An Ethnic Treasure Bites the Dust
posted: June 13, 2007
Manager Jacek Danielak waiting for the end...
In the shadow of the scaffolding on the building at 124 First Avenue, just south of St. Mark's Place, is the empty store front that once sold the home baked hams, sausages and ribs that made Kurowycky (pronounced like "quart of whiskey" with an Eastern European accent) Meat an East Village treasure and tradition.

In the week before shutting its doors forever, Jerry Jr., the third Kurowycky to own and run the Ukrainian butcher shop, was putting on a brave front but couldn't help getting teary-eyed when long time customers rushed over to express dismay at the news.

In between condolences from disconsolate customers, Jerry Jr. told me the story of his family's flight from the Nazis and then the Communists, and the prosperity they enjoyed when they arrived in America, in 1949.

"My grandfather, Erast, was a provisioner, which is a sausage manufacturer. He learned his trade in the part of Ukraine that was occupied by Poland in the early ‘30s. Sausage making was still a very Medieval system then, where you had to be an apprentice and then you became a journeyman and then you had to take a final examination whereupon you could become a Master sausage maker, and open up your own establishment and hire people.

"In ’55, after five years working here when it was the Stasiuk meat store, he went out on his own. He bought a small store, on Avenue B between 10th and 11th Streets, and then in 1958, he moved to First Avenue, two doors over from where we are now. Then, in 1974, my father bought this establishment from the Stasiuk brothers, and we've been here ever since.

"But what's happened over the years is that what used to be a family staple has become a holiday item. I do a ridiculous business on Christmas and Easter, but the rest of the year it's too quiet. It's gotten too expensive to run the business. Not rent-wise: we own the building – if I paid rent, I’d be out of here years ago. It’s just that my overhead and expenses are going up, and business isn’t. It’s a completely different neighborhood and a completely different world. When I was a kid, I used to have a sandwich every day when I came home from school. Now, if I have a sandwich once a month, that’s a lot.  Even in my house, we have meat only once a week now."

But Jerry Jr.'s biggest beef is with City Hall. "We’ve been making our sausage the same way for 70 years, and I've never killed anyone, but they keep coming up with different regulations to make it harder. They told me, I’m not allowed to hang any sausage out in the store. So I had to hang plastic models!"

"Then they tried to turn me into a chemist, monitoring water activity and PH levels. It's been an ongoing battle for four or five years. I spent six months on the phone with Cornell University, trying to resolve this, and they were basically, 'Well, you should put this chemical in your product, and put that chemical in your product,' and my bottom line question was always, 'Is it going to change the flavor?' And their answer was always, 'Yes ... but you can mask it with sugar.' And I’m not willing to do that. I’m not willing to adulterate my product.

"And then the City comes in and tells me, all of a sudden, that I have to put in grease traps in my drains, which would cost me $6,000 - $8,000. And we use a tremendous amount of water here, and that went up more than 9 percent last year, and they're saying it’s going up more than 11 percent next year.

"It's gotten to a point where it’s just easier, and less of a headache, for me to close my doors and rent the space."

He called over a bulky man with a serious face, and introduced me to his father, Jaroslaw, age 74, who told me in a strong Ukrainian accent about the store's heyday.

"Back in the '60s, the whole Soviet mission was customers of ours. You could come in on a Friday afternoon or during lunchtime and you’d see 50-60 people from all the different Soviet Missions. We had no competition, because, first of all, most of them didn’t speak English, and we had people working here that spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and so on. And the stuff that we sold was excellent.

"When Kruschev came here – the time he banged his shoe on the table at the UN – they were having a reception at their mission to the United Nations and they ordered 400 hot dogs. But then they realized who they are dealing with. I mean, I’m here because I hated communism and I hated their regime, okay? And here they are, ordering for the head of State, and they realized they might be eating rat poison or whatever, so they came in and they canceled the order. But they asked me what day we make the frankfurters, and I told them on Thursdays. And then, on that Thursday, they came in and bought 400 frankfurters.

"We started getting customers from all over, and then, of course, food writers got interested in us. The first one was a neighbor of ours, Milton Glaser. He lived up the street from us and Milton became a very good friend, and he was the first one that mentioned us in New York magazine. He used to do the Underground Gourmet. And Milton knew Mimi Sheraton, when she was working for New York Magazine. Mimi came in to do an article on us and she had a habit of asking questions, like any reporter, and she was writing about the things we were making but she came in right before closing time and the guys gave her the bum's rush. The salespeople just wanted to go home, it was 5, at the end of the day and so on. So what she wrote was, 'Kurowycky would be good if it wouldn’t be for Stasiuk Meat Market next door.' She second-rated us to Stasiuk.

"And then when we bought this store here, where we are now, she called me up and she says, 'I’d like to do another story on you.'

"We were the first store that she wrote up when she started working for The New York Times: a half page story! We got to know Mimi and she told me the story behind this. She bought a quarter pound of almost everything we make when she was here, and she took it to her office and put it in the refrigerator while she wrote the story. Her editor came along and said, 'Come on, this is a dinky store on First Avenue, you can’t give them this kind of space,' and so on. So she went to the refrigerator, and laid out the samples on his desk, and told him, 'Go ahead and try it.' And he tried it, and he turned around and said, 'You write anything you want.'

"The article came out on the 17th of December, before Christmas, and about three days later we were baking hams and our oven just went – poof! – and there was a store full of people, wall to wall, and I come out and I said, 'People, I’m sorry, but it’s going to take a couple of hours for us to fix the range to bake hams and there’s really very little I can do about it.' And of all those people, not one left the store. They waited for hours before we even started baking the hams again. We had a line going all the way to 7th Street. This was something that was totally new to me, because we'd had a little publicity before, but nothing like this. My dad and I were sleepless for almost a week."

Looking around the nearly empty store, the countermen quietly chatting with each other in Polish, it was hard to imagine the place packed with customers. Jacek Danielak, age 52, the manager and head butcher who has been working there for 28 years, talked about his years at the store, while trimming a pork roast on one of the massive butcher blocks in the back. As he told his tale, two stripes of tears ran down his cheeks.

"I always like to cook food; my mother was an excellent cook. I have a two year college degree in Poland on how to run a restaurant. So when I came here, when I was 23, I start looking for a job in a couple of restaurants, but I didn’t really like it because they were so primitive; nothing like a real restaurant – just little luncheonettes. Then I saw in a Polish newspaper they had an ad that they were looking for somebody here, so I came, and that’s it.

"I spent my whole life here. Now I have to look for a job. I have two kids: my older daughter finished Columbia University, for mathematics. She has a degree. She graduated two years ago. This year she graduates from the U Penn, she has a masters degree in education and she could teach math in high school and university. And my younger daughter, right now she’s in her third year in Northwestern University, where she’s studying physical therapy.

"They say the store is closing because of economics. We make business twice a year, Christmas and Easter, and then the rest of the year we just waiting for customers. It’s too slow, it’s no families. Everybody I know with kids, they moving. The last three years, every week we hear somebody say, bye, bye, and they move to Brooklyn, to Queens, to Astoria, to Upstate New York. And mostly the young people in the neighborhood, sometimes they stop by and ask for a couple big filet mignon, they don’t even ask how much it is! And they never come back or they come back in another year. They don’t really cook. That’s why every business I remember is closed. Like Second Avenue Deli is now a Chase Bank.

"Now everybody want Whole Food stores: a lot of lights, decorations, show off, that’s what they want. They like ready-to-eat food; that’s what people want today, they have no time. I live in Bay Ridge, we used to have three or four supermarkets, but we don’t have one supermarket left. They all change to CVS, Costco, Rite Aids.

"Oh, I remember the kids used to come here, I used to give them lollipops, along with the nice bologna, and then they come with their kids, and I give them the same thing. So many sentimental things I'll miss."

But Jerry Jr. isn't giving up all hope. He's thinking of developing a mail order business, to sell his sausages, hams and smoked meats all over the country. What modern times have taken away from Jerry Kurowycky and the East Village neighborhood he's lived in all his life, may also be what gives it back...being a provisioner to a neighborhood created by the internet.