How Paulina Market Has Kept the Lights On For 70 Years
Length: 7.5 minutes (1,526 words)
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When Paulina Market opened in 1949 the world was a very different place. The United States had just emerged victorious from World War II, the ethnic character of Chicago’s neighborhoods was extremely strong, and America was just beginning the process of homogenizing its culture. In the seven decades since, Chicago’s urban fabric has changed drastically, the culture has swung from right to left and back again (more than once), and the homogeneity that was formed in the 1950s has been put on its last legs.
One area that has largely resisted the diversification of the culture is, oddly, food. But not food as in “fine dining,” or “casual,” or even “fast casual.” Those scenes long ago shook off their supper club and French brassiere roots and splintered into a million different camps, each with its own fingerprint on its own scene. It is shopping for food that has remained surprisingly stagnate over time. There is either hyper-local shopping, like farmers markets, or hyper-generic shopping, like grocery store chains. But in large part, there is no in-between.
Except Paulina Market. Upon entering, one is immediately greeted with several things: a wooden pig head that feeds counter tickets from its mouth, a church pew that can sit an overflow crowd, and the smell of dozens of different meats (smoked and raw) wafting through the air. This, truly, is a butcher. Originally a German deli — the distinction is important — on Chicago’s North Side, Paulina has evolved with the times while remaining true to its roots.
“We’re always going to try to get the best [product]. If it’s not the best, we don’t keep it. We send it back,” said Bill Begale, the owner of the marketplace. Begale has been at Paulina since 1984, except for a brief stint with a cheese business, and has owned the marketplace since 2006 when he bought it from the sons of the founder, Sigmund Lekan. In 2009 he purchased the property as well.
“This used to be a strictly German market because this was a German neighborhood,” he explained. “But I saw a German deli not too far from here go out of business because they wanted to stay strictly German. And they’re gone.” Asked about the key to Paulina’s long-term success and sterling reputation, he cited consistency, “and always try[ing] to evolve with the times.”
At first glance, being consistent and being open to change seem to be concepts at odds with each other. But any visit to Paulina Market shows that not to be the case. What makes Paulina so lauded, so popular, so well-known, so respected is the attention to detail, both to its products and its customers.
“We always give [the customer] what they’re asking for,” Begale said. He then proceeded to list a sample of the ways the market has changed with the times: “When I started here in ’84 we had no freezers. Then we had freezers out there” — he pointed towards a corner — “and we had turkeys and gizzards and ducks and chickens. Then we started adding pastas, then soups. We have to offer other stuff,” he said, “while keeping the core of what we do.”
Paulina currently offers a staggering amount of meat, the core of its business, which can be bought fresh, frozen, or smoked. Their suppliers are mostly (although not exclusively) Midwestern, and dressing the meat is mostly done in-house. Fresh meat includes almost every cut imaginable, including Wagyu (newly stocked due to customer demand, Begale said), tomahawk steaks, ribeyes, tenderloin, T-bone, eye of round, top sirloin, prime New York strip, skirt, flatiron, beef oxtails, and multiple cuts of veal, lamb, and pork. Chicken, ducks, and turkey are also available.
Smoked meats include multitudes of sausage and sausage “stix,” brats, jerky, links, beef chips, and more. The frozen meats, located in the freezers that make up the center of the store, include rare and exotic finds like ostrich patties, buffalo (patties, ribeye, or ground), venison, rabbit, pheasant, elk patties, wild boar, and more. The store used to carry alligator burgers, which sold well, but Begale “can’t get them anymore.” There is also a small beer and wine section, condiments area, and candy. There is not much in the way of produce, but this is a butcher shop, not a grocery store.
Paulina Market is both a remnant of the past and an icon for the future. To understand where it came from, why it is important now, and where it is going, it is important to understand Chicago’s meatpacking history and how its rise and fall has shaped the industry we have today.
Meatpacking in Chicago has a long and storied history, beginning with the opening of the Union Stock Yards in 1865. In a 2017 article for the now-defunct magazine Chicagoly, historian Richard Lindberg described the Stock Yard’s origins:
In this growing city where manufacturing and transportation had repositioned a sleepy frontier military garrison (Fort Dearborn) into a new and emerging metropolis of the mid-continent, the livestock and meat-packing industry had to be reined in and consolidated though the application of sound business principles and streamlined processing.
This was accomplished quickly and efficiently through the Stock Yards.
The Stocks Yards was a city unto itself. At its peak it covered one square mile of land and contained a hotel, tourist office, newspaper, direct “L” stops, and hosted tours for curious tourists and residents. It employed up to 75,000 men and “from 1893 to 1933 there were never fewer than 13 million head of livestock at the stockyards annually,” according to a 2015 interview with Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga.
The Stock Yards were a massive thing — a machine, really — that propelled meatpacking into the Industrial Age. Chicago eventually grew to serve as the epicenter of the industry. The meat processed on the South Side was sent across the country and the world and helped streamline the transition from local butchers and grocers to the generic mega-chains around today.
Of course, the Stock Yards are not solely to blame for the cultural homogenization that made food shopping impersonal, bland, and corporate. The economy changed over time and the way people bought their food changed, too. The galvanizing after-effects of World War II melded society together in a way it had never been before and cultural homogenization took hold. The business models for small, independent shops such as butchers and produce markets became obsolete and fed into the expansion of the supermarket model that is familiar today. Out of this void sticks Paulina Market and a small number of related businesses, including specialized stores such as Gepperth’s Market, Publican Quality Meats, and The Butcher and Larder.
But just as Paulina is a remnant of the past it also points the way toward the future for the industry. Specialization is making a comeback: Publican Quality Meats and The Butcher and Larder both opened within the past 10 years. Bar Pastoral, a highly regarded wine and cheese shop, opened in 2004; Boston Fish Market (Chicagoland’s preeminent fishmonger) opened in 1995 and moved to a larger space in 2013; Hofherr Meat Company in Northfield opened in 2014. The old guard markets — Harrison’s Poultry (1893), Gepperth’s (1906), The Spice House (1957) — have largely survived for the same reason Paulina has: consistent quality and adaptation to the times.
Paulina continues to evolve. In August 2019 the shop will begin an expansion project that, when completed, will alter the way it does business. Paulina is planning to build a fast service area that will sell pre-made sandwiches, pasta, and fish if the concept is well received. Begale also said he wants the market to become federally certified so it can sell to other businesses across state lines. The rest of the business, including its vast amount of butchered meat, will remain unchanged.
To accomplish this, the shop will build over the small parking lot in the rear. Inside, some of the counters on the far wall (where the sausage and smoked meats currently reside) will be moved back into the addition. Behind the scenes, the smokers and prep area will be repositioned, and part of the area they occupied will become open to the public. Begale said there will be a few tables, but the addition will mainly serve as a fast service, grab-and-go area.
Paulina Market hopes to complete the back of the house work by November 15th, but if that can’t be done, Begale said they will wait to begin work until after the new year when the holiday rush calms down. He said the redesign of the front of the store, where customers currently shop, probably will not be complete until March of 2020. Notably, unlike similar reports of an expansion in 2017, this time the plans are more official and ready to go.
Give the customers what they want. Be consistent. Adapt to the times. This is the success formula Paulina Market has used for 70 years, and if Bill Begale and the staff at Paulina have their way, another 70 years of success is just around the corner.