No More Pork Stores

Across the country, butcher shops have been on the cutting board. Back in 2015, CBS News reported on the diminishing number of stores, noting that “thousands of butchers” were nearing retirement. In New York, this has meant the end of decades-old shops. Last April, Carroll Gardens’ century-old Esposito’s Jersey Pork Store closed because, the owners told the New York Post, they’d gotten too old and couldn’t find the right people to take over. Staubitz Market, up the street from Esposito’s, started a GoFundMe to avoid bankruptcy. Greenwich Village’s 86-year-old Florence Prime Meat was also set to close, until then-owner Benny Pizzuco came to an agreement with butcher Aristeo Quiñonez, who now runs the business with his family. It’s much the same in New Jersey.

One of New York’s longest-standing pork stores is the nearly 70-year-old Morscher’s, which grinds, cures, and smokes a (slightly overwhelming) range of German, Austrian, Polish, and Slovenian meats: everything from smoked krainerwurst to meatloaflike leberkase to headcheese to cabanos, a dried Polish sausage. It’s also a neighborhood landmark that, as one local put it, is one of the businesses that defines Ridgewood. Another local, who grew up in the neighborhood, said it was the only place his dad trusted for buying meat. As with Gottscheer Hall, it’s part of Ridgewood’s history as a German neighborhood and, more specifically, a home of Gottscheers, people from a formerly German enclave in what is now Slovenia. But like so many of the neighborhood’s German businesses, its time has come. Last week, the owners announced that the store will close on February 3.

Photo: Tobias Everke

It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Business has been good; another local says the store was never dead. But Siegfried Strahl, who is both the landlord and a senior partner in the business, quadrupled the rent starting in March, co-owner and second-generation butcher Herbert “Herbie” Morscher told the Ridgewood Times. “I’ve tried a million times to buy the building, and he won’t sell it,” says Morscher, who will retire and get the shoulder surgery he has been putting off because of work. Asked if he had any inkling as to Strahl’s motivations, Morscher demurred and said to ask him. (Morscher did allude to past disputes in which Strahl threatened to raise the rent, and said last year that his rent had doubled.) Strahl, however, was not interested in elaborating: He hung up on me when I reached him by phone. (Morscher, who is 57, started working at the family business in the ’80s and became a partner in 1999, after the retirement of his father. Strahl, who is 82 according to the Morschers, was brought on as a partner in 1983. About a decade ago, Peter Kotarowski, a longtime employee, was made the shop’s third partner.)

Despite the long-standing friction, Morscher says he was surprised by Strahl’s decision — he didn’t think “he had the nerve.” He seemed even more surprised that Strahl has been shopping the space around — which he found out via his refrigerator man — by sending letters to other butchers, such as Jonel Picioane of Ridgewood European Pork Store, who received a letter (dated November 28, 2023) about a month ago advertising that Strahl is looking for a new tenant “due to [his] retirement.”

“We have no choice,” Morscher says. “This is what he wants to do, so he’s forcing us out. His mentality is that if he’s not here, no one should be here.”

On Friday, longtime customers shuffled in, wondering whether the news was true. “How many years have we known each other? How many years?” Morscher asked one. “My father used to come here when I was 6, 7 years old,” the middle-aged customer responded.

Morscher’s Pork Store was opened in 1955 by Joseph “Pepi” Morscher. (He was Morscher’s’s second cousin and brought Morscher’s father, also named Herbert Morscher, into the business. The elder Herbert and his wife, Sidonia V. Morscher, both passed away last year.) Back then, Ridgewood had been a German enclave for decades, going back to the late 1800s, but the neighborhood’s changes have been an ongoing topic of conversation for at least 20 years. When the New York Times marked the end of Niederstein’s, a 150-year-old restaurant in nearby Middle Village, customers said that business had been dwindling for decades. And after Karl Ehmer shut down its Ridgewood store in late 2010, Lost New York City wrote, “Come to Gottscheer Hall, Rudy’s Bakery, and Morscher’s Pork Store while you still can … German Ridgewood is disappearing rapidly.”

Opened in the 1930s, Ridgewood European Pork Store was once one of the neighborhood’s Gottschee businesses as well. Eventually it was bought by Korenl Picioane, an ethnic Romanian who had immigrated from Serbia, in 1975. His son Jonel Picionae, who started working in the store when he was 15, now runs it. After Morscher’s closes, Ridgewood European Pork Store will be one of the few pork stores still selling in the neighborhood. When Picionae got Strahl’s letter, he was a bit confused — “I thought it was kind of goofy” — and also totally disinterested. “I got another eight years in me. That’s it. I gotta put one more kid through college and then I’m done, too,” he says. “I’ll be 60-something years old. Can’t be doing this shit forever.”

Morscher’s Pork Store

Related

A Final Trip to Papaya King on the Eve of Its Likely DestructionArrivederci to Nunzio’s, an Unsung Staten Island Slice MeccaA Hot New Restaurant Moved In. That Made Its Neighbors Nervous.