With tradition and bologna, Pekarna's Meat Market celebrates 125 years

Published in January 2018 by Jordan Independent

Download PDF

The warm, rich smells of smoking meat and smoldering maple engulf pedestrians before they even catch sight of Pekarna’s Meat Market on Water Street in downtown Jordan. It’s a smell that lingers and clings to clothes or paper with only 15 minutes of exposure.

And, for generations of Jordan residents, it’s the smell of home.

“We’ve got generations and generations of customers,” said Kenny Pekarna, one of three brothers who own the market. “We have guys around 70 or 80 years old who remember coming in as kids.”

And much of what they remember is still the same, even as the market enters its 125th year of operation.

Recipes for bologna, liver sausage and weiners date back to 1893, when a Bohemian immigrant named Frank Pekarna bought the business. The hams have come from the same provider since Joe Pekarna sampled an Iowa salesman’s wares in the 1950s and concluded the ham was the best he’d ever tasted. Children still get free slices of bologna or lunch meat.

“Make it big big,” 4-year-old Kendall Swager recently instructed co-owner John Pekarna over the counter. He replied with a chuckle and a large piece of bologna that the girl munched on contentedly as she surveyed the contents of the display cases.

Gayle Bowler of Jordan, who stopped in the market earlier that morning, recalled similar experiences in Pekarna’s Meat Market nearly 60 years before. A slice of lunch meat or bologna kept her content while the adults shopped, she said.

Pekarna’s also set her up for a nasty shock when she got her first apartment in Minneapolis as a young woman.

“The chickens in the store were not like the chickens I got here. And the hamburger! This has a high percentage of meat. But when you go buy it at a regular grocery store… there’s a whole layer of fat to get rid of,” she said. “When a native leaves and they buy meat somewhere else, they learn to appreciate what’s here.”

About every 10 minutes, with a puff of crisp, January air, someone enters the store in search of lunch meat, sausages and the occasional conversation. While their interactions with the red-shirt clad staff are brisk, they never seem rushed.

On average, the market draws about 200 customers a day. Those numbers skyrocket around the holidays, however, with as many as 2,000 to 4,000 visitors in the week before Christmas.

That’s Pekarna’s busiest time of year. And a popular time for ribs. The market sells upwards of 2,600 pounds of prime rib and 2,000 pounds each of barbeque ribs, smoked sausage, and specialty cuts like crown roasts. Not to mention the 1,800 pounds of ham. All in all, that’s about 5 tons of meat — heavier than two Ford F-150 trucks.

At Easter, Pekarna’s sells another 2,000 pounds of ham and a few prime ribs. Thanksgiving brings fresh Minnesota turkeys, which are specially ordered as early as March. On Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, people go for the hot dogs, beef and pork burgers and Pekarna’s seemingly endless variety of house-made bratwursts.

Inside the freezer cases, which seem to have increased exponentially over the last decade, you can find almost any kind of bratwurst you can imagine: wild rice, wild rice with dried cranberry, apple, sauerkraut, jalapeño and cheddar, beer, and come in both smoked and un-smoked versions.

The brothers’ shared love for cooking and innovation is apparent in the both their new additions and enthusiasm for recommendations. Kenny came up with the jerky. John came up with a rub for the brisket.

“You just follow in the guy before you’s footsteps, be thankful for people coming in the door and enjoy your product,” Kenny said. “It’s about the tradition. The pride. I’m very proud of what the family has accomplished in generations.”

Grandpa Frank

The tradition begins with Frank Pekarna — affectionately called “Grandpa Frank” by his great-grandchildren — who emigrated from Bohemia in Central Europe during the 1880s. He most likely arrived in New Orleans and traveled north along the Mississippi to Minnesota where he was recorded in the U.S. Census for the first time in 1890, Gregg Pekarna said.

Grandpa Frank found work in the Jordan meat market that became his family’s legacy, under owner Conrad Fishbach alongside Henry Arens. The three men soon became brothers-in-law, as well as co-workers, after marrying three sisters from the Henkels family. Pekarna and Arens bought the business in 1893 after Fishbach died and Pekarna bought out his partner to operate the business on his own until 1922.

A photo from that time, on the wall near the market’s door, shows two horses pulling a cart in front of the market. The pair was often hired to deliver meat from nearby farms to the market, but also pulled Jordan’s fire wagon. And their work preferences were clear, as they’d head straight to the station whenever the alarm sounded.

“And whatever was happening, whatever was going on… they’d just stop and wait because they knew they’d be harnessed up and then they’d get to run like hell,” Gregg said.

Ted, Ed and Grandpa Joe

Frank died at the age of 53 and his sons Ted and Ed took over the business, running it until their younger brother, Joe, was old enough to take charge. Joe did just that at the age of 25 in 1931, and Ted and Ed returned to their other business ventures in town — a hotel and a bar, Gregg believes.

Joe, his wife, and their five children lived in a house connected to the shop, which was eventually removed to expand the business. You can see the seams in the market floor from the remodel, as well other expansions over the years, including one where the street was realigned and the building’s front had to be extended to meet it properly.

When Joe’s health began to fail in 1965, Frank came back home from school to work with him. Father and son worked side by side for five years, until Joe died in 1970 and Frank took over the business with his wife Cele.

Frank and Cele

Frank knew everybody, and could remember not only each person he met, but all of their relatives and where they lived. He once said it was all about the eyes.

“If you can remember a person’s eyes, you’ll always remember the face,” Gregg remembered his father saying.

Frank greatly enjoyed working with the customers, but Cele was the more outgoing of the pair. She was a regular fixture at the shop, working on weekends and holidays, her sons said. Most Saturday mornings, Gregg would wake up to eat cereal and watch cartoons until his she came home around noon.

Cele also invented the sauce recipe that has been used for the market’s barbeque ribs since the 1960s. The Pekarnas cold-smoke the meat for four to five hours in a brick smokehouse to impart the flavor without cooking the meat. Then ribs are cooked with barbeque sauce and water and then covered for another three hours and 20 minutes. After they cool, the ribs get another coating of sauce and are ready to reheat in the oven at home, Gregg said.

The shop stopped butchering their own animals in 1972 because of the costs tied to new federal regulations, though the family continued to privately process for customers. But Frank’s sons would occasionally join him on visits to local farms they worked with.

“When you’re 12 years old… it was an adventure,” Kenny said. “You were along for the ride, but you were helping.”

John, Kenny and Gregg

John joined the Navy out of high school, but returned to the meat market after three years when his dad began suffering from kidney stones. His appreciation of the business only grew from there.

Kenny knew from the time he was in high school he wanted to work at the market. His mother was overjoyed when he told her and swept him up in a hug before urging him to go tell his father right away. He knew from his experience at the shop, watching his father and long-time staff working with customers, there wasn’t any comparison.

Gregg began working in the shop at 17 and then became a full-time staff member at 19. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to go into the business at that point, “but you never sure at that age,” he said.

Their brother Dan also worked in the shop, but retired recently. His son, Jim, works at the market now and calls himself “one of the fifths,” in reference to the fifth generation of Pekarnas to work at the market.

Working with family can be difficult sometimes. You’re less inclined to act professionally when a disagreement crops up even if it’s over something small, like how big a batch of sausage should be, Gregg said.

“But in some ways, it’s easier. You know they always got your back.”

When Gregg’s wife, Terri, faced health problems, there was no doubt his brothers would do whatever was necessary to help the family and keep the market running smoothly, Gregg said.

Love and loyalty

One Saturday, an elderly couple from Ames, Iowa, drove nearly four hours just to buy about $35 worth of meat. This past Christmas, a customer in Florida called to have pork sausage shipped to their grown children in Oregon, California and Texas.

Through the 80s and 90s, the denizens of Winstead would collectively order as many as 600 rings of bologna at a time, after their meat market — run by a man who trained at Pekarna’s — shut down. A man would call the orders in a week in advance, pick them all up, and distribute them to his neighbors.

“That’s the type of clients we have,” Gregg said. “They’re very, very loyal.”

And the Pekarnas are loyal to their customers.

The brothers and their staff will happily coach new cooks through a recipe step by step, even writing the directions down on their brown paper bags, if needed. More experienced cooks can find any number of new suggestions and have their favorite cuts of meat cut to their exact preferences.

The Pekarnas will even prepare and package orders for more visitors to pick up on their way to the airport or while driving through town. Shipping is also available for far-flung former Jordan residents, but not always recommended, as the cost of next-day shipping can exceed the cost of the meat, Gregg said.

They also handle customer complaints seriously, and encourage anyone with a concern to throw their meat in their freezer and bring it back in at their convenience to troubleshoot what went wrong.

“I’ll make good on it. We stand by what we sell,” John said.

And sometimes, a discerning customer might just catch something important. About 10 years ago, a little girl came into the market with her mother and received her usual piece of bologna. But her bites got smaller and smaller and she shook her head “no” when asked if she was enjoying the treat, Gregg recalled.

Her mother said she was just tired and having an off day, but the girl quietly and stubbornly insisted. After they left, Gregg tried the bologna himself and realized it was missing a little garlic. He fixed the next batch and was thrilled when Molly came back in and gave it her stamp of approval: a nod and a giant, unforgettable smile.

“We’re very blessed with the customers,” Kenny said. “You give a good product at an honest price and it just keeps going.”