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Published: Friday, 3/5/2010

A Slice of the Old World

‘Wuch YOU want?' demands a wary-eyed clerk standing alongside the meat counter at Takacs Grocery & Meats in Toledo's historic Birmingham section.

It's not exactly the old-world hospitality a visitor anticipates in this east-side neighborhood established by Hungarian-Americans more than a century ago.

A visit to Takacs is a trip through time down a narrow street dotted with well-kept old houses, trees with whitewashed lower trunks (supposedly to ward off harmful insect infestations), and Tony Packo's Hungarian hot dog restaurant. A tall statue of Hungary's St. Stephen stands watch over it all.

Among Toledo butchers specializing in ethnic selections, Takacs (pronounced tack'ess) has perhaps the most authentic neighborhood atmosphere. Large signs advertise “Quality groceries and produce” and “Homemade lunch meat and sausage.”

Different types of loafs are popular items at Kilgus Meats on West Laskey Road in West Toledo. Different types of loafs are popular items at Kilgus Meats on West Laskey Road in West Toledo.
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Giant bottle-shaped signs stand in large windows advertising Faygo pop. A hand-lettered sign posted on the door warns “One kid in at a time.”

Such stores and meat markets were commonplace in the ethnic neighborhoods that dotted Toledo in the mid-1900s and before. Most of the retailers closed as shopping habits changed and descendants of first and second-generation immigrants dispersed.

Today, there are only a handful of meat markets in Toledo that specialize in ethnic products.

They include Toledo Market on Dorr Street in West Toledo; Stanley's Five-Star Market on Stickney Avenue in North Toledo; and Kilgus Meats on West Laskey Road in West Toledo.

More common, though still rare, are ethnic grocery stores and delis such as Sofo Foods on Monroe Street; Deepam India Deli & Market on West Central Avenue; Tiger Lebanese Bakery on Monroe Street and on West Central Avenue; Middle East Market on North Reynolds Road; Asian Grocery on North McCord Road; and Far East Supermarket on South Reynolds Road. One of the most prominent local meat shops, the House of Meats, says ethnic meats are only a small segment of its sales.

Tom Zaucha, spokesman for the National Grocers Association in Arlington, Va., wasn't sure how many ethnic markets there are in the United States. Ethnic foods remain popular, he noted. Many of the nation's 50,000 independent grocers have added ethnic products to meet demand.

For ethnic food stores, the quest to survive and prosper has required them to broaden product offerings, reach out to new customers, and sometimes relocate.

As different as things are today from the era when most customers spoke English haltingly, business is still good during holidays when families gather to rekindle dining traditions. For stores rooted in the largely Christian countries of eastern and western Europe, Easter is one such occasion.

Forty-three-year-old Louis Takacs, who is the third person with that name to operate Takacs over the last half-century, chuckles when he hears about the chilly reception given to a visitor.

“I know exactly who that is,” he said of the employee who he suspects assumed the visitor was seeking a contribution. “We get hit up so much for donations. … Times are tough for everybody. We do as much as we can do. But you get donated out.”

About 70 percent of Takacs' sales are at Easter and other holidays, he said.

The tiny 660-square-foot shop at 1956 Genesee keeps to its Hungarian origins with a shelf of canned goods and other groceries imported from Hungary and meat cases stocked with Hungarian sausages, or kolbasz.

Mr. Takacs' grandfather, Louis, took over an existing store after coming to Toledo from Hungary in 1957 in a wave of immigration that followed an unsuccessful attempt to topple the nation's Communist government.

The neighborhood is much different today. He and other businesses worry about blight that plagues the neighborhood beyond the area immediately adjacent to Front and Consaul.

To supplement a decline in walk-in traffic, Mr. Takacs and his father, who operated the store from 1964 until 1994, developed a booming business in processing wild game for hunters. The business has grown from about 200 deer a season to 1,200 today, Mr. Takacs said.

In the area around the University of Toledo, Toledo Market specializes in meats and other specialties of the Middle East. The shop advertises that it sells chickens and other meats that conform to Islamic dietary laws known as Zabiha Halal. Ground lamb is among the most popular selections, although the shop also stocks other cuts of lamb, goat, and beef, said owner Hussein Salami, who has owned the store since 2000.

Across town, Stanley's Five-Star Market specializes in Polish meats and groceries.

Neighborhood residents and people who have moved away flock to the grocery store at the holidays, buying an average of 30,000 pounds of hand-made Polish kielbasa at Easter and 45,000 pounds during the Christmas season.

Opened in the 1930s, the store has been operated by members of Toledo's Zychowicz family since 1955.

To try to capitalize on the store's popular local brand and sausage-making know-how, owner Joe Zychowicz and son Andrew established Stanley's Market Brands LLC in 2008. The company operates a small meat plant on Enterprise Boulevard in Toledo that supplies the market with its signature fresh kielbasa and makes and sells packaged sausage under the Stanley's name through other stores.

The upstart of butchers specializing in ethnic meats is Zavotski Custom Meat and Deli in the DeVeaux Village Shopping Center at Sylvania Avenue and Douglas Road in West Toledo.

Owner Dave Zavotski describes himself and wife, Kim, as “Kroger refugees.” He worked for the grocery chain as a butcher. His wife was a meat wrapper.

The couple opened the shop in November, 2008. He was eager to gauge public reaction to a Polish kielbasa recipe acquired a quarter century ago. Both hoped that the move would improve their job security at a time when big grocery chains were moving to more already-packaged and preprocessed meats.

Nailing down financing wasn't easy, but a credit union eventually agreed to lend the couple money. They also obtained a $50,000 loan from the city of Toledo.

As they enter their second year, they have made course corrections. Meat cases include more foods that lend themselves to easy-to-prepare meals, such as stuffed chicken breasts and kielbasa-stuffed pork chops.

The owners' strategy is to position the store as a full-line meat shop rather than an ethnic shop only.

German-born Bill Kilgus opened Kilgus Meats, now at 3346 West Laskey Road, in 1947.

Today, it is owned by Erich Schiehlen, 69, who immigrated to the United States from the Stuttgart area of Germany in 1963. He purchased the shop, then on Lagrange Street, in 1973.

Kilgus' homemade veal loaf and kielbasa loaf lunch meats continue to command a loyal following — especially on Saturday mornings when they are fresh out of the oven.

Sales have remained stable in recent years at about $750,000 annually, Mr. Schiehlen said.

Longtime employee Bill Vallongo plans to buy the business.

But the current owner, who speaks English with a thick German accent, isn't sure when he will retire. “Somebody has to speak German around this joint,” he said with a laugh.



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