Last century’s Ridgewood, a burgeoning German neighborhood, provided an insatiable market for corner butchers and sausage-makers. Demographics may have shifted, but a love of pork has been a constant, and a handful of the old guard survive. We sampled our way through three classic stores, and also paid our respects to a recently departed pork titan.
Morscher’s dates back to 1957, but was built on the foundation of an earlier butcher shop – the Arnitz Pork Store, founded 1893. When Joseph Morscher took over the store he brought in the traditions of Gottschee, a German enclave in Slovenia. The business was handed through the family to a cousin and then the cousin’s son, Herbie Morscher, who runs the smokers today with help from partner Siegfried Strahl. It’s still as small of an operation as ever, and most impressive of all, Herb tells us, "we don’t do any wholesale or restaurant business. Everything we make is sold across this counter."
It’s hard to spot the owners behind the dried pork and sausages curtaining said counter in the narrow shop. Herb emerges to give us some warm leberkäse on bread – literally ‘liver cheese,’ but he describes it more appealingly as "German meatloaf." We then venture into the back, where Siegfried is preparing slabs of bacon for curing, and meat fresh out of the smoker is glistening under a skylight. The business end of the shop is no more spacious than the storefront, but the smells are even more intoxicating and the atmosphere is just as thoroughly German. When Herb tells us about the polka band he plays in in his spare time, there’s no surprise.
The awning doesn’t offer anything more specific than "European Meat," but that’s because the Ridgewood Pork Store has it all. Owner Jonel Picioane reckons he’s got around 80 types of meat products, from the specialties of his Romanian family roots in the Serbian autonomous province of Vojvodina to preparations as culturally distant as soppressata, chorizo and chicharrón. "You’ve got to serve the neighborhood," he says, and that’s the way he was taught to run the store by his father, who bought it in the 1970s. There’s been a butcher on this corner for much longer than that, however, and the mirrored interior, meat scale, and basement smokehouse are all originals.
Fellow Serb Bosko works the shop, laying out a spread of samples from what’s on the counter today – Romanian "Canadian bacon," hand chopped cured sausage with hazelnuts and wine – before taking a break to carry in a pair of fresh pigs that Jonel has brought down from Hunts Point Market. "But this is the best one," Bosko tells us with a hint of pride, unwrapping fresh Ćevapi, Balkan kebabs of minced meat that are something of a Serbian national dish. We don’t have a grill handy, so we just choose to believe it.
Forest Pork Store’s colorful mid-century sign reveals its 1948 vintage, but unfortunately tops a storefront that hasn’t opened since 2007. Rising costs and shrinking demand shuttered the retail counter, but in the back the grinders and smokers are still running full force, and long time customers can still get their hands on the goods. "Locals can phone in orders to our Long Island store, and pick them up right here from the side door," explains Walter Kump, who runs the business with John Schiefele, son of the founder.
The branch in Huntington has identical frontage and has, by all accounts, taken up the retail slack. Neighborhood devotees can also travel a short distance to Glendale, where the month-old Stammtisch Pork Store, a gleaming new meat and imports shop attached to the famous Zum Stammtisch restaurant, is carrying "about 90%" of the Forest line. Wherever you go to buy it, it’s all made here in Ridgewood. Under the eye of a USDA inspector who’s here "four or five hours a day," employees turn out racks of specialty sausages like cervelat and touristenwurst. "But for the local customers, it’s mostly hot dogs right now," says Walter. Glancing over the stock list, with its impressive series of hot dog varieties, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Ridgewood is ready for the summer.
Gone but not forgotten: Karl Ehmer Quality Meats
6335 Fresh Pond Road
The giant of the Ridgewood pork world closed its doors last October, but this manufacturing plant on Fresh Pond Road was once the center of a pork empire, a chain of more than 50 stores reaching all the way to Florida. Karl Ehmer started his original shop on 46th Street in Manhattan in 1932, but as the business grew he opened his first large-scale production center in German Ridgewood in the 1940s. He built the "state-of-the-art" factory that now stands empty in 1958, by which time Ehmer was one of the most recognized names in New York sausages.
Until last year the attached retail counter continued to do brisk business, but the all-important wholesale trade faded away until the plant was forced to close. The brand name survives under the ownership of a Long Island food company, and six independently owned Karl Ehmer stores soldier on in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. But the Ehmer family’s plant now stands empty, forlornly proclaiming itself to Ridgewood as "Still The Best Butcher On The Block!"