When Herbert Morscher, 49, joined his family pork shop full-time in 1986, locals in Ridgewood, Queens called him crazy for getting involved in a neighborhood with more than a dozen butcher shops.
“So many people in other butchers said, ‘Herb you’re crazy, the neighborhood’s going to hell, you’re never gonna make it,” Morscher said in a room clouded with hickory smoke in the back of his shop. “But I always had a vision that the people are hungry, so I didn’t listen to it. I said there’s an opportunity here.”
Today, Morscher’s Pork Store is the last of its kind.
In an era where upscale butchers that specialize in grass-fed meats and locally sourced products are plentiful, butcher shops with old world charm seem to be a New York vestige. But Morscher’s has managed to survive in part due to a simple philosophy: embrace diversity. As new cultures settle into Ridgewood, Morscher’s changes its recipes and creates new ones to meet the needs of different groups. The result is a microcosm of the neighborhood in meat.
“It’s all about the spices,” he said wiping his hands on his apron.
German favorites such as kassler liverwurst, coarse ground liver sausage, and headcheese, a European cold cut often made with pig’s tongue, are sold in the store, but so are meats spiced with blends designed for the array of cultures now living in the neighborhood. Fennel for Italians, garlic and spicy Hungarian paprika for the Eastern Europeans, and coriander, nutmeg, and mace for that classic “European flare.”
In the early 1900s, Ridgewood was populated with Germans who worked at breweries and knitting mills. Later on it became a hub of Eastern European activity and home to a sizable Italian and Puerto Rican population. Now there is a surge of Polish moving into the neighborhood and “Masarnia,” the Polish word for butcher, glows blue in the storefront.
Today, a wave of Brooklynites are putting down roots in Ridgewood.
As the nearby Bushwick has risen in popularity, people have crossed the border over into Queens. Ridgewood has experienced a recent influx of yoga studios, cafes with vegan muffins, and a growing collection of galleries, music venues and restaurants. It has been labeled by several media outlets as the next hot neighborhood and is sometimes referred to as “Quooklyn” or “Ridgewick.” Morscher is unphased by the changes.
“A lot of the other places [in the past] were more German oriented butcher shops, where they didn’t try to cater to the rest of the neighborhood. We tried to cater to everybody,” he said. “We never represented ourselves as a German. I’m an American born right here in the United States and it’s an international store, you can say.”
The product of keeping pace with the neighborhood is an overwhelming amount of meat. George Kunkel, a lifelong Ridgewood resident, called Morscher’s a “meat candy store.” Spirals of sausage rest on the butcher’s counter, rows of pork hang from metal hooks along the wall and tubes of olive loaf line the refrigerator. Morscher estimates they have at least 100 different types of meat, which are all ground, cooked, smoked, cured, and dried on the sleepy Catalpa Avenue street.
The pork store opened its doors in 1957, when Joseph Morscher decided to bring the family butcher traditions from Gottschee, a German enclave in what is now part of Slovenia, to the United States. The Morscher’s lived in the Gottschee region for more than 600 years, but when World War II broke out they were forced to flee. Eventually, their family in Queens was able to sponsor them to come to the United States and settle in Queens.
Morscher has lived in Ridgewood most of his life, got married in the nearby Gottscheer Hall and when he’s not busy at the store, plays the drums in a German American polka band named Spitzbuam, which according to Morscher, roughly translates to a bunch of mischievous kids.
The appeal of Morscher’s goes beyond the meat.
For Miguel Salazar, 67, when he first stepped into Morscher’s it “smelled like home.” Salazar grew up in an area of San Antonio, Texas with a large Polish and German population, where smokehouses peppered the landscape. Salazar, who lives in Williamsburg, on average commutes 20 minutes by car from his neighborhood to shop at Morscher’s. After visiting family in the neighborhood he discovered Morscher’s and has shopped there for the last 18 years.
But many of Morscher’s shoppers are the stores new neighbors—and Morscher has reacted to the changes as his business always has, by embracing diversity.
“Now we have a lot of the artisan people moving into the neighborhood, which is a good thing,” he said. “I see a lot more of the younger generation, let’s say hipsters, which is great for the neighborhood I respect them, they try to shop local.”
Denise Plowman, 32, co-owner of Julia’s Beer and Wine Garden, a one-year-old business in Ridgewood, says the bar restaurant purchases all of its meats from Morscher’s and that the Pork Store’s staff was touting the business’s arrival to its customers before Julia’s even opened.
“You put good in and you give the people a good value for their money, you’re gonna be alright,” said Morscher. “And they see that, they really do.”