before Siegfried (Ziggy) Gutekunst transformed it into the Hidden Reef.
Ziggy was born in the United States and returned to Germany with his mother when he was eight years old. He acquired his first aquarium when he was ten. It contained the usual fare—mollies, guppies, gourami’s, and plants. As with most livebearers, nature did her thing and the inhabitants multiplied rapidly. Being restricted by his mother to a single 10-gallon aquarium was tough with all of the baby fish he had, so he made arrangements with his school to trade fish for lunch money, as they had a
200-gallon aquarium and space was not an issue. He kept that 10-gallon aquarium until he was 15 and never got anything bigger because his mother said, “You will tire of it and waste a lot of money.”
In 1987, Ziggy came back to the U.S. and moved into an apartment on top of his father’s barber shop. He took a job at a jewelry store doing repair work. The store was located next to a hardware store, where he met his former partner George Kunz, who happened to have had a 90-gallon reef aquarium. “1 was hooked the first time I saw an Australian sea apple,” Ziggy said.
One can only imagine how nervous his father was about the structure of the floor over his barber shop as Ziggy’s collection of rare saltwater fish, corals, and large aquariums for housing the animals grew. At that time he had one of the first purple tangs, black tangs, sohal tangs and asfur angels. Structural support aside, his father proudly conducted aquarium tours of his son’s apartment for his barber shop customers to see the beautiful tanks featuring fish and coral.
History of the Store
In 1995, the brief ownership of a maintenance company called Sealife Aquarium Designs and wholesale business called US Marine Imports and love of tropical fish led Ziggy to open the original Hidden Reef Aquarium. The store was actually hidden in the basement of a hardware store in the back of a shopping center in northeast Philadelphia. In spite of its location, limited aquarium and floor space, and the absence of a sign, the business flourished.
Within one year, most of the hardware store became the The Hidden Reef’s dry goods section. Shortly after, an adjacent store became their expanded fishroom. The store grew from 1400 to 5600 square feet. Customers would often joke that you could buy your fish and have your keys made all in the same place!
2003 was a sad year for Ziggy and all at the Hidden Reef, as their dear friend and partner George lost his battle with Hodgkin’s disease. It was George’s reef aquarium and inspiration that made The Hidden Reef a reality.
Tragedy struck again right before Christmas two years later. The Hidden Reef was destroyed by a fire that started in another store in the shopping center. “We lost all the animals except for a few, as we kept running in and out while the store was burning; the firemen were chasing us, but we were able to save most of the corals,” Ziggy said.
After the fire, The Hidden Reef did not have a new home until July 2006. It took until April of the following year just to get the front of the new store opened. It was nine months of long, hard work. Then it was time to tackle the fish room. One hundred and fifty pounds of screws, 1400 two by fours, and a lot of paint and PVC pipe went into completing that room.
The Store Today
The modern-day store is over 20,000 square feet. Of this, 6800 square feet is home to 450-plus aquariums. Out of these, 40 are devoted to corals, 145 are saltwater, and more than 250 are freshwater. There are 16 bagging stations located throughout the fish room, and a knowledgeable, more than adequately sized staff is available to help customers. Manager Ryan Smith, who has been with the Hidden Reef since the old store, does a fine job of keeping the fish room well stocked and running.
“All of the people working at our store truly care about the animals they are selling, as well as the customers they are helping,” he said.
The front of the store has an array of aquariums, supplies, frozen foods, and all the essential plumbing supplies needed to set up and maintain an aquarium or pond. The pond room itself is also located at the front of the store, containing six large tubs of pond plants and a beautiful 1500-galIon.
pond, complete with a waterfall, filled with Japanese koi. There are plans on the drawing board to install two 400-plus- gallon custom aquariums on either side of the entrance to the fish room.
All the filtration for the fish room is located in the basement, which is slightly larger than the square footage of the store above. There are 16 individual 1000-gallon systems, each with a 300-gallon sump that turns the water over at least five times per hour. In total, the system contains 720 gallons of bio-media. Attached to each system is a bio-tower, with a 10-inch filter sock that is changed daily. Each system is also equipped with a commercial-grade ultraviolet (UV) sterilizer. Two reverse osmosis (RO) units produce 1300 gallons of RO water per day. Any individual tank running in the fish room has a separate filter and UV sterilizer attached.
Having such a large store enables The Hidden Reef to buy dry goods and fish in large quantities and pass the savings along to their customers. As an example of their buying strategy, 700 buckets of sea salt are brought in at a time. Livestock shipments of 50-plus boxes per week during the summer swell to over 90 boxes from fall through spring.
To show their thanks and appreciation to their customers for their loyalty throughout the year, the Hidden Reef hosts an open house annually the Saturday before Thanksgiving. On this day, prices are slashed even lower on most dry goods and fish. The fish room is fully staffed, and a take-a-number system is employed to prevent chaos. Manufacturing representatives are on hand to answer any questions you may have about their products. Store merchandise is raffled off throughout the day, and customers can win aquariums, filters, and much more. This year they will be adding fun things.
The line of customers typically waiting for the store to open on this day is as long as the length of the shopping center. This year’s event will be held on Saturday, November 21, 2009.
Ziggy credits good customers as being the reason the Hidden Reef has come so far: “When we had the fire, we had $15,000 in Christmas gift cards sold as holiday gifts. In spite of not being able to use them until 2007, only two customers wanted their money refunded, all the rest helped us during a really rough time...I consider myself lucky to have such loyal customers. I just want to take this opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to all of them, past and present.”
Ziggy and his staff did the installation and maintenance of the aquarium featured in the 2004 season of MTV’s The Real World. Also, their beautiful store reef display aquarium was featured in the hardcover edition of Ultimate Marine Aquariums: Saltwater Dream Systems and How They Are Created by Michael S. Paletta (TFH/ Microcosm Professional Series, 2003).
When asked if there is any advice, morals, or lessons pertaining to the fish business to pass along, Ziggy replies with the usual: “You never know where life will take you.” He did, however, have this to add: “Don’t listen to your mother!”
The Hidden Reef
4501 New Falls Road, Levittown, PA 19056 Tel: 215-269-4930