The Port Richmond shop, a 2017 Readers' Choice winner, produces anywhere from 400 to 500 pounds of kielbasa a day. Other popular polish eats, like pierogis and smoked slab bacon, are made in the same brick and mortar shop that first opened back in 1938.
The family business began three generations ago by Jan Czerw who immigrated from Mislsi, Poland to Philadelphia. Jan quickly got a job as a butcher, but by night, spent his time whipping up kielbasa in the basement of his home. It didn't take long for his hobby to become well-known around the area as neighbors started seeking out his products for purchase. Pretty soon, Jan found himself converting an old horse stable into a smokehouse, which his three grandsons continue to run today.
John Czerw, the youngest of the brothers who now own Czerw's Polish Kielbasa, recounts what it was like growing up in the shop and how it feels to carry on the family legacy.
Do you still use your grandpa’s same recipe for kielbasa?
Absolutely, you don't mess with a good thing. We actually still use the same brick oven that he built by hand, too.
What makes his recipe standout?
It's an Old World recipe. We still use all pork and hand-trim all of the butts ourselves. You won't find by-products, artificial coloring or fillers in our kielbasa like you would in a lot of products on the market.
How old were you when you started working in the shop?
I was just four or five years old when I first started coming around to help out. I would clean up the smokehouse from the night before, and then as I got older, I would help out in the store with the customers and carry out their bags. I'd also clean out the casings, and then I graduated to helping with the spices and the smoking. I've been here my whole life.
What’s your fondest childhood memory of working in the shop?
Easter time was always my favorite. All these people would be outside waiting hours in line and they were so, so nice to me.
Is it still like that today?
Yes. We're very lucky. People want to keep up that tradition of buying kielbasa for the holidays. Around Christmas, even in the nastiest of weather, we get a massive amount of people lining up out the door to buy kielbasa.
Do you have a lot of regulars?
People come every week to buy kielbasa. I'll have third or fourth generation customers come in all the time. I'll see a customer bring his grandson into the shop to show him where the kielbasa comes from. That's what keeps us in it every day.
How has the restaurant changed over the years?
It's evolved with technology. We use social media to reach out to customers and let them know about specials we're making for the day or to tell them about our sausage of the week. Facebook is a big part of our operations now.
What do you think your grandpa would say about that?
As long as we don't mess with the core of how we make the sausage, he'd be all for it. He'd probably want to get on there and write a few posts himself.
Describe working with your two brothers. Is this a challenge? Are these your best friends?
Sure, you're going to have disagreements here and there, but as a family, we get through it. We're best friends and you have to be. It's a hard business with a lot of hours but to keep this tradition going, you have to stay tight and work together. It's pretty cool that I get to spend everyday with my family.
What does it mean to you to keep the family legacy going?
It means the world to me. I'm sure there'd be an easier job, like a desk job, where I'm not getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning and putting in 15 hours a day, but I love it. I'd miss the customers, seeing the same people all the time and hearing about what's going on in their lives. It's a pretty cool job I have.
Do you have a most memorable day of all time that sticks out from working at the shop?
It sounds silly but everyday that I get to come in and open the door and start the smokehouse is memorable for me. The fact that I have something to come to like that day after day, it sounds simple, but it's incredibly rewarding.
Do you have a favorite product that you sell?
Our original kielbasa. People always say, "You must be sick and tired of eating the kielbasa", but I eat it a couple times a week.
What’s your go-to way of eating it?
I love it on the grill. You butterfly it, grill it up and put it on a roll. I like a little bit of sauerkraut on top and maybe some onions and mustard.
Where do you see your restaurant going in the future?
Well, I'd never see us leaving this area. People say we should go commercial but to do that, you have to cheapen your product, and we wouldn't do that. My brothers have kids, so there are definitely generations to come after us. They don't really have a choice in coming to run the business...