Jaroslav and Klara Czuchraj, both from Ukraine, met by chance and fell in love in the Lincoln Park area of Tremont. In 1954, the couple opened Czuchraj Meats (jandjmeats.com) in the West Side Market, where they sold fresh kielbasa and ham and, perhaps, a handful of other products on any given day.
Days spent at the market are some of the earliest memories held by son Jerry Chucray (he's changed the spelling of his name). He began working the stand at age 10, continuing well into his teen years, when he trudged back and forth from Saint Ignatius High School before and after the bell rang. When he was 24, his dad fell ill, leaving him and his young wife Jill with a tough decision.
"We could just let everything that has gone on for 30 years go down the tubes, or we could give it a try," he recalls while seated in a booth at the West Side Market Cafe.
Jump ahead 32 years and J & J Czuchraj Meats now runs two market stands that sell more than 40 varieties of meats. Each day they offer approximately eight types of jerky, seven types of smokies, five types of smoked kielbasa, 10 types of raw chicken sausage, 10 types of pork sausage, and homemade corned beef.
Jill is the face of the business, while Jerry handles production at a West 25th Street smokehouse that the family purchased in the 1960s from Brookside Foods. Deliveries come in every morning at 7. The meat is mixed, blended with spices and pushed into the brick-lined smokers filled with a blend of hickory and cherry woods. Smokies and kielbasa go in for about three hours, beef jerky sits overnight for 15 hours, and pastrami takes about 18 hours.
Of course, those options are vast departures from Jaroslav and Klara's original classics. But Jerry and Jill field constant requests for new tastes and flavors as younger shoppers discover the market. The grab-and-go nature of many of their products has benefited from the growing swell of sports fans who swing by before games and bar hoppers crawling through Ohio City.
"You always have to stay on your toes; you can't be complacent," says Jerry. "People ask you to make something, go ahead and make it. Things change. From 30 years ago, it's a 180-degree turnaround. If we did what we were doing 30 years ago, we'd be out of business."
That's how bacon jerky, pepperjack smokies and scorching ghost pepper smokies and jerky have worked their way from the tastes of emerging foodies to the stand. The biggest seller is a white bratwurst made with lean pork and veal and mixed with garlic and white pepper, which, through a deal with Great Lakes Brewing Co., is now sold at Progressive Field. Their andouille sausage can be found in dishes at the Bourbon Street Barrel Room and Flying Fig.
But customers also are requesting the products they grew up with, like Slovenian sausage and Hungarian kielbasa.
"You see people from generation to generation and they'll come up to me and say, 'Can you get me what my grandmother used to make or buy?'" says Jill. "It's something for them to remember them by."
Though she refers to homemade smoked meats as a dying art, Jill says the tradition won't be leaving the family anytime soon. Both of their daughters grew up at the West Side Market, and Amanda, an Ohio University graduate, came on full-time last fall.
"It's like coming back home," she says. "Everyone at the market knows each other and knows each other's kids. It's like one big family."