At Kramarczuk's, the old way of sausage-grinding satisfies a new breed of customer
For sausage lovers Downtown, there is but one destination: The Kramarczuk Sausage Company at 215 E. Hennepin Ave.
The 50-year-old restaurant and meat shop is in some ways a relic -- a reminder of another era of the Old St. Anthony business district when small, family-owed shops and grocery stores dominated the neighborhood.
In other ways, Kramarczuk's, a traditional Eastern European deli is changing with the times, offering new meat varieties that appeal to the palates of area customers.
The meat counter is the focal point where the handmade sausages take center stage. They come in several flavors -- from the deli's legendary Polish sausage, priced around $3 a pound, to more unusual curry brats and wild rice sausages, which cost about $4 a pound.
Orest Kramarczuk, 53, co-owns the sausage company with Mike Gordienko, 35, the son of a former partner of Kramarczuk's. Both men consider the deli a second home and grew up behind the meat counter. Kramarczuk oversees business operations and serves as Gordienko's mentor.
For Kramarczuk, the business is in his blood. His parents immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union; they opened Kramarczuk's (then called Central Provisions) in 1954.
Theirs was the first butcher shop opened on Southeast Main Street. Although meat comes to Kramarczuk's precut, the place is still considered the oldest, continuously operating butcher shop in the city.
"My parents came here with nothing and established this place. I felt that a lot would be lost if I didn't carry on the tradition. This business is more about tradition than monetary success," he said.
Kramarczuk sold his first kielbasa, a Polish sausage, at the age of 10. He went on to graduate from law school but decided to stick with the family business.
"For people that make and create food, it takes almost as much education and know-how as professional careers. I know everything from what goes on in the coolers in the corners to what kind of ingredients go in my products to how things are supposed to taste," he said.
On a recent afternoon, three people manned the sausage-making machine behind the meat counter. The machine grinds the meat and is stuffed into sausage casings.
Kramarczuk remains true to his father Wasyl's European style of sausage-making, by cutting the sausages in a variety of ways and playing with several spices. He prides himself on keeping the sausages fresh and free of the preservatives and artificial flavorings of mass-produced sausages in chain groceries.
"It's more of an art form. It differentiates the way we make sausage from Oscar Mayer," he said.
Some things have changed in the old butcher shop. In the old days, whole animals would come into the shop off of trains. The deli also sold live chickens. Now, the meat comes precut in boxes.
"I remember my father used to spend a whole day in the cooler cutting meats. Now I can do in 15 minutes what took him half a day," he said. "Butchers are a dying breed."
In his office, he keeps a 130-year-old horseshoe with chicken legs attached to it -- a good luck charm from his father's day in the business -- as a reminder of the shop's history.
Kramarczuk looks back fondly on the company's earliest years. He said his parents were generous members of the community and often gave away food to people down on their luck.
"I remember when I was a young boy that there were grocery stores on every corner in Minneapolis. They served a purpose. They were neighborhood meeting places -- a support place were people could come in," he said.
His company has 35 employees today and has employed many new immigrants over the years. "It's sort of an institution for a lot of these people. This was their first steps in America," Kramarczuk said.
The lure of the family business has also hooked his son, Andrew, 18, who runs Drizzle Drop Creampuff next to the meat counter. He peddles creampuffs with crispy pastry outsides and creamy insides. The pastries come in chocolate, strawberry, caramel and chocolate truffle.
Kramarczuk credits the store's reputation with keeping the business viable today as new upscale housing and commercial development surrounds the old deli.
Other major redevelopments promise to further revitalize the East Bank, including the Pillsbury "A" Mill condos proposed by Schafer Richardson and the planned demolition of the Eastgate strip mall at Central & University avenues to make way for new condos and a larger grocery store.
Despite the gentrification pressure, Kramarczuk and Gordienko intend to keep the company in the neighborhood.
"There are not many family-run businesses anymore," Gordienko said, who has worked at the deli since 1984. "We've stuck to the same traditions but have adjusted to the trends."
Kramarczuk is more blunt about his assessment of the neighborhood: "The old neighborhood was better -- more genuine."
Nevertheless, the changes have been good for business. More housing and new businesses on East Hennepin translates to more foot traffic. Kramarczuk declined to disclose annual sales but said business grows steadily each year. "We've never had a down year," he said.
The company sells thousands of sausages in a week and attracts people of all ages -- from college kids who appreciate homemade food to aging regulars who have patronized Kramarczuk's for years and have formed strong bonds with the employees.
Kramarczuk's also features music on the weekends, including performances by accordion players, among others.
"Our customer base now is 20-somethings and third- and fourth-generation customers. I know most of my customers. I talk to them, and that's my favorite thing in the day," Kramarczuk said. "Sometimes a lot of people come here because they want to talk. A lot of lonely older people -- lonely single people. This is a genuine place. We're real people here."