The very same year that Eliot Ness was brought in as Cleveland's new safety director, Fred Jaworski opened up a small butcher shop in Slavic Village's old Newburgh Market, which happened to be within walking distance of Kingsbury Run, where another "butcher" had recently set up shop. Jaworski's was just one of countless Polish meat markets that dotted Broadway and Fleet avenues as the area was home to one of the largest concentration of Poles in the region. Sadly, almost all of those butcher shops are long gone, laid waste by attrition, suburban flight and the rise of the supermarket.
But this isn't yet another eulogy for a Cleveland icon lost to history. No, this is a story of improbable success fueled by tradition, customer service and staunch loyalty. That Jaworski Meats has managed to survive for eight decades, through lush times and lean, is proof that sometimes the good guys do win. Walk into the Middleburg Heights storefront, Jaworski's home for the past 10 years, and you'll see a big, bright, bustling marketplace, the furthest thing from a meat mausoleum on its last, wobbly legs.
Arrive midday midweek and you'll see a line snaking through the store populated by ravenous lunch customers, each silently praying that he or she makes it to the counter before the last of the smoked brisket has been claimed. If so, they'll grudgingly switch their order to the Big Reubinski, house-roasted pork topped with sauerkraut and cheese, or the sausage sandwich, Jaworski's own smoky Slovenian sausage wedged into a soft bun. Arrive midday on a Saturday and you'll swear the shop was giving away free cars.
"It gets a little crazy," admits Mark Jaworski, Fred's son. In fact, he recently reinstalled the take-a-number machine that was decommissioned some years back in hopes of pacifying the crowds. It helped. Some.
Butcher shops like Jaworski that were scrappy enough to weather the lean years — decades? — have arrived at a time in American food when butchers are celebrated, not unlike what began happening with chefs 15 years ago. Thanks to food TV, farm-to-table restaurants, and nose-to-tail chefs, home cooks have grown less squeamish and more adventurous in the kitchen. Shoppers are seeking out interesting bits like veal heart, sweetbreads and tripe. Good luck finding any of those at the local Pick-n-Pay.
"Pork belly," Mark mutters. "They all keep asking for pork belly."
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I walked around Jaworski like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Hundreds of feet of gleaming stainless steel coolers were brimming with hand-cut chops, house-ground beef, slow-roasted meats, and hot-smoked sausages. Behind the counter, mammoth wooden butcher blocks, bowed in the middle from a million little cuts, are piled high with steaks getting a final trim. Want a 3-inch-thick bone-in ribeye? Just ask.
At 89 years young, Dorothy Jaworski has earned the right to sit in a corner all day sipping slivovitz-spiked coffee. Instead, she's making quick work of yet another batch of smokies, the continuous stream of slender tubed meat flying out of the sausage stuffer and through her hands. From here they'll go in the smoker, hanging alongside a dozen or so varieties that draw fans from far and wide.
Many independent shopkeepers tout customer service as the big differentiator between big and small business. At Jaworski, you experience that first hand. When a local tavern wants a couple hundred steaks that they can sell for $5 a pop, nephew Adam digs deep for just the right cut: the versatile, tasty and affordable ball tip steak. When a customer asks about all-beef hotdogs, Mark points to a pile of fat weenies from Dearborn. "The only good thing to come out of Michigan," he says without missing a beat.
You can count on one hand the places that still make kishka, the Eastern European blood sausage made from "head meat," buckwheat and barley, or sekanice, a special Slovenian ham loaf that weighs down the traditional Easter table. Jaworski does, along with head cheese, kielbasa loaf, stuffed cabbage and a dozen soups, including oxtail and dill pickle.
This might just be the best time in America to be a butcher, appreciated, at long last, for the skill, craft and passion they bring to the table. In a time when everything old is new again, when Old World ways no longer are looked upon as quaint but honorable, just and even ethical, good butchers like Mark Jaworski stand to benefit.
Last Saturday, the Jaworski family held an anniversary celebration to thank their customers for another year in business. That makes 80 if you're counting. Customers enjoyed live music, free snacks and the warm thanks of an appreciative family that has made a living by keeping its community well fed.