"At Christmas, everyone's a little bit Polish," says Polish American Cultural Center president Michael Blichasz. Good evidence: the pre-Christmastime line out the door of Port Richmond's Czerw's Kielbasy.
The Czerw family (say it Cherv) has been making kielbasa and other Polish specialties out of an old horse stable on Tilton Street since 1938. Jan Czerw, a butcher in Poland, founded the business and built the still-in-use brick smokehouse by hand back when Polish immigrants were flocking to the neighborhood, constructing the grand St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church, and founding the nearby Polish American String Band.
Today, Jan's grandsons John, Dennis, and Jeff - the "Kielbasy Boys" - run the cash-only operation. They use their late grandfather's recipes and Jersey-grown apple wood and cherry wood for those famous sausages, of which they make "tons and tons" in the run-up to Christmas. (Their mom Jennie, age 86, makes the golabki.)
Also created with love in-house: Pierogi, made fresh daily and best enjoyed Christmas Eve when, explained Blichasz, "The food is meatless." John Czerw talked about the Polish holiday food biz - meaty cheesesteak pierogi included.
Christmas or Easter. What's the busier holiday for you?
They're both kind of the same. Christmas is a little more spread out: People buy a week or two weeks ahead, and come in a little bit earlier for holiday parties.
This year, the way Christmas has fallen, it's a full week. Starting next week, we open every day of the week, including Sundays, at 7 a.m. By 5:30 in the morning there will be a line outside of people waiting to get in. We have one guy who does shift work who literally sleeps in his car outside. He's always the first one in line. I let him in early.
What are customers buying?
Kielbasa, pierogi, golabki, babka, rye bread, pickles that we make ourselves ... All of it. This is the time of year people want the good stuff, want to take a taste of home with them.
We have a customer who drives in for the day from Rhode Island just to shop. We always have people who are visiting from Florida.
Your business is named for your kielbasa, but you've got quite a following for your pierogi.
We used to get pierogis from a lady who lived nearby. Twenty-four years ago, she stopped making it. My mom was too overwhelmed making golabki, so I was like: How hard could it be to make pierogis?
I learned the hard way - trust me. I really, really did.
In the beginning, we had to limit people to how many dozen they could have. It took a long time, and a lot of flour and a lot of eggs, but I found my groove.
What's your most popular pierogi?
Cheesesteak. We've always had the potato, farmer's cheese, or your sauerkraut. I tell customers to try the cheesesteak. They fall in love.
We cut the onions fresh each day. We use fresh garlic. There's other ways, quicker ways, easier ways to make them. But this gets me up in the morning. This keeps me out of trouble. I love being covered in flour, head to toe. Why shortcut it?
Are your customers mostly of Polish descent?
It's a wide variety of people that come in here, which is nice, which speaks to the product. I have the best customers in the world. They love it, no matter what they were weaned on. You don't have to be Polish to love kielbasis or pierogis.
And after the Christmas rush, you get a break?
I'll be working pretty much at least 19-hour days the next two weeks. Then, a break? No!
'Cause New Year's is pretty busy, too.
The Polish American Cultural Center hosts a free, family-friendly Polish Christmas Open House, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, 308 Walnut St., polishamericancenter.org. St. Nick visits with candy for kids; sorry, no pierogi.